Failure Is Always An Option

Why is failure a negative response?

Well, yes, failing attempts at flying, playing with power points, or gaining your friends’ attention with the exclamation, “Hey, check this out!” can have negative consequences resulting in death, bloody maiming or a great story to tell.

Failure is couched in terms of shame, of disappointment, of not being successful, of letting people down, of not living up to a set of standards, morals or values. To fail, therefore, is to be less than, to be inferior, to be forgettable and forgotten. 

So when it comes to beginning a creative project, or learning a new creative art, skill or craft, we are programmed to think of our early efforts as failures. They do not meet up to our expectations of what it should be (and yes, there is a disconnect between what we create and produce, and the expectations we have set for ourselves in the production of our work but that’s another blog post). 

But as creative people, failure should not be considered a negative response to a project.

Failure does not define who we are as creative people.

Failure is not a measure of our worth.

Failure is a part of the creative learning process.

Every creative project we start is an experiment. It may or may not work. But that’s the beauty. When I am beginning a new story I am unsure if it will work. I write the first draft, let it sit, return to it and look for what needs to be improved (often, a lot of things). Whether it’s point of view, too florid in expression, characterisation or character development, dialogue or imagery.

A recent idea in its genesis. Pure unadulterated nonsense.

A recent idea taken from my notebook in its genesis of pure unadulterated nonsense. It’s all part of the failure.

Don’t be afraid to put in the hours of practice required. I think it’s where a lot of fledgling creatives stumble. They want the accolades but haven’t put in the necessary hours. The Mythbusters make it a part of their show: failure is always an option. It shows you one way it didn’t work. Repeat the experiment until you find the solution.

I love seeing Kathleen Jennings (@tanaudel) put up images of her sketch books, her practice pages, on twitter. She sits in public transport terminals, shopping centres, food courts and sketches people. Please check out her awesome work via her blog: Tanaudel.

I am very grateful for her permission to reproduce one of her images. I love how the colour frames a distinct individual. She had this to say about her process.

“They are part of my practice. I’m fairly timid drawing naturally. So I made myself use markers, limited colours, and draw people as they walked past. It made me commit, be bold, be confident and develop a visual shorthand.”


(c) Kathleen Jennings @tanaudel Used with permission.

Practice. Practice. Practice. 

I know I have not spent enough time behind my drum kit practicing rudiments, beats, fills. I have not practiced enough. The same applies to my writing; I need to spend more time with pen and paper scratching out paragraphs, lines, half sentences.

I have many documents of half started stories, poems, scripts and the like sitting on my computer hard drive as well as in multiple notebooks. This is the practice time spent conditioning my mind and perspective like an athlete to achieve the goals I have set.

Practice is repetitive. 

Practice is boring.

Practice develops a discipline.

Practice is extending the boundaries of your skills, extending the place of your tent (to borrow a biblical phrase).

And, yes, there will be failures. Days when you feel like you’ve been given a fork to eat a bowl of clear soup. Days when you feel like there’s a hole in your shoe (and it’s raining), sit in gum, forget your lunch and suffer the ignominy of a nasty paper cut.

This is failure. And it sucks. 

Keep practicing.

Write a paragraph a day. Sketch on the back of a shopping receipt. Doodle in the margin of the newspaper. Practice rudiments or scales for 5 minutes a day.

Keep failing.

Failure is always an option because it is a learning opportunity. Failure is necessary to grow and develop in our chosen creative field.

The path behind you is not littered with the carcasses of failed projects but the evidence that you have trained and practiced.



17 responses to “Failure Is Always An Option

  1. I like the way you think, Adam!

    • Thank you very kindly. It’s speaking to myself first and foremost.

    • Michele, how would you define failure in terms of being a poet?

      • Ooh, curly question! I suppose if I was writing to impress others, rather than from the heart and the gut, then that would be a failure for me. You?

      • For me it would be giving up.
        It’s taken me a while to learn that whatever I write will not always be published. Some of it will, some of it won’t. When I first started writing, I was writing a story a week as a way of learning until I thought I was at a point I was good enough to consider subbing. Then I focused on writing to sub, rather than writing to learn and improve.
        In that sense, I have learned I can leave stories or poems behind, knowing them to be practice. Some I will let go, others I will fight for.
        The failure is in the giving up and not writing.

  2. Thank you for the amazing post. 🙂

  3. It is by ‘failing’ that you test and retest to find the way forward. It you build ‘failure’ into everything you do then it stop becoming ‘failure’ and becomes just another step in the process. A first draft is not a failed story – it is the first impressions ready to be honed. A story that didn’t catch fire is not a failed story – it is a story waiting for a different direction, or a different frame of reference to take is somewhere else. And rejection, is not a failure, it is just the opportunity to fit a better fit.

    It’s funny that I have never couched any of my projects in terms of failure – trial and error perhaps, practise as you say, but never anything that devalues it as part of the process.

  4. As I was reading your post it felt somewhat familiar, however on reading Jodi’s response I think that I prefer that way of looking at it, its not failure, but a step in the process. Failure seems like a negative word to me, and yes it does happen. However, if you accept that it is part of the process and that it will need to happen then the whole process becomes more positive. Focussing on the positive makes it easier to keep going until I hit the version that I’m happy with, with paintings, writing and life in general. If I felt that I was failing every step of the way it would make me less enthusiastic to progress. There’s enough negativity in this life as it is.
    Thanks for provoking these thoughts.

    • I am now leaning towards Jodi’s thinking too. From my point of view as a high school English teacher, I see too many students try once and give up, believing they have failed. I am encouraging them to see it as process and learning. Slow shift in culture when everything around them is instantaneous.

      • Its good to encourage students to see it as part of the process, as opposed to the end of it, which I think the word failure implies. Its another label that society seems to love, like successful, fat or thin (a whole other debate!). Its important that the next generation have some sense that things are progressive and not always opposites. A lot of the best things in life have to be earned through trial and error, and aren’t handed to us on a plate. It has bigger implications in life, we don’t always get things right, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be successful, or more importantly, happy.

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