I am fascinated by creativity, the generative force that brings something into existence–an idea, a song, a cheesecake, a website. There is something so powerful in the act of creating that I find myself drawn again and again to art museums, improvisational jazz, design awards, comic books, thoughtful technology, and movie theatres, to name only a few. I think much of what draws me to these examples of creativity is wanting to experience the varied manifestations of the human spirit. It is my seemingly insatiable desire to fill up at the table of talented individuals expressing themselves. However, when I think about my own creativity, I am quickly cowed by worry and fear of failure.
To be honest, I am also fascinated by failure, but it’s more akin to my fascination with spiders, cooked beets and velour. I’m interested, but I’d rather not partake in any of those please. I got all the typical messages growing up, and I internalized preferring the affirmation for being right to the disappointment for being wrong, preferring the ice cream I got for good grades to the awkward family dinners spent reading less than stellar report cards. However, in recent years I have come to realize failure is normal; it’s a necessary part of learning, and is central to the scientific process. But the socialized fear of failure is often what stifles creativity, is what pulls the mental plug even before the process of making something begins.
So what happens when failure and creativity sit down together for a latte? All too often, failure cheats. It brings along a whole cheering section to taunt creativity and turns what should be dignified conversation at the local cafe into a 3-on-1 tag-team smackdown with failure’s luchadores friends Fear and Judgment.
So my question is what happens when we figure out a way to make this fair? If we are able to ignore the roiling crowd, keep Fear and Judgment on the sidelines and help creativity and failure get back to their coffee conversation? If we can ignore the fear and disconnect from the judging censor in our heads that tells us it’s silly to even try, we may find that failure and creativity have a lot of things to talk about. Before long we might find them quietly talking to other another, laughing, and putting their heads together to work on something new. Below are four ways failure and creativity can play nice together, in which failure can assist creativity’s good work.
1) Failure as teacher
Have you ever tried to ice skate? Separate an egg? Tie a bowline knot? Put topspin on a ball? When we’re learning new skills it’s easy to remember that we learn through failing, by remembering how not to fall off the bicycle as we hone our ability to keep our balance. I worry that this brutal fact gets lost the older we get. Starting a new job recently, I had to remind myself nearly every day that these are skills and situations I have not found myself in before and I should expect to get things wrong a lot. The learning comes as I create and manage an ever lengthening checklist of ways not to do my job. As I find patterns in my failures, I am able to see paths toward successes as well.
2) Failure as progression
This flows from point 1, but adds in a sense of experimentation as well. If point 1 is about having had no experience and learning from scratch, then this is where my creativity begins to look for connections and linkages in my previous experiences. This is where I begin transferring skills from one area of life to another. For example, I know how to work with people in supportive and encouraging ways. How can I apply this knowledge to my current work of supporting clients as they move through our sales processes here at Summersault? What does support look like in the midst of a website build-out? It is in applying past skills to new contexts, and seeing how well things do and do not fit, that creativity learns from missteps and errors.
3) Failure as redirection
I believe most of us have heard some version of that often used phrase “when life closes a door, it opens a window”. The reason this phrase is often used is because it captures, in a greeting card kind of way, a truism to most people’s experiences. It is true that failure has a way of changing our direction, of seemingly decreasing options and causing us to look in unexpected places. It also has a way of building up our persistence and stick-to-it-tiveness. Creativity has the ability to bob and weave when presented with challenges and roadblocks, its energy and need to innovate moving us forward–maybe not along the paths we had envisioned.
4) Failure as slapstick
Think of this as the whimsical side of point 2. One only has to imagine the curiosity and child-like wonder that goes into thinking, “I wonder how high I’ll go if I jump out of this swing?”, “I wonder if permanent markers really are permanent.”, “What happens if I put dried jalapeño flakes in the coffeemaker instead of coffee?” While it’s easy to imagine the many more ways in which these queries can go wrong than can go right, it is the curiosity and ingenuity that is to be praised. This is the “how does this work” side of creativity that is so present in children, and so easily forgotten on the way to adulthood. Give this study a read and think about how you can unlock your inner 7-year old, how you can fail magnificently and be excited about the new data, instead of piling on the shame.
To wrap up, I do not mean to give the impression that this is easy, or that failure is great fun–it can be disorienting, uncomfortable, even disastrous. But, within the context of our creativity and failure working together, I do believe that there are a number of possibilities for positive outcomes and potential for growth and renewed direction. And you don’t need to try that jalapeño in the coffee thing–it burned more than I could have imagined!