Failure: A Stepping Stone

Wherever art advice appears, there is always mention of failing. The discussion always goes something like, “in order to create, you have to risk, and the downside of risk is failure. But you can use that experience and move forward stronger and better.” This is advice that I myself have repeated many, many times.

The problem with advice that encourages you to risk and perhaps fail is not that it is bad advice; it’s that it doesn’t fully inform you how do deal with that failure. Nor does it suggest that you might have problems recovering from the failure, particularly if you have invested heavily in the creation. Nor does it advise you on how to use the failure to move forward.

The context in which I most often offer this advice is rehearsal, where, if the director is any good, the actor feels safe to try things out, some of which may not be successful. It’s a good atmosphere in which to create.

Unfortunately, for many artists the protection of the rehearsal structure is missing. Yes, you may be able to attempt and succeed or not in the privacy of your own studio, but it’s another thing entirely when others are around or when you are staring a deadline of one kind or another.

You realize your most recent effort is far from successful; it is, in fact a disaster. And there are consequences: there is a client who must be satisfied, or there is a deadline that must be met. Suddenly the possibility of failing is far less romantic. There is ego and perhaps money on the line. Now it matters whether or not you succeed, and there is no protective structure or safety net.

Sometimes you don’t succeed, regardless of what is on the line.  It’s the nature of the creative process. You can certainly do many things to help insure your success, but, unless you lower your standards, you can never be completely certain that your attempts at creation will be successful. What then?

Then you try to be ready to deal with it. Unless you are practiced in non-attachment (a worthwhile practice), you must allow yourself a few moments to grieve for your loss. And taking that time is important. Any creation that perishes deserves to be mourned, and yours is no exception. You have invested in it, so take the moment that you need.  Then move on to satisfy the deadline or the client or yourself. Jump into a new creative project as soon as possible.  If it is possible to build on the failure, then by all means do so. Incorporating the remnants of the old project into the new makes the failed idea less onerous and may actually turn it into a step in the development of a project that is more successful than it would have been otherwise.

Just this week I had the opportunity to test this advice—outside of a rehearsal framework. The project I was working on fell and couldn’t get up. Of course, there is always the tendency to want to resuscitate the project, no matter how brain-dead it is. So I tried that. No joy. There was nothing to do but move on. Fortunately, I was able to use the event of the failure, if not all of the material of the project, as a stepping stone to a new project, which I believe has a much better chance of success.

And that’s why the advice is solid. Unless we attempt, we will never know what is and is not possible, and what is problematic and what isn’t. And, even though every creative project is different, and even though failure in unprotected circumstances can be daunting, it is only through risking—which holds within it the possibility of failure—that we continue to develop and grow as artists.

Date: Sunday, 11. November 2012 23:57
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1 Comment

  1. 1

    Well said, and very helpful advice, sir.

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