Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Virtues of Failing Often

There’s something I’ve noticed about us creative types. We spend a great deal of time coming up with dozens of reasons why our ideas won't work.

I’m not sure where this insecurity comes from, whether it’s the warnings from parents, teachers, preachers and former bosses, reminding us that we have no business stepping beyond established boundaries, or our years of experience watching many of our grand ideas fail to work out as we planned. Or maybe it’s the part of us that keeps trying to be ‘normal’, and accepted by the rest of the world that hinders us from following up on our latest plans.

Whatever it is, it sure keeps us from getting a lot of stuff done.

At any one time in our studio, there will be ten to thirty drawings unfinished, five blogs waiting to be written, a dozen short stories and a novel in progress, and that’s just on my side of the room. Add another twenty paintings and portraits, fifty pieces of jewelry in line to be completed and photographed, web site updates and a half-dozen videos looking for a couple hours each of uninterrupted voice-over and editing, and you’re starting to get a handle on Sue Ellen’s side.
Tiger Swallowtail

It’s not that we have too much on our plate, and certainly not that we’re complaining about being busy. Far from it. What bothers us is the extra inertia it takes to get any one project moving forward.

When I sit down to draw, for example, often as not I can make room for the telephone, mail, orders, and customers stopping in to visit, and still get the work done. What I have a harder time ignoring is the buzzing voice in my head saying, “ You’re drawing this when you should be figuring last month’s sales tax? This picture isn't even funny! It’s weird. And only a few pathologists on the world will ever get the joke, anyway. Besides, I thought you were planning to write a book. What happened to that brilliant idea? What’s wrong with you?”

 Failing ‘early and often’ gets 
the good ideas off the ground, 
and the bad ones out of the way.

All of which may be valid points, except that when I do sit down to write, the guilt monster inside my head starts yammering on about the artwork: “Shouldn't you be working on that medical picture? You say you're an artist, but how many things did you actually draw last year – like, three maybe?”

I see it all the time in other artists, too. They’ll come up with a terrific idea, create an incredible new something, then drop it and move on to the next thing that catches their interest. When asked why they never developed the idea, there are a thousand reasons why it just wouldn't have worked.

“No one would pay money for that.” (And yet somehow you sold the first one.)

“They would cost too much to make.” (Which is why you figure out a way to make a lot of them, so that the cost per item is manageable – and find a way to fund the process while you're doing it.)

“It was just a fluke.” (You have a long history of such flukes.)

“I talked to some guy about it, but he wanted to keep 90% of the money.” (Which is a decent percentage if some else takes your idea to the market. It's basically free money, and you don't want to manage all the production, sales and distribution stuff, anyway.)

“It probably wouldn't work, anyway.”

As much as it pains me to see other creative folks let what seem to be good opportunities slip away, I try to use these situations to remind myself not to let my good ideas go to waste. We struggle with every one of these objections too, and the best answer we’ve come up with is this: “Let’s just do it and see.”

That’s the trouble with creating. You can never know whether or not an idea will work, because it hasn't ever been done before. And unless you try, that situation will never change.

We like seeing our new ideas and new products succeed, so much so that it’s worth the many failures we encounter along the way. Failing ‘early and often’ gets the good ideas off the ground, and the bad ones out of the way before they can weigh us down with second thoughts about the wisdom of trying.

It’s still not easy telling the nay-saying monsters to keep their peace, but the fact that we are here every day investing our time in creating new pictures, new stories, new fashions, and new programs means that our chances for continued success are always improving. Throw in a thick streak of stubbornness, and it’s a good bet we will still be in business, failing a lot and succeeding enough, for a long time to come.

(There. That blog’s finished. Now, off to the drawing board…)


  1. That sounds a lot like the writing advice:
    1) Apply butt to chair.
    2) See step 1.
    ... squirrel....

  2. my problem is usually "i need to do such and such"...ooooh shiny object. which in retrospect is a lot like squirrel.

  3. It helps for us ADD folks to have a number of substantive squirrels lounging around all over the studio. If (when) we get distracted away from one project, another one is right there waiting to work on. The work space stays cluttered that way, but something is always getting done.