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.