Dare I write an article about failure?
The internet is so full of positive platitudes, feel-good quotes and testimony from all the rich, famous and celebrated (successful) people about how failure is a good thing – the best time to begin again – the another way not to do it getting you closer to success and so on…
But does that help?
Are there different types of failure that need to be handled in different ways?
Here’s the first and most clear cut type. We can all recognise it. It’s where you fail to reach a set standard, such as a driving test, or get a silver medal instead of gold, B for your Mathematics GCSE instead of an A. It’s also a failure to pass through a gateway such as failing to get the job or the university place or to close the sale.
These I believe are all the same; there’s a target and you didn’t hit it. Maybe, depending on what it is, you can have another go and try for the bullseye again – re-take the driving test. Sometimes you can’t and have to settle for less – take home the silver medal, go to your second choice university, put up with the job for a bit longer.
But there is another kind of failure that attacks the creative mind that is unrelated to that first type. This more pernicious one is less easy to spot and deal with face on. No amount of platitudes or quotes from Marianne Williamson or Edison will make a dent it its blackness. It’s a creeping doom of an arbitrary dissatisfaction with your work, your abilities, your life. It’s a sense of having failed that unlike the first type isn’t matched to a clear and visible target. It has fuzzy edges. You can’t quite get a handle on it. It’s a feeling of failure rather than a printed out results page that clearly gives the grading mark. It’s something only you can see and often you can’t quite explain it.
Zig Ziglar said, “Failure is an event, not a person”.
That’s a great and useful quote, and clearly helps with Failure Type 1. But with Failure Type 2, when there doesn’t appear to be an actual event, it really does still feel like a personal failing.
It manifests itself as an over whelming feeling of not being good enough (rather than a specific and tangible failure to hit a target that can be identified and corrected). It appears as a holistic failure, of all systems.
So many artists, on completion of a piece of work, which may even have been labeled by the outside world as a masterpiece, often turn on themselves and their work and label it themselves as a failure, and sometime even destroy it. Authors have been known to burn or shred manuscripts, painters to paint over or destroy their paintings, musicians to wipe mastertapes.
It’s symptom is that of regret, focusing too much time on what might have been if we’d only chosen the alternative path.
We know we’re prone to it when we find ourselves comparing ourselves or our work with others.
In the mid-sixties, the Beatles and the Beach Boys vied for position as the greatest creative force in popular music. Inspired by the brilliance of the Beatles’ 1965 Rubber Soul, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys felt the gauntlet had been thrown down and he had to better the Beatles’ efforts. The result was the excellent Pet Sounds. But it didn’t hold he crown of most innovative LP for long as the Beatles released their groundbreaking Revolver LP in 1966. This excited and enraged Wilson, who took it upon himself to bring in a new lyricist and the best professional musicians he could gather, ignoring the rest of the Beach Boys, in an attempt to produce his masterwork and trounce the Beatles once and for all. The Smile sessions were the most ambitious recording sessions ever attempted, but the complexities required were just not possible with the technology of the day. He also took it upon himself to produce the album himself feeling that no other producer could translate his vision. The Beatles of course had George Martin in their collaborative team, as well as being a tightly knit quartet. The overly complex Smile was hit by delay after delay and then, in January 1967, Brian Wilson was traveling in his car when something came on the radio. He pulled of the road to listen and broke down, tears falling on his cheeks. It was the Beatles new record, Strawberry Fields Forever. That was the moment that Wilson knew that the Beatles had won. That was the high water mark for innovative popular music. From that point on, everything to come would be variations on a theme as music fragmented into genres. It was cemented by the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper six months later making Wilson’s creative breakdown complete. He never fully recovered. Smile was abandoned and he left the Beach Boys.
44 years later in 2011, Brian Wilson returned to the Smile tapes and finished off the record. Technology and time had moved on sufficiently for him to be able to piece together the intricacies in a way he couldn’t back in 1967.
He had set himself up for creative failure by setting a goal that was impossible to reach, setting his ambition too high, by wanting to create the greatest music work every created (trying to get ‘one up’ on Revolver could have been attainable). He was also weighed down by the immense pressure of a mythical standard of his own making by judging his success by comparing himself with others. Instead he could have compared himself with his personal best (trying to beat Pet Sounds could have been attainable).
