What it really means to fail

“When something you make doesn’t work, it didn’t work, not you. You, you work. You keep trying.” – Zach Klein

I’ve failed a lot in my creative career. But does that make me a failure as a creative? I say no, and here’s why.

Years ago I partnered with a close friend to create a digital design agency. Right off the bat it was a minor success. We did presentations in our city, we met with and did work for well-known, national clients, we even signed a very large contract the day we registered the business name.

But within six months the business was dead. Other priorities came up, family emergencies arose, we lost focus and just gave up.

The same thing happened with another company I started, trying to independently publish creativity-focused ebooks. After a year, I wasn’t seeing the results I was expecting, so I stopped working on the business.

Many of my creative friends and co-workers have had failed projects too. Too many to list here.

I’ve known artists who have had their work rejected by galleries and even local cafes. Musicians who had nobody show up to their concerts. Innovators who couldn’t get anyone to listen to their ideas.

The thing about all of these instances is this: just because we failed doesn’t make us failures.

But there’s this very common belief (inherently believed by most of us), that any sort of failure makes a person a failure themselves.

As a result: failure and mistakes are often avoided, particularly in the United States where we take pride for things like the #1 spot and shun anyone who comes in after. We instill this sense of personal failure when our children don’t do perfect on something. We have tiers of failure even, starting in grade school all the way through and well-into adulthood.

This is especially true in the creative world of art, music, dance, invention, etc. Where failure can often mean you don’t eat this week or you can’t pay the bills to keep a roof over your head.

So we avoid failure, we don’t take risks, we try to bury our mistakes.

How sad this misbelief in the power of failure, of making mistakes, has become. Failure is actually a prize!

When we fail – when our book is declined from the publisher we were hoping would take it, when our artwork isn’t sold in a number of days, when our blog post doesn’t get a hundred “Likes” on Facebook – that doesn’t mean we are a failure. All it means is that the process we attempted to use failed.

The writer who doesn’t get a book deal, are they still not a writer? They are, of course! The same is true of the poet who doesn’t get a full crowd at their reading, or the dancer who stumbles on the most important part of their performance, or the amateur chef who burns the onions. All of those people aren’t suddenly going to lose what they really are: a poet, a dancer, a chef, simply because they made a mistake?

No! All that a mistake means is that there was an error in the process, in the performance, in the methods or tools used. That’s all it means.

Yet we get too overwhelmed and too letdown whenever we, as creatives, make mistakes. We feel as though the mistakes reflect our inability to be what we want to be, and to do the work we want to be doing.

Mistakes are ok. I’ll say it again: failure doesn’t mean you’ve failed, it just means there was something not quite right with the process.

The biggest mistake would be to stop, to give-up, any time we made a mistake or failed at something. Alternatively, whenever we fail, we should instead look at the situation, play it back in our heads, see what went wrong. Was it something we didn’t prepare for? Was it something we didn’t know about previously? Was it just a matter of timing?

It’s not as though I would say here: “Go out and try to fail,” but maybe that’s just what you need to find success as a creative. To see that those mistakes, those failings, really aren’t the end of the world. You can still be a dancer even if you fall off the stage one night out of ten. You can still be a writer if nobody will get you a book deal on this particular book.

So yes, go ahead and take a risk. If you fail, remember that it’s not a reflection of you, it’s a reflection of the process. What you were trying to do didn’t work. You work, you keep trying.

“It is not necessary to be perfect; we can make thousands of mistakes during our voyage. What is required is that we commit ourselves to a course and remain alert to the actualities of each moment, so we can guide our adjustments.” – Craig Lambert

Photo via Flickr.