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A Letter to Artists: How to Use Failure as a Creative Tool

Dear artists,

There’s a little known skill that all current and future successful artists possess. Unfortunately, many artists themselves don’t realize how important this skill is.

It’s the ability to fail.

“What’s the big deal about failure?” you might ask. “And why do artists need to become familiar with it—even seek after it?”

The answer is simple. ONLY when you fail do you get the chance to try again and again (and again) until you earn the success you’re striving for.

failure

True, some people (artists included) are successful the very first time they try something. But those events should be celebrated and appreciated for what they are: anomalies, or a wonderful gift.

It’s extremely unrealistic to base one’s expectations on those stories of instant success, and unfortunately, too many fledgling creatives make this very mistake. Because the truth is, success won’t come easily to most of us—it’ll be built on many failures.

If failing is the path to success, why do we fear it?

We’re conditioned by society to fear failure. Somehow we’ve started to believe that “people who fail once will always fail.” And it’s that kind of false thinking that stunts creative careers before they even start.

I doesn’t help that we live in an always-connected environment where every action can be recorded, stored, and ridiculed for all time. Talk about pressure to perform!

crashing
Photo Credit: gordontarpley via Compfight cc

Many people give up in the face of this oppressive existence and settle for a bland job or safe work. They lower their self-expectations and try to blend in as much as possible so failure is a non-issue. And when they do fail, they may attempt to offset blame and defer responsibility.

But there’s a better way.

Start by finding a safe environment to fail in.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but some of the best hours spent in art school were the in-class critiques by my professors and peers. I admit, I often dreaded it, and I became defensive at times when I felt like I, personally, was being critiqued (rather than the work).

But looking back on it, after years of fighting in the creative trenches, I now see that those critiques were essential to my development as an artist. Not only did I learn to have a thicker skin, I also learned to let go of my amateurish initial attempts and continued to develop my skills.

Every artist needs that experience. Whether it’s on a private web forum or a local meetup, seek out a community of fellow artists who are willing to share their time and perspective with you. They provide a safe place to fail—and as a result, they help you hone your skills and create better work.

Make failure fun!

Babies do something fascinating as they’re first learning to walk. When they fall down, they instantly look at their caregivers. If people around them gasp and make a big deal about it, they learn they’re supposed to cry and make a big deal too. But when they fall down and people smile and give them encouragement, they smile back and eagerly get up and try again.

falling
Photo Credit: Scott SM via Compfight cc

Yes, I’m saying we are like babies in a way. But unlike them, we have a choice. . . we can put ourselves in an environment where failure is okay, and even fun! We’ll see it as no big deal, and start noticing how much we’ve changed and grown, instead.

Always use positive self-talk.

The key to staying positive and joyful even in the midst of failure is by being intentional about what your goals are, and moving PAST the failure.

Instead of saying: “I don’t know if I will ever get this right,” try phrasing like this: “I really look forward to seeing what this is going to look like when I work the kinks out.”

See the difference? One is filled with doubt while the other is certain of success, even when you’re not quite there yet.

For artists on the road to success, failure is just a tool, like a paintbrush, that you get to use every day. And just like your other tools, you MUST learn to use it effectively and become familiar with its little quirks.

It may take time. It may be weeks, months, or years before you see the fruit of those failures. But keep your eyes on that prize! It’s always worth it in the end.

For more articles from Mike Roy, please visit his website at ArtistMyth.com.

*Note: this post may contain affiliate links*

When I was a boy my sister and I spent most of our spare time entering painting competitions. We were both quite successful and won a lot of prizes, everything from bicycles to holidays. People told us that we had talent and should become artists. But I wasn't so sure.

I also had an art teacher at school who was also enthusiastic about my art, but I found her constant praise of my. . . read more

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