On fear and failure


Edwin Land once spoke of an essential aspect of creativity as being “not afraid to fail.” Being a talented scientist – and co‒founder of the historic corporation Polaroid – you may assume that Land knew a few things about both creativity and failure.

However, is being unafraid of failure, as Land puts it, really an aspect of creativity? When we look at the facts – what we do know today about creativity and how the human mind works – we find that failure itself, not the absence of it, is an element of creativity.

Failure isn’t something that should be avoided. When you were young, you likely touched a hot stove (metaphorically or literally), attempted to fit the square peg in the round hole, or received an unsatisfactory grade on a school assignment. Failure is a part of life, especially in early years when so much of the world is foreign to us.

When we fail, we learn.

Even with the knowledge that we can learn from the experience, failure can still be painful and becomes frightening almost instinctively over time. Knowing that failure can hurt makes us want to avoid it as often as possible.

We don’t want to fail.

By fearing failure, we lose a bit of our freedom to explore the world, to think creatively, and to do things that have never been done before. From this understanding of failure we can again reference Edwin Land and his powerful wisdom: “An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail.”

If you aren’t afraid to fail, you’re more likely to try and – as a result – more likely to succeed.

Still, embracing the fear of failure and even trying to fail, are powerful ways to expand your thinking and become even more creative or find alternative solutions.

As we understand it: when you take an opportunity to fail, you learn. Failure often has consequences, but there is hardly ever a time when the act of failure doesn’t build up additional ideas in our mind through those consequences. Take the time to see which pieces don’t fit together in a puzzle and you will eventually solve the puzzle.

Failure in creativity isn’t necessarily failure, it’s learning. In‒fact, the process of trial and error in creativity isn’t failure at all, it’s education.

If we were unafraid to put that square peg in the round hole as a child, we might have forced a belief in ourselves that it was possible, that it could be done (and I’m not one to say it couldn’t be done), but if we embraced failure and continued to try different shapes we would have eventually got it right. Fear and failure are all a part of creativity, the more we know the more creative we can be.

So, in conclusion, don’t be afraid to fail, but also don’t try to avoid the fear or the joy of stumbling, of falling, of failing.

Photo by Nima Badiey.