Failure is Good

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Failure is inevitably linked with art – and life for that matter. Well, it’s also linked to success if you think about it. To put it a little harshly; if we don’t experience failures it’s because we don’t live – or we don’t create, when talking about arts. And if we don’t dare to make failure we will never succeed, either.

Life and art is about jumping from an airplane without knowing how a parachute really works, but hoping it will. It’s about taking chances, knowing that often they won’t lead to anything – or at «worst» to failure. I use brackets because failures aren’t necessarily bad. On the contrary; you can use them as stepping stones to learn more, to become better next time, to evolve, to grow. In my post Weakness as Potential Strength I wrote: By figuring out where our weaknesses lie, we can take steps to eliminate them – and thus lift ourselves to a next level.

Not every project we do will survive. As a matter of fact most of them probably won’t. Art is sometimes like putting messages in a bottle and hope that someone will find one of your bottles. And then hope they will write something in return – and that eventually the same bottle will find its way back to you. That’s how art works. You may have to accept that you have to put out hundreds of things for every bottle that wind up coming back.

The analogue of the bottle is taken from a speech given by the author Neil Gaiman when he addressed the class of 2012 at the University of Arts, Philadelphia. One of his points in the speech was that if you don’t break the rules – and thus take the chance of failing – you will not be able to create anything new and original. You won’t find your way as an artist – and you will not have success – whatever that means.

This is how he addressed the new art students (you can find the whole speech here): «When you start out with a career in arts, you have no idea of what you are doing. This is great. People who know what they do, know the rules, and they know what is possible and what is impossible. You do not. And you should not. [By not knowing the rules, you will be able to go beyond them]. And you can. If you don’t know what is impossible, it’s easier to do.»

By not following the rules, though, you are in for some failures. No doubt. It’s of course easy to say one should accept this as part of the creative process. The problems of failure, really, are that you want everything to happen and you want it now. But things go wrong.

When I decided to become a travelling photographer and writer sometime in my twenties I set off through then Soviet Union to Japan and then continued around in Southeast Asia, finally ending up in Nepal. I was travelling for half a year and the plan was to send home articles and stories from wherever I went. The intention was to make a living as I went about. It should have been a success. The articles and photos would make me world famous and the next thing waiting for me was National Geographic.

For some reason editors and the magazines didn’t discover my wonderful talent, though… What did I learn then? I did work that I was proud of. I had half a year of great fun. I lived in the now, in a way I have never done again. I enjoyed every moment of it. And I learn how to travel and get around also when things weren’t necessarily easy – which has been very useful knowledge in my later travels. And I did sell some stories, which eventually took me to where I am today.

The one moment of greatest letdown through the whole trip, came at the end in Nepal. I was trekking alone towards Mount Everest base camp. A couple of days into the trekking, my camera broke down. It was a gorgeous morning. I took one photo of the vast scenery (the one accompanying this post), heard something snap in the camera and that was the last picture I took. Back then there was no camera repair, not even in Kathmandu. What did I learn from this failure? Not ever to travel only with one camera. And also not ever live through the camera. The experience is not by any means less just because you can’t take a photo of it.

If you make mistakes it means you are out there doing something. And the mistakes and failures themselves can be very useful – as in my case. Whatever discipline you are in, you have one thing that is unique, you have the ability to make art. That is a lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones.

When we try to avoid failure, it is because of fear. Fear of failure itself. But by so doing, we turn way from all the beauty of art and the intensity of life. In my post Face the Fear I wrote: We all want acceptance and approval for our work, but if the fear for not getting it or the fear of what others might think about our art makes us cater to this fear, we will never find our own voice.

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301 thoughts on “Failure is Good

  1. Excellent piece. I went through the whole corporate rat race, and now, in my 50’s I decided to jump into photography & writing. I am trying to do some consulting on the side, but I find myself getting sucked into photography and writing more and more. I have no idea where it will lead, but I do hope that someone will find the bottles that I strew around in my path!

  2. Thank you for celebrating ‘failure’ – I could not agree more! Just wish more would embrace the concept and stop placing undue pressure on themselves and others. No risk, no reward!

      1. Agree – of course, positive pressure is good. But too often in certain cultures, the pressure is that the consequences of failure are uniformly negative or ‘punishment’, which can be paralyzing and keep people from trying something perceived as risky

  3. Beautiful motivation for this Monday! I love it and it is so true! I started in printing and publishing in the late 80s. And I’ve slowly worked my way to my dream job. I think along the way I have learned from my failures the most!
    I’m not a photographer but I love to take photos so It like starting all over again! Doesn’t matter how old you are you can always learn something new that expands your thinking and gets you excited again about creating!
    Beautiful post!

