The “F” Word – Sharing and Celebrating Failure

Recently I was talking to a scientific researcher over tea (yes, dear reader, what a way to start a blog!?) Being naturally curious, I asked into the ins and outs of his work and him likewise; that chat has inspired this blog.

A common theme that was apparent in both our professions, in different guises, was experimentation. A major difference though: his job was to embark upon, document and share, all the possible outcomes from a question; in my work only the good outcomes ever see the light of day when an audience see the show. I hide my failures, he celebrates and shares his. Each one, to him, is a discovery.

Speaking to other artists and creative practitioners here, we will all come across failure. It is inevitable in our line of work. Whether that be a declined proposal, failed audition, or a piece of work that just doesn’t seem to want to happen, failure is a constant recurring event we come across. As artists though, we keep failure relatively private. We grieve, we acknowledge where we went wrong behind closed doors to avoid judgement or criticism and we may or may not beat ourselves up over it (despite it may not being our fault).

My scientific friend though had a totally opposing outlook on failure. To him, each failed experiment or attempt was a discovery in working toward the end goal – and each one had to be catalogued, documented and shared amongst colleagues! Each one, he said, presented a learning experience in gaining one step closer to pinning down the end discovery. It actually made it easier as he and his team knew where they were going wrong. Now, admittedly, it could be argued that the variables in a scientific experiment and the variables that go into creating a piece of art might be hard to compare, however it’s never going to hurt to be able to analyse what went wrong where and think what could be done better next time. Each attempt is indeed a step closer to finding out the end goal, even if that attempt doesn’t bring forth the answer we hoped for. It is likely, after we have gotten over the frustration, to learn something from it and it might spark a totally new stream of thinking and discovery.

Elizabeth Gilbert in her book “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear” (which is an excellent read and a book I must review. Liz’s podcasts, “Magic Lessons”, are an excellent extension of the conversation or a great way to dip your toes into her thinking. Link here…. discusses and explores failure as the process of the world asking if you want to try again. Many, in answer to this question, don’t. The pain experienced in not accomplishing their goal being too crushing to even consider attempting again. Bearing in mind the mentality from my scientific counterpart, isn’t it worth trying again, just to get that one step closer? Every step and newly gained knowledge (even if that knowledge is that something doesn’t work) is in itself is an achievement. It may not be right or what we asked for, but we know what to try next time. The universe effectively testing our determination and resolve as artists to work toward achieving the desired result.

I wrote in one of my earlier blogs about why it is important to blog, and why as artists we should share. If anything, in considering this idea of failure and actually celebrating it, “I tried this, it didn’t work as I hoped, but I did learn this”, it makes me want to share even more. Every discovery may be useful to someone, and actually any insight into my process, however poor the outcome, is still enlightening. This is one of the reasons why I set out to do in blogging and engaging in conversation about my work.

Ultimately, we should not evaluate work with such a black or white perspective. Labelling something as a failure almost seems to cast it aside, calls it false, wrong or incorrect. In engaging with creativity surely we just explore an idea and delight in whatever the outcome? We have created something new. Ultimately we are creative scientists, however we replace labs with our studios, desks and rehearsal rooms and their test tubes with bodies, fantastic collaborators, words or materials.

We are there to engage in and explore whatever brilliant insights and experiments come our way. If they end in a failure, let us learn from them, moving on to the next as part of our journey of discovery in engaging with creativity.