There is a reason that creative people create their own demons in this way.
Creativity is governed by right-brain thinking, by imagination, with subconscious inspiration in the visual arts, in music and in creative writing. One of its principles, or attributes, is uncertainty. It’s a by-product of how creativity works, it is not certain of itself, it is in flux and without logic or sequence.
Uncertainty is uncomfortable. We usually want to search for certainty, for an anchor, for something to cling on to. But we need this uncertainty to be able to create in the first place, but its dark side is that we turn it into self doubt and spiral down into our own meaningless lack of worth instead of spiraling up into transformational success.
So what’s the answer? In short there isn’t one. But there is hope in knowing that this is the path that we will find ourselves on at some point in our creative lives. Being forewarned is forearmed and knowledge that our despair is just a side product of our creative power can take the sting out of it.
Doom and glory are the extremes that only the creative mind tastes. Our job is really to surf the space in between as neither of those countries are places we should ever linger.
So perhaps the old platitudes were right after all. You actually can’t have success without failure as they are both manifestations of the same mechanism.
Churchill famously said “If you’re going through hell, keep going”. The same is true, of course, for failure. You’ve heard the one “Bravery is not the absence of fear, but the ability to take action in spite of it”.
Success favours those who continue to take action in spite of failure, those who keep going. So come on, let’s keep going, knowing that failure is perhaps not a false path after all, but is perhaps instead the fuel.
Ayd works with people and businesses to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation.
Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.
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Another good stream of thought! Thank you Ayd!
I think Brian Wilson’s “failure” was because he confused creativity with competition. He wasn’t focused on creating a great LP but was competing with the Beatles. He was focused on winning, not producing. When I write, I’m trying to get my point across, not get a Pulitzer. If it happens that I “win” an award, so be it. More importantly is that I get my point across and get people to read what I write. Wilson should have focused on his music and ignored the Beatles. We, the 1960’s listeners, were the losers in that; more that Wilson.
That’s it exactly.
You were right, I DO like this one 🙂
I can imagine Brian Wilson’s despair. It’s painful to put myself in his place and wonder how he must have felt. Yet, it’s a lesson to us all, that we must create because we love to, not to get one up on someone else’s creation.
I agree that there isn’t an answer to it all. Other than to talk about it and talk about it until we all remember that it’s normal to feel like a failure sometimes. I think when we don’t know that it’s part of the process, we slip into believing it’s really true.
Thanks for yet another slice of inspiration 🙂
Cannot thank you enough for unravelling something that has perplexed me for some time. Not insisting to my parents that I should go to Art college because they persuaded me that working was better for me has knawed at me for years.
I say to people lately “I’m still finding my voice” almost as an apology that (I believe) my creations are not much to behold.
DevonTexas has indeed put it so well above. 🙂
This is a very important piece Ayd because for everyone who carries on and comes out the other side, writing failure off to experience, there are thousands who don’t and who sit with failure as their silent companion for the rest of their days and that is so sad. For your regular readers this fits into place nicely but for those who are new to your writing it may be a good idea to flag up some of your other pieces, for example, the well intentioned friends who say “You gave it your best shot, time to give up now”.
Just talking to a non-emotionally involved third party is often all that is needed to restore confidence and get people out of the pit that they can fall into when struggling with these issues.
Brilliant piece of writing, as ever. Thank you.
Thought provoking article Ayd. I too have struggled with the mystery of Brian’s stalled creativity, and blogged about it here
You are right, there’s definitely a down side to the creative mindset that makes us prone to totally losing all objectivity, even as people are praise your ‘failures’. I think one remedy for that lack of perspective is having co-workers you trust. Lennon and McCartney had the the other Beatles and Martin. Brian really did have no one. I have to disagree with Devon Texas’ comment as focusing is exactly what Lennon & McCartney did all the way through their career, from having all latest American chart singles imported, following artists like the Beach Boys, The Stones, Motown and even Zappa and listening closely to their own previous album before starting their own. I have never read anything where they were trying to create great art in a vacuum, they didn’t take pop music (their own or anyone else’s) seriously and were convinced all their music would be forgotten in a decade or so. All they tried to do was make something better than what was around. You could say it was a more measurable goal.
If you had a real feeling of failure where would you go, who would you ask?
What if there was someone who had been there and could help?