  4. “Life and art is about jumping from an airplane without knowing how a parachute really works, but hoping it will.” – i wasn’t expecting to laugh at such an early hour of the morning.. thanks; you are so right!

    a watercolor instructor once stated, ‘you should frame your biggest mistakes and look at them every day— to remind yourself not to ever do that again…’

    great post; thanks, as always…
    z

  5. Great insight based on feet-on-the-ground experience, and something I needed to read today. Thanks Otto, for both the amazing photo and the grounding words 🙂

  6. hi otto, i really enjoyed reading this post.. i remembered when i graduated from high school and i told my parents i want to enroll in college to take up Fine Arts which is an expensive course because of the materials needed.. i love drawing, in fact one of my drawings when i was in high school (a volcano) was displayed in my school at that time then sent abroad in another high school to showcase beautiful spots in the philippines.. i’ve always loved art.. but then, we were poor, my parents could not afford an expensive course so i took up bachelor of science in commerce course in a state university where tuition is very cheap..so my love of arts was sidelined ever since.. i’ve never drawn or painted since then and it has been that long..(my kids are in their early 20’s now). And recently i bought watercolors etc.. i still haven’t made my first painting yet.. i know that my creative mind is still there in my heart.. but i will paint someday and i hope soon.. I guess it’s never too late.. did i fail as an artist? i guess not, i think it just didn’t blossom.

    1. You can never fail as an artist as long as you are honest with yourself. Sometimes life makes us move away from art or creativity. But as you say; it’s never too late. Just have fun with your watercolours and don’t worry about the result! All it takes is willingness to play.

  7. Otto, this heartfelt and personal commentary is probably my favorite of your many insightful pieces. The combination of guidance and self-revelation are pertinent to the human condition–its universality. Fear is a powerful weapon that can be a way to explore the self and the external world for individual growth or a way to exploit the self in a negative way. Both can be life changing.

  8. Lovely and eloquent post, Otto. Over time I’ve learned not to let fear of failure direct me, but it’s been a lifelong education and one that’s still difficult to follow at times. It’s so true that you have to take risks, and experience failure sometimes, to create that one piece of art or writing that stands out. It typically takes many deletes to discover that one keeper.

    1. That’s another to put it: Deleting the many tries before coming up with the keeper. And, yes, it does take time to learn not to fear failure, if ever it’s possible to completely get rid of that fear…

  9. Timely post. We are struggling with our art, and are currently looking at new ideas for the art. Failure in one aspect can push you to think outside the box.

  10. The norm in the human condition is struggle and strife…sitting back and being contented is the rarely attained nirvana…we ‘strife’ for and is always just out of reach. Good Story, Otto.

  11. Another great post, Otto. When I just read you describing the the analogue of the bottle, I might have been nodding in agreement and a moment later, when you brought up that wonderful speech made by Neil Gaiman, I most definitely was smiling at the screen. This is not only well put but also very true, your own experience is a very good example. What resonated most with me (enough to mention it when I shared the video on FB) when I discovered Neil’s speech last year was this part: “The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”

    And while I always thought to be a bit too much of a perfectionist when it came to work and/or science, I never was intimitated by any rules others might apply when it comes to photography but always followed my heart or vision. Also, when I began to shoot medium format film about 2 years ago, I always smiled about when I read the ten rules on the Lomography website with the last one being: Forget about the rules. They even print it on the back of their 120 film rolls ‘Don’t think, just shoot.’ and you always see these words moving past when you advance the film. Very easy to remember.

    1. I haven’t used 120 film rolls for a very long time. I like the the words moving past during the advancing of the film. How fun is that! Otherwise I noticed the same statement as you refer to from Gaiman’s speech. It’s something that resonates with me, too. Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Viola.

  12. Great post to start the week, Otto. I agree, if you want to be creative you must brake some rules, and when you break rules you take a risk. Sometimes it works, you get an excellent result, most of times it does not. But in any case you increase your experience and this is positive. Thanks again
    robert

  13. This is an inspiring article, Otto, and I love the photo for the layers of mountain ridges and the subtle tones and details. I like the advice about not living through your camera and can empathize with the breakdown of the camera in Nepal.The biggest lesson I have learned in life or at times that I am still learning, is that it is okay to make mistakes.

