Creative Failure

Creative Failure


The Creative Soul


First, I must admit that I find the word failure to be an oxymoron.  An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two opposite ideas are joined to create an effect.  It is self-contradicting, something one might say my title for today is.  While the word failure is, in and of itself, not contradicting, how we perceive it is.  Failure is perceived as losing, a disappointment, a disaster, a letdown and often, sadly, the end of a career or effort.  What failure should be is a lesson – an education on what did not work and the start of a new path toward success.


The word failure did not start out to mean the condemnation that it does today.  Originally, derived from the Latin “fallere” which meant to stumble, it denoted a very common human condition.  After all, none of us is perfect and at some point, we are going to stumble.  When one does, one is encouraged to “pick yourself up and start all over again.”  Sadly this is often forgotten in the creative realm.


In a world in which synonyms are explored and revered, we have forgotten that in being honest, we should also exercise candor.  The critic often foregoes the common courtesy we should all exercise in the work place and uses honesty as an excuse to demean and belittle.  Any creative effort is subject to criticism.  After all, we all know what we like and do not like.  We are entitled to those feelings.  What we should not do, however, is use honesty as an excuse to debase or disgrace the artist, writer, dancer, sculptor, etc. 


Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation, explains the difference between honesty and candor this way:  “The only way to get a grip on the facts, issues, and nuances we need to solve problems and collaborate effectively is by communicating fully and openly, by not withholding or misleading.  … We need to free ourselves of honesty’s baggage.  …Candor is forthrightness or frankness.  …  A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms.  Lack of candor, if unchecked, ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments.


So do we throw critiques out the window?  Of course we don’t.  We need as artists to embrace them but that can be very difficult.  We need to recognize what is good criticism and what is not.  A good critique will explain what is wrong, what is missing, what is not clear or did not make sense.  It will not offer a “fix” but should applaud the effort.  Andrew Stanton explains:  “there’s a difference between criticism and constructive criticism.  With the latter you’re constructing at the same time that you’re criticizing.  You’re building up as you’re breaking down, making new pieces to work with out of the stuff you’ve just ripped apart….It’s more of a challenge.  It is an art form in itself.”


Too often we see a negative critique as a stop sign, an indication that we ourselves are a failure and not the particular artistic effort being discussed.  Very few artists only ever painted just one picture or sculpted just one object.  No composer only ever wrote one song or poet just one poem.  Every writer has a drawer of rejection slips and most famous actors can tell you the names of those who advised them that they would never succeed in the business.  Failure is a part of the business because, at its core, failure is education, an integral part of the process of becoming an artist.


Quoting Ed Catmull in his book “Creativity, Inc.”:  “There are two parts of failure:  There is the event itself, with all its attendant disappointments, confusion, and shame, and then there is our reaction to it.  It is this second part that we control.  We must remember that failure gives us chances to grow, and we ignore those chances at our own peril.”


It is hard to receive criticism and in the early stages, we often get it from those closest to us.  When I began this blog over four years ago, I asked family members to read it.  “It’s good”, they would say and then nothing more.  That was nice to hear but I really wanted more.  One day someone very close to me remarked that I was a day late in posting my daily blog.  I thanked them.  The next week, they said the same thing.  After it happened the third time, I asked if they ever read my blog.  “Sure” they replied to which I responded:  “Then did you miss where I wrote that I would not be posted anything on Wednesdays for this series?”  It turned out that this person was simply taking attendance; they were not reading my blog posts at all.  I thanked them for the effort but said I really wanted a critique of the writing, not someone to take attendance.  I don’t think they have read another blog post since that day, even to check to see if I posted one.


We cannot wait for our artistic efforts to be perfect.  Sharing them and learning from them is part of the process.  We must earn the adjectives excellent, quality, and good, not expect them to appear magically.  Part of the artistic process is growing and we grow by making mistakes and learning from them.  We will stumble and sometimes, in stumbling, we discover something new.  Failure is not an evil to be avoided.  Failure is a natural consequence of attempting something new.  Failure means our head is in the game and our heart is putting our effort forward.  Failure is an integral step in the creative process and might just be the best lesson we will ever learn. Failure is neither a stop sign not a judgment but a step on the road to creative fulfillment.

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