Failure and the creative process

On the illustration course at the University of Brighton I run a workshop on failure. The first thing I ask students to do is to discuss ‘The Rules’ — the unwritten expectations and beliefs that exist in their minds and collectively in the course. These expectations illuminate an important voice that is critical in a discussion of our relationship to failure — that of the inner critic; that voice that tells you that you are not good enough.

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Failure is an integral part of the creative process, if we are to try new things, it is likely that we will encounter failure sooner or later. Failing is something most creative people do not relish, and in the world of education it is abhorred! But perhaps this is a big mistake? Venture capitalist and writer Henry Doss (the article is well worth a read) suggests that if we really want to create innovative individuals: 'We'd let students fail. In fact, we'd structure our educational system to be certain they'd fail. We'd let them fail, with serious, real consequences for that failure. We would not shelter them from failure, nor would we shelter them from risk. Lots of risk. The self-confidence and psychic endurance a real innovator must have doesn't come so much from a smooth path toward success, as it does from learning that you can recover from failure. Success is easy. Failure is more important.'

This is a radical statement. Made all the more radical now that students have to pay for their education. If a course advertised itself as a place you could learn to fail at, would anybody apply?

But we face fear of failure at almost every juncture of the creative journey. Like it or not it is a part of education, however we try to avoid it! Perhaps it might be a good idea to familiarise ourselves with it, so that when it inevitably happens, we can embrace it as an integral part of being a creative.

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When we first set to a task or are given a brief, for some time (perhaps quite a long time), nothing happens. A colleague once told me that he always knew that a certain guy in his studio had a big commission on because it was the only time the guy ever cleaned the loo! It’s actually quite a clever strategy, for sometimes creativity is a bit like remembering the name of that film you saw last year; its on the tip of your tongue but the more you strain to remember it,  the more it eludes you. Then you give up and do something else, and low-and-behold it comes, unbidden into your mind. Creativity is similar, we might need to be relaxed, thinking about other things, immersed in flow — not straining. If a student says he/she has no ideas I advocate a journey, perhaps take a camera, go to a gallery, go somewhere exciting or new. But beware your mobile phone! You need to daydream, and smartphones inhibit this by keeping us constantly occupied in a passive manner. I always had most ideas when I was on my own, eating lunch on a visit to London; nobody to distract me, no Facebook to consume me, just me, a beer, some noodles and a notebook.

During this period of generation, it is important to watch that the inner critic doesn’t become energised, because once that voice of self doubt gets hold, you are on a downward arc toward telling yourself that you are the worst artist that ever picked up a pencil! We must realise that creativity is not like a tap, you cant just switch it on, it needs time, and we are not useless if we need this time.

Inner critics are absorbed by us over a long period. Starting with the first time you ever threw food from your high chair and received a look of disapproval, their absorption continues through all the tellings off of childhood and into school, where it can really take root. The more you have been shamed by authority figures, the more powerful your inner critic is likely to be. Being told off and given appropriate behaviour boundaries is one thing, but being shamed — being told in varied ways that you are bad or not good enough, is another; thats how inner critics become powerful. 

During the workshop I ask participants to reflect on their relationship to failure, to recall past times when they might have felt like a failure. One student recalled their school teacher handing back essays in grade order — best to worst, in front of the whole class. This is a powerful example of shaming, one that I associate with a kind of victorian attitude, but is sadly still occurring in todays schooling system.

But then when you do get an idea, the inner critic gets a second bite at the apple — “What a sh*t idea!” I’m fairly sure that inner critics could destroy almost any idea if you give them enough of a voice. 

In his play The Jumpers, Top Stoppard has one of the main characters say: ‘The National Gallery is a monument to irrationality! Every concert hall is a monument to irrationality! — and so is a nicely kept garden, or a lover's favour, or a home for stray dogs! You stupid woman, if rationality were the criterion for things being allowed to exist, the world would be one gigantic field of soya beans!’

Any idea can potentially be seen as worthless, unless it is solely utilitarian and exists to feed our over-populated planet! I have come across many students who talk themselves into utter nihilism at this idea generation point, discarding everything until they reach a place of pointlessness. But what would our planet be like with no art or music? That is a bleak vision.

Next up — you have several ideas, but which one is best? Again we face a difficult decision, potentially fraught with peril — for what if we choose the wrong idea? It is usually at this point that a student comes to a tutor to seek reassurance. Unfortunately, it is often the case that a week of project time has already elapsed and all the student has is a spider diagram. But if the tutor can make the decision for them, the fear is eased. And if it all goes wrong, it’s not entirely our fault!

For us to know if the idea is any good we must try it out. Experimentation is the bedrock of any creative education, it is how we let creativity do it’s thing. It’s kind of like gold mining — the more holes we dig, the more chance we have of striking gold. But along the way we have to face disappointments. You wouldn’t expect to dig just one hole and find a golden nugget.

This is why volume of work becomes important, the more you do, the more you stand a chance of turning up something that actually works. It’s why computers can beat humans at chess; computers never get tired of failure. You know when they say, “This computer can make a billion calculations every second.” What they mean is that the computer can fail a billion times over, without breaking a sweat, till it comes up with the right answer.

Then there’s knowing when a piece of work is finished. It takes a certain conviction and confidence to declare that the work is done. Its actually a kind of letting go, making peace with the way it turned out. Because it’ll never look as cool as the picture you had in your mind! Minds are quite good at idealising, and again one must be wary of the inner critic at this point — maybe it isn’t quite your vision, not the best thing you ever did. It is here that we need that all important resilience to see the finished article not as a let down, but as part of an ongoing life-long creative journey. There is no perfection or ultimate piece of artwork, just a continuous search for something elusive that we attempt to capture in a physical artefact time and time again.

Students have always been concerned about their degree results, perhaps more-so than ever since they now have to pay so much for their education. It is understandable that they feel pressure to perform given their huge loans or parental cash funding the study. But this focus on outcome (of the most abstract kind — a number!) really inhibits the creative process. I see more and more A level students overlooking foundation courses and applying directly to BA level. This is a powerful illustration of outcome-based thinking, they want that coveted 1st in as short a time as possible, totally missing the point of education — experience building — in favour of a magic number that ‘proves’ you are good. Why would you not want more experience by doing a foundation course?

I often get asked “what do I have to do to get a 1st?” As if there is some kind of formula (other than blood sweat and tears). Jay W. Roberts in his Book Experiential Education in the College context cites a store in American shopping malls called Build-A-Bear. The disappointing thing about Build-A-Bear is that kids don’t build bears at all, they pick from a pre-determined menu of features and clothes and then the bear is made for them. Roberts suggests that too much of what goes on in education looks like Build-A-Bear — scripted procedures with scripted outcomes. Students are used to scripted outcomes, but a creative degree doesn't operate in a neat scripted way. Getting a 1st is most possible when you take big risks, invest a great deal of effort and time, be prepared to fail and then do it again better. If we immerse ourselves in work and forget outcome we will likely to be more productive. When we fixate on outcome, it makes the blurry, risky, messy process of creation and experimentation all the more scary. A bit like a rabbit in the headlights, the hope and fear, the weight of our own and parental expectations — our inner critic, can cause us to tighten and freeze.

If you can, let go of outcome, be prepared to fail, and get on with working. A 1st might or might not result, but at least you’ll have a portfolio of work at the end of it all.