  14. Great post! It’s all about perspective and taking failure in stride. If we look at it as a learning experience, as you suggested, we have much to gain from each misstep. It really is the only way to get better…spot on.

  15. i guess most of us learn this the hard way – but it’s worth it. Some things can only be learned that way. It’s a pity it took such a long time…for me and many others at least the first half of our lives.

  16. Thanks for this post, Otto. Failure – and that’s where the blogging community has endeared itself to me. To see and read how others have tackled this fear of failure (in photos or life) and used it to improve or adapt and move on in their journey.

  17. A beautifully stunning essay! This lesson isn’t necessary applied to art form. It is true in nearly every thing we do. This post reminds me of once I was told … “if you do not make any mistakes you do not do your job”… Thank you for the great write up.

  18. Great post Otto, insightful and I think it is something that we all have some experience in (failure that is). Whether it is in business/personal/photography, and you have it right ~ taking something out of the experience (the good/the lesson) makes it worthwhile. Cheers.

  19. Every one who has commented here appears so wise and mature. Failures in art are clear; they are visible and can be improved upon down the road. Failures in life are harder to see and more difficult to learn from. I make a concerted effort to learn from my mistakes and even the mistakes of others but oh, this is easier said than done. As they say in baseball, ” three strikes and you’re out.” Thanks for this important reminder.

    1. I agree with you, failures in life are harder to both see and to accept and thus to learn from. But maybe even more valuable in terms of getting wiser. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Nina.

  20. Oh Otto, the timeliness and synchronicity of the topics you chose to write about is eerie. I so needed to read what you wrote in this entry. Making mistakes are the only way I pay enough attention to learn. I was surprised and hopeful to read about how long you’ve been shooting and writing. And look at you now. Every post you write carries the message to me in a way I understand and relate to. Thanks for keeping on and on and on!

  21. I agree and I also believe that one has to have a bit of a tough skin to keep trying because there are those critics out there, and my own tapes in my head which sometimes can be on the overly sensitive side. Bottom line is that I try for ME and no one else. That helps.

    1. Yes, critics whether other people or yourself, can be a big discouragement. But I think it’s important we create – or live – not for others or for their approval, but because we enjoy the process of creating itself – or living.

  22. It’s like learning to walk. If a child is too afraid of falls it will never learn to walk. Its world will be small and confined. However. when it learns to walk despite the falls this will expand its horizon exponentially. Btw, being successful in art and what that means is an entirely different topic worth exploring.

    1. That is a great analogy to illustrate what I am saying. As for exploring what success in art means, yes, that’s quite a different story – with many disparaging views I would believe. 🙂

  23. Nobody is born knowing how to walk. But everyone over the age of 3 does it routinely without a second thought. In between is not only the single greatest expansion of personal knowledge in our lifetimes, but also a long series of attempts to emulate those around us. Salted with many failures, small trials, and the ambitious determination to try again. How can we laud the successes while so savagely criticizing the failures that built them?

    1. I salute to your insight. Of course you are very right. Every step we take has been learned by many mistakes – and as you point out, we forget how important it is to be willing to fail in order to be able to walk. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Vernon.

  24. Inspirational and encouraging, thank you. I’m trying to go where my heart takes me but it’s hard to fight the tide. Won’t stop trying though. Looks like you didn’t either when things got tough and made it

    1. We do have to follow our hearts. I am a strong believe of that. But it will lead to failures and mistakes. Though instead of being discourage by the failures we should just accept them as steps towards a bigger insight – just as learning to walk was when we were infant, as others have pointed to.

  25. Thanks for the post – I actually just received my first ever rejection letter from my first ever submission. While I know failure isn’t bad, and that I am likely to receive a lot of rejections, it still hurts. It was nice to read something inspiring and uplifting today to counteract that.

    1. Rejections hurt. I have had my share of them, so I know. And I also know that they suck every breath out of us and makes us want to quit. But the only way is not. Instead keep producing, keep submitting. Don’t ever give up.

  26. Hej Otto, så sant, så sant. Man brukar säga att det är av misstagen man lär sig, För egen del försöker jag se om misstagen kanske är en öppning till något nytt och kreativt som går att bygga vidare på (dvs när kraften och styrkan finns).
    Bästa hälsningar
    Monica

    1. Det er akkurat mitt poeng. At uhell og fiasko er en åpning til noe nytt. Men ofte kan det være vanskelig å se det når du står mitt oppi det. Takk for at du deler dine tanker her.

