I listen to a productivity podcast (Productivity Alchemy) on which the host, Kevin Sonney, asks all of his interview subjects roughly the same six questions about how they organize their lives, how they stay on track with their goals, and what advice and processes they regularly use. His last question is always “What do you do when you fail?”
Kevin interviews a lot of creative people. His wife is the writer Ursula Vernon and they have tons of friends in the art and publishing worlds and those friends give him interviews and let him be nosy about their personal productivity habits. Frequently these interview guests chafe at the very notion of failure.
“I don’t think of it as failure.”
“Failure is really just another way to say ‘learning opportunity’.”
And these aren’t people being trite or pollyanna. They are creative workers who have come to peace with the fact that not everything they create is going to hit the mark 100% of the time. So the question isn’t about what to do IF you fail, but as Kevin wisely put it, what to do WHEN you fail.
When we approach failure as if it is an F on our permanent record, it becomes difficult to respond creatively to setbacks and misses.
Failure sounds like not getting published, not getting tenure, not getting promoted.
Failure equals Rejection and Rejection equals being shut out of the community you’re working in or working toward.
Basically, Failure seems to lurk around a lot of corners in academia, and that sucks.
Creative writers and artists aren’t the only ones who have a creative response to perceived failure. We’re probably all pretty familiar with the fail fast, fail forward credo of many start ups and tech-intensive spaces, where putting together a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) as quickly as possible to test out new ideas encourages people to not dwell on what didn’t work but on what has promise for future development.
Our fear of failure holds us back from a lot of creativity. Creativity and ideas don’t thrive in an environment where fear of “what if this fails” predominates. Creativity and ideas need an environment of permission, energy, and excitement to bubble to the surface.
So, short of channelling your inner tech guru, how can you create this fearless environment for yourself and your ideas? I’ll offer you two thoughts to get started:
F. A. I. L. = Fall And I Learn
Maybe failure is just a learning opportunity. You’ve gotten information about at least one thing that doesn’t work or land or resonate the way you wanted it to. Isolate that thing, tinker with it, improve it, iterate, and try again.
“There is no failure, only feedback.”
What I see in this simple statement is the powerful realization that we are not the work we produce. Failure sounds personal. “YOU have failed.” Thinking of feedback, however, reminds us that we are not our work. Our work received some feedback and we, as creators of our work, can take that feedback and integrate it back into the work in creative and interesting ways.
You are not your work. Your work isn’t you; it isn’t even “the best part” of you. It’s just something you’ve created, the tip of your internal creative iceberg. You have more in you, all there for playing with, being creative with, working with, and sharing with people who want to hear it. F