Failing forward

First drafts and not being perfect

Dali1954Today I want to talk about something we all experience on a regular basis, but try to pretend doesn’t ever happen: failure.

If you have an ambition, a goal, if you’re striving to achieve something or walking off the beaten path, you have experienced failure of some kind or another. And failure stings. It feels negative, and that’s why we don’t talk about it that much. We tend to focus on the positive, which is good and constructive, except for one thing: failure can be a huge positive. Fear of it is the biggest negative here.Theodore Roosevelt campaigning to be president in 1904

Failure happens to be part of everything we attempt. It has to be. If there wasn’t such a thing as “trial and error”, we wouldn’t discover new things, we would never advance in any field whatsoever, and we wouldn’t be able to learn; to be confident in what works, we have to experience what doesn’t. Pablo Picasso said it best: “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn to do it.”


That goes double, triple, quadruple, and a hundredfold when creating art. Art is a subjective pursuit, in which there is no set end result; as Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Art is never finished; only abandoned.” In fact, the very process, the journey to the finished piece is itself as important, sometimes even more so, than the end result itself. If not for failure, art would be impossible. It is mistakes and unintended results that often lead the way to true innovation, to the greatest ideas, and to new techniques.picasso

This doesn’t just apply to visual art. Every artist – be it actor, painter, illustrator, sculptor, musician, and writer – must learn to venture outside of their comfort zone to progress in their art. That is how they test their limits and discover that they are capable of so much more. And, by the way, “testing your limits” doesn’t mean you succeed the first time you try something outside of your comfort zone; in fact, if you do succeed right away, chances are you haven’t really reached one of your limits yet. It takes trying over and over again to be able to push back these boundaries and add another skill to your toolset.

pablo-picassoWriters and composers have such a huge advantage over other artists in that respect. When creating visual art and you try something that doesn’t work, more often than not you will have to scrap that drawing, or paint over that canvas, or throw away that sculpture. You have to start all over again until you find the one that works. When you’re writing, though, no matter what new thing you’re trying, you’ll very, very rarely have to scrap everything and start all over again. vinciOnce you’ve got that first draft down, you can tweak it, change it, edit it until it’s finally the way you want it. You have so, so much more luxury to make mistakes than most other artists. Take advantage of it. Let loose with that first draft. Give yourself permission to fail, to write something really bad. Stop letting fear of not writing a sentence perfectly the first time around make you stare blankly at your screen for an hour. Let it be a bad sentence. You can go back and fix it once you’ve written all the rest of your sentences. Chances are high anyway that you’ll have a much better idea of the voice you want to give this project by the end, and then it’s so much easier to go back and correct it with that in mind.

woody1A friend of mine used to say that even if you fall flat on your face… depending on your height, you’re more or less five feet closer than you were the moment before. The only true failure happens when you decide not to get up again. When you stop trying. The minute you’re not doing something that leads you to make some mistakes… you’ve stopped getting better at what you do. So continue to celebrate your successes, by all means.

But also learn to celebrate your mistakes.Robert-Kennedy-006

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