  27. As always a well written article, Otto. We learn more from mistakes than from success sometimes. We also need to be fearless. Albert Einstein said; ‘Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new’.

  28. Great post. My family includes a son who is an artist, ceramics, pottery. I am always in love with his failures. And I can see his life in your post. Wonderful words. Wonderful photo. I hope life allows me to successfully fail. Woohoo!

  29. Reblogged this on PAULLYN GRACE and commented:
    Sooo relatable considering I don’t know where I’m actually headed in life (doing science and business in university but still not focused on career path) and the fact that I love photography.. thanks for this post! 🙂

  30. Otto, so right. how could there be success if there was no failure- it wouldn’t exist without it’s binary i am enjoying getting around your blog.
    thanks,
    esse

  31. I think that there is too much emphasis on getting everything right first time and being satisfied with that, when in fact the art and beauty is in the experimentation and things you learn along the way.

  32. In human life there is activity and thought. In each of these there is beneficial and useless. That adds up to four categories. Where do pseudo-science and art fit In? They are useless. Where do genuine science and practical/ergonomic manufacturing fit in? They are useful. This is as close as I (with my limited IQ and education) can define it. But everybody needs help. Keep on trucking guys and gals.

  33. Inspirational! I agree 100%. Failure is the driving force to motivate us to be a better version of ourselves. Although failure can put us in a low point, the rewards overcoming it in the end are far greater.

  34. Fear of failure, yes, it’s real. And because it’s real, it can help keep us sharp. If the possibility of success was certain, how boring would that be?

    I started a new blog: http://www.paulworthingtonbooks.com in the hopes of writing more from the heart and less for the praise of others and such. I hope to encourage other writers to do more of the same. When you get time, please stop by for a fun greet and meet and a host of enjoyable writing prompts that will tug at your creative mind.

  35. Wonderful post! It makes me think about the importance of separating the lack of success (whatever this means to you) and the feeling of being a failure. I’m trying to inhabit the practice of gathering experiences rather than categorize things as successes and failures. It’s mindful work! Thank you for your inspirational words.

    1. Success – or lack of success – is a whole different thing. Not necessarily related to failure, although it may at times feel as such. At least in creative work, it’s the pleasure of actually being creative that I try to make my success criterion, not measured by what others might think of the work or how successful I have become in a traditional sense. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jane.

  36. Dear Otto, I have gone through entire of this this article and I must admit that you have encouraged us in a very smart way to do something new keeping aside the fear of failure. And you have explained very articulately that art making process has a deep connection with failure. Quote of Neil Gaiman is very much relevant – thanks I got to know about it from you. I have already accepted you as my photography teacher and thought guru – whatever you say cultivated from your years of study and realization and I treasure those. Thank you for sharing this with us. Sudarshan

  37. Nice to hear about your past ‘failures’, Otto. It gives the rest of us hope. 🙂
    I’ve got into the habit of carrying a spare battery because a little carelessness caused me to get one damp :(. Just occasionally I forget and the camera doesn’t want to play. I’ve almost reached the point where I can shrug and say ‘remember the moment’. Each one is precious, isn’t it?

  38. Bonjour, merci pour votre très intéressant article, et les commenaires enrichissants.
    L’expérience montre que, selon l’adage : “- d’un mal, il peut sortir un bien” ; mais il convient d’avoir de la patience, car le bon côté ne se dévoile pas immédiatement. On s’en aperçoit ensuite. Peut-êtr cela a-t-il un nom : providence. On souhaite quelque chose, qui n’a

  39. … suite – envolé !!! … qui ‘arrive pas.Et ensuite, un événement survient, qui apporte le meilleur. Paul Valéry disait que – Si, Sisyphe réussit quelque chose, même si son rocher très lourd tombe tout le temps : il se muscle !! –
    Je vous souhaite beaux voyages et photos – ou non, qui vont avec !

    1. Je n’ai jamais entendu l’un sur Sisyphe. Il est tellement bon qu’il peut l’être. Merci pour votre commentaire tankelfulle, René. Et peut-être vous avez raison – il est providentiel.

  40. Reblogged this on Sharkphin1's Blog and commented:
    I have been experiencing this for quite sometime now and what i’ve learned was “Once your living a righteous lifestyle all struggles that you encounter are valid and necessary for the needed to growth to reach the Goals we set in life”..

  41. A friend uses the phrase “failing forward”. It’s one of my favorites because of the enormous potential hiding in both those words. Excellent post! Thanks.

