Why Are Creative People Afraid of Failure?

I am going to say the F-word. It’s not a word we like to hear, nor is it a word we like to use. It exists in our vocabulary but it is very rarely used.

I’m going to say it. Ready?


Now, tell me, how do you feel? And remember, this is for posterity, so please, be honest (Thank you, Count Rugen, you six-fingered man of wisdom).

A recurrent refrain is, “I feel like I failed,” said with the tone of negativity intimating it has the finality of death.

I feel like I have failed. I look back over the last year and the first few months of this year and I have failed. I have failed in achieving what I wanted to achieve. I did not meet my writing goals. I did not meet my reading goals. I look over recent writing and now think it stinks worse than the night after a hotdog and baked bean eating contest.

The stereotype of the artistic person as a neurotic, shambolic, ridden-with-fear and afraid of being called a fraud is prevalent in my social media feeds. I see many writers and creative people who declare their insecurities and fears, and I’m no different.

We are afraid of failing.

For example, my collaborative writing partner, Jodi Cleghorn, spoke at her editing workshop, and elaborated on by Delia Strange (How To Stop Hating Your Manuscript) that when you’re editing, you are looking for the faults and problems. It does make you feel like your work is something filthy you’ve stepped in and fit only to be scraped from the bottom of a shoe and discarded. It feels like failure.

The attitude must change.

Recognise the positive attributes of your work, and be aware that you are there to fix the negatives, not be defined by them.

The fear of failure needs to be put to pasture with the myth of the muse.

I see in the students I teach a distinct fear of failure. They would rather not complete a task, therefore failing, rather than attempt the task and risk knowing their work is only worth a Pass. It reinforces their sense of self worth and perception of their ability.

The issue for my students is they cannot see how disciplined effort, feedback and commitment to learning can improve the quality of their work, improve their sense of self worth and individuality.

What constitutes ‘failure’?

Every writer and creative person will define it differently but at the core is a sense of inability to reconcile the imagined world and the real world, seeing the shortfall between the expectation and reality.

Whatever measure you have used against yourself, whether it’s word count, project completion, editing, planning, plotting, the discrepancy between “achieved” and “not achieved” will be interpreted as failure.

What do you do when you feel like you have failed?

Rethink the definition and the perception of what failure is.

When I look at business people and entrepreneurs, their definition of failure is different to that of a stereotypical creative person. They see failure not as an absolute, but as an opportunity.

Failure is always an option. I love seeing it on the Mythbusters t-shirts. Failure is an opportunity for teaching (if you are willing to be taught).

As writers, our characters are faced with failure and disappointment but they learn, or fail to learn from their experience. It is what makes a narrative engaging. Why can’t we learn from our characters and look at our creative endeavours as learning experiences?

Failure is not an absolute.

Failure is teaching and learning process.

Failure is a creative tool.

Let’s start speaking positively about ourselves and understand our failures do not define who we are.

Our perceived failures help us to refine our work, develop our creative skills and in the words of Neil Gaiman, “Create good art.”

It is not our failures that will speak for us but the quality of our creativity.

Fear not.


4 responses to “Why Are Creative People Afraid of Failure?

  1. Reblogged this on Burning the Root and commented:
    Great advice for writers on the subject of Failure.

  2. This is a wonderful lesson on Failure. We can write failure in our work without fearing it, but in our personal lives it leaves us motionless with fear. Thanks for this great reminder!

  3. I think it’s possibly not just the fear of the failure but of the double whammy of rejection that often accompanies failure.

    This from a post on the Huffington Post this week:

    “Resilience is practically a prerequisite for creative success, says Kaufman. Doing creative work is often described as a process of failing repeatedly until you find something that sticks, and creatives — at least the successful ones — learn not to take failure so personally.

    “Creatives fail and the really good ones fail often,” Forbes contributor Steven Kotler wrote in a piece on Einstein’s creative genius.”

    For me the failure lies in not trying, in not stepping up, in not putting your work out there. Therefore every day I put a word down (just one!), or get lost in the tapestry of thoughts that wind through the lives of my characters or have a conversation with another writer or creative individual… then I have succeeded. This makes every day a small win. Other days have slightly larger wins. But I try not to let anything every be painted with failure. Semantics I know, but looking at the positives keeps you moving forward.

    Failure, if you want to think of it as ‘failure’ – is just an opportunity to have another go! But this time with a little insider knowledge.

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