Creative Work Relies on Failure.
It’s normal to fear to make a mistake.
And that’s completely natural, according to Hilda Burke, an integrative psychotherapist, and life coach.
“I think it’s innate to want to know the answers, to know whether our efforts will pay off at the outset,” she says. “But, of course, the only way of knowing is by doing and creating. A lecturer once told me that we can be in safe mode or in growth/creative mode — we cannot be in both simultaneously. So to feel anxious on unsteady ground is totally normal and it’s actually inherent in the creative process.”
That said, if success feels good, failure feels bad — painful, even goes hand in hand with a drop in dopamine levels in the brain’s reward network.
And the world of failure is one in which the rosy glow of future rewards is replaced by the gnawing anxiety of anticipated punishment.
And the biggest side effect is the fear that comes with failure. Fear inhibits creativity. It’s difficult to imagine coming up with your best creative work when your mind is preoccupied with the fear of failing.
But there is at least one upside to failure.
Failure opens our minds to new threats and the anticipated escape routes available to counteract the threats. And this opens our mind to new thoughts, perceptions, and possibilities — in other words, it can make us temporarily more creative.
So far so good.
But do we approach failure in the right way?
Do we have an enlightened view of what “failure” is?
The truth is the large majority of us are failure hypocrites.
Let me show you what I mean. Some time back I had compiled a book of Haiku Poems. After sending the pitch to multiple publishers, finally one of them agreed to consider it for publication. I was elated.
My long-standing dream of becoming a published author was about to come true. There were multiple rounds of discussions and finally the final decision for publication was left to a senior member of the editorial board. I was confident. This would be just another formality to be cleared.
But to my utter chagrin, he rejected it citing “lack of depth”.
I was heartbroken. Given how necessary and valuable failure can be, you’d think I would have embraced it as a chance to learn. But, of course, I didn’t.
Praising failure mindlessly is one thing. It’s very different when you are the failure. So I did what any coward would do. I felt humiliated. I trashed my book and refused to write another piece of poetry. It was almost as if I had already deemed myself incapable of writing poetry. I went into a cocoon that led me nowhere.
It took six months to open up on my failure with a bunch of friends. Their feedback was hard to hear but surprisingly helpful. I realized that the editor was not wrong after all in his assessment. I started reediting my work, plugged in all the flaws and once again sent it across to the same editor for consideration.
This time he accepted it. I got my 1st book deal. But the realization was glaring and painful.
We all know failure is important and necessary to succeed. We all know we need to fail fast to learn faster, failure is necessary to innovate, we must fail to succeed, blah blah blah.
But when failure strikes, we brush it under the carpet. If you can’t admit failure, you won’t learn from it. Failure is only positive when you learn something important from it and then make the necessary adjustments. Failure only works if we keep track of it and make it an actionable item in our life. Yes, it will be embarrassing. But it is the only way to succeed from failure.
And a simple way to keep track of failure is to create a “CV of failures”. The overarching idea is the same, though. By keeping track of your failures and reflecting on them in a way that’s constructive, you can learn from your mistakes and achieve more in the future.
A failure résumé was first suggested as a canny self-assessment tool by University of Edinburgh lecturer Melanie Stefan in 2010 when she published her ‘CV of Failures’ in an article for Nature. Stefan wrote: “It will probably be utterly depressing at first sight. But it will remind you of the missing truths, some of the essential parts of what it means to be a scientist — and it might inspire a colleague to shake off a rejection and start again.”
Listing failures help channelize them as positive forces, helps you address each event separately and not start thinking that ‘you’ are the problem. Bottom line: don’t list failures just for the heck of it — but do it for yourself. You have to be honest, specific and brutal in your self-assessment for it to work.
There is no specific format to create this CV. You can do it simply by doing the below.
· Make a copy of your résumé. And make lists of things you wish had happened differently, things that didn’t pan out the way you intended.
· Take time to consider your shortcomings. Your failure CV is just for you. Be honest and specific.
· After you have listed every failure you can think of, put a positive spin on each of your failures. For instance, as a writer, if you wished you could have started your 1st book with a fiction theme instead of poetry, the positive spin will be that starting with poetry helped you to get a minimalistic perspective and led you to use words judiciously.
And here are some ways in which tracking failures can make you more creative.
Every Failure may be a “Happy” Accident
Every identified failure may be a happy accident, dead-ends or wrong turnings to be corrected. Nothing more.
Professor Lawrence Zeegen, who is the dean of design at Ravensbourne calls failure and mistakes “happy accidents” and he emphasizes why it is highly important for us to permit and give room to mistakes within the process of creativity.
Lawrence explains “well, we want the predictable, because designing beautiful things is calculated and charged at an hourly rate and dead-ends and wrong-turnings cannot be charged for. This is why successful companies who permit failure becoming part of their culture, include a line in their P&L”
And to bring this point home, sometimes he asks this simple question to his students.
Can you tell what the following have in common: Penicillin, Post-It notes, Velcro, the Slinky, and Coca-Cola.
Yes, they are all happy accidents, results of unintentional outcomes, while aiming for other targets and therefore considered as failures.
Learning from simple mistakes is what helps propel us forward. And happy accidents only happen when we take time to really examine our mistakes.
It keeps us Hungry and Humble
Bill Gates has rightly said.
Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.
The biggest enemy of long-term success is complacency. History is littered with sad stories of once great nations, cultures, and companies that banked on the notion that a successful past guarantees a successful future. These entities were complacent and paid the price for it.
But failure has a way of motivating us — of keeping us hungry and also humble.
Humility in response to an experience of failure, then, is at its core a form of therapy, the beginning of a healing process. Properly digested, failure can be a medicine against pretentiousness, arrogance, and hubris. It can get us cured, should we care to try it.
And tracking failures will help you identify your weaknesses, work on the same and ensure that they are converted into advantages in the long run.
It Helps you to identify the most important problem
When you record failures, you do a postmortem.
A postmortem is a process which is used to reflect on the learnings from our most significant undesirable events.
Ask yourself, what do I define as a major problem? You may not always know until you see it, and that’s OK. Use those problems to help you identify future failures that are similar.
And The most difficult parts of solving a problem are to reproduce it and find the root cause.
That is why, meticulously recording every failure, categorizing them by type and assigning an action plan to each failure helps in identifying the cause of each failure.
Once this is done, you are on the path of improvement day after day. Always remember past errors build future success.
And Lastly, it is proof that you are pushing yourself.
How often do you test your limits, or try to push past your pre-conceived notions of what you can do?
A record of failures is proof that you are pushing yourself every single day and you can be proud of it.
You could live a safe and boring life that is relatively free of failure if you wanted. But if you want to become a better version of yourself, you need to do things that might cause you to fail. Falling down is evidence that you’re trying hard to accomplish something. When you’re forced to dig deep and use your full set of skills, you feel empowered to do even greater things.
And the most important part is what you did to bounce back. That is the resilience that will keep you gunning towards your goal. That is the very essence of learning from failure.
As Confucius has rightly said.
“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
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