  42. Interesting stuff, Otto. “The experience is not by any means less just because you can’t take a photo of it.” I know this logically but to have the photo makes it more special to me, for now, at least.

  43. Its a great post. I loved it…. May I re-blog this on my Blog “Imagination Breathing”.

    Imagination Breathing
    Vision: “Inspiring lives”
    What we believe: “Your insight may be just what someone else needs to have a breakthrough”.
    http://www.imaginationbreathing.com

    Plz let me know if I may reblog your post “Failure is GOOD”.

    Thank you.
    Best wishes:
    Paul Fernandes
    Imagination Breathing(inspiring lives)

    http://www.imaginationbreathing.com

  44. Reblogged this on Luke. W. Norman – Blog and commented:
    “We all want acceptance and approval for our work, but if the fear for not getting it or the fear of what others might think about our art makes us cater to this fear, we will never find our own voice.”

  45. Thank you so much for these really helpful words. I am looking forward to being out there doing something and making all the mistakes I need to.

  46. I completely agree, Otto. I’ve had this conversation numerous times with others. I even add that as failures in the arts, especially art CAREERS, aren’t just risks but inevitabilities an artists really ought to be obstinate in such pursuits. I know that it sounds foolhardy but seriously, being stubborn — even in the determination to appreciate the experiences of creative failure — whether they are your fault or the uncontrollable hindrances of the environment in which you create your work, truly will get you through those failures until you are able to hit one out of the park once in a while:

    http://hammerhomestreetphotography.wordpress.com/2014/03/29/landsdale/

    Be obstinate. It is necessary.

  47. I came to your post almost by accident. While scrolling I saw the beautiful blue mountains at the top of the post. I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains and clicked on your post thinking it was about this region. I became engrossed in your words and forgot about the mountains completely. When I read they were in Nepal I was genuinely surprised. As for the rest of your post, I found it quite inspirational. I am a writer myself and am still establishing my career. Thank you for your words.

  48. What a beautiful article and moving advice. I’ve just started my journey towards becoming a photographer. I left the corporate world and plan to take the next year for myself to travel and reflect. Of course, I ask myself every day if this is going to work out in the long run but in the end, it doesn’t really matter if it does. I’m loving the life I’m living right now and know I will forever be thankful I took this time for myself.

    Cheers,
    Sabrina
    http://www.sweetbruno.com

  49. Hi I like the message in this piece of writing. Yes many people are afraid of failure. Me included sometime; but if we don’t fail sometimes we don’t learn. Learning is one of the greatest things. It helps us be who we are and helps others as well.

  50. Good work ..it’s like going to a place which you have lost your way but still hoping you will get there;after struggling to reach in a way you never anticipated #failure

  51. I was kind of expecting this to be some feel-good, irrelevant posting, but this was a solid bit of thought. I’ll be reading this again. I need to do so.

  52. I love this AND it came at the best possible time in my life. I am taking that leap of faith, and doing something and new. It’s both terrifying and exhilarating. Your words provide even more inspiration!! Thank you!!

  53. That one photo probably means more to you than most. Not having the extra hundreds of photos you would have taken to sift through makes it very valuable. Then you got to just enjoy the view and truly wrap yourself in it. I would say you are spot on about this failure being a good thing.

  54. Great post! I agree and think that as artists one of our biggest mistakes is not that we produce bad art (that is inevitable at some point if you’re out there trying), but that we listen to the voice of fear inside of us that says we have nothing of value to offer. That speech by Neil Gaiman has also been a long time favorite of mine.

  55. Interesting post!
    The word ‘failure’ is one of those words which seems to have the power to freeze, block, stunt and impact personal growth. ‘Failure’ is judged as the ‘end’ of everything and many people struggle to see past this event. Posts like yours are a reminder that failure is sometimes part of the process but it does not need to deny us ultimate success in achieving what we set our minds on.
    Thank you.

    1. You are so right. In the midst of a struggle is seems tough, but in the end it’s “only” part of the process towards success – whatever that is. Thank you for your comment, Jennifer.

  56. I firmly believe that all successful people have failed miserably – multiple times in most cases! You don’t learn from success, you learn from your failed attempts – which are not failures in my eyes, but lessons. Excellent post! So glad I have discovered you, Otto!

  57. Wow another fab post! Had a few creative failures recently but have picked myself back up and carried on. Weirdly my first ever literary rejection from an agent put me on a high which surprised everyone. I was so proud of myself for getting out there and I felt like I had joined the writer’s club. So failures arw down to how you perceive them. Tough but doable.

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