Failure: It’s Not That Bad

by Marty Maxwell Lane

Failure can be defined as a lack of success. But, how does one understand success within a creative practice? As a design educator, I witness fear of failing regularly. Whether a student striving for an A, a professor striving for tenure or a practitioner striving to build a practice we all have a fear of failing. However, what if the fear of failure and the accompanying baggage is worse than the failure itself?

Why is a fear of failure problematic?
Creative processes thrive on taking risks and trying new approaches. A fear of failing often leads to an anti-risk taking strategy. We feel safer playing it, well, safe and protecting ourselves from vulnerability. In a creative practice this doesn’t allow for innovation.

Dr. Brene Brown, a vulnerability researcher, points out that vulnerability is a source of anxiety and pain, but also a source for joy, creativity, love and belonging. She proposes that when we protect ourselves from being vulnerable, we not only block out anxiety and pain, but also the potential positive results, such as creativity; a pretty important aspect of design. A tight and prescriptive design process may help prevent error and imperfection, but it will likewise eliminate the potential for serendipity, delight and discovery.

Brown notes that seeking perfection is not the same as being driven. Of course, we want good grades, tenure, promotions, new clients, but can we allow ourselves room for potential “failures” as well? We can be driven while allowing for creative and intellectual exploration. If we continually play it safe, our work will not be innovative; it will become expected and irrelevant.

Sharing Failure
Remember that others are in your same situation, holding onto a fear of failing and attempting to protect themselves from vulnerability. The Failure Project is an online archive that works to share the common human experience of failing: “Too often in our schools, our workplaces, and our community organizations, failure is stigmatized to such a degree that students, teachers, artists, musicians, scientists, and innovators are unwilling to take risks in their intellectual and creative endeavors. This is the wrong attitude.” When we stop striving for perfection all of the time, and begin to embrace the knowledge and experience gained from failures, we will find more joy and success in our practices.

Privilege The Possible Over The Predictable
Design is an inherently vulnerable act: creating something out of nothing and putting that out into the world. Acknowledge that failures, large and small, are a built-in aspect of the design process. Empower yourself to continue creating and sharing from this place of vulnerability. Try something and if it fails, mine your missteps for useful information. When we critically examine our failures, we will find them to be just as valuable and instructive as our successes.

What does success look like within a creative practice?

Quick Tips
1. Remind yourself that failing is not the end of your career; focus on what you’ve learned and can apply to your next project.

2. Be comfortable with vulnerability in your creative process: “Anything I’ve ever done that ultimately was worthwhile, initially scared me to death. —Betty Bender”

3. Share your experiences. A close friend or colleague may shed light on aspects of success that you have overlooked while focusing on the failure. Also, you may inspire others by openly sharing your failures.

Dig Deeper!
The Failure Project

Dr. Brene Brown at TEDx

Dr. Brene Brown

Getting Comfortable With Failure

6 thoughts on “Failure: It’s Not That Bad

  1. josh

    I like this approach, but how does one learn to accept failure in an education system that is arranged to applaud and reward conventional academic success?? You DON’T get an ‘A’ for effort.

  2. Marty

    Josh –
    I understand your frustration. I would argue that our “conventional” education system sometimes misses the mark with assessment. As an educator, I do factor in effort, process, development, pushing boundaries, etc into the grade. I don’t think that I am alone in this approach and hope, with time, our “conventional” education system will make a shift to address broader objectives than the final artifact.

    Tim –
    Thanks for the link and the comment!

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