In capitalism, there is no room for failure. Budgets don’t allow for a show to be bad, funders don’t allow for a program not to work out, and scarcity mentality tells us we have to make things work, at any cost. Failure is a concept that people automatically associate with something bad or negative, but what if we could reframe it? What if, instead of something to be feared and avoided, it was something we decided to strive for? Because in the world of art-making, failure is actually something positive, productive, and vital.
As artists, we are working inside of the nonprofit industrial complex that does not value or support experimentation and failure. In fact, it punishes it. In the distant past, I was an artist myself, and because of that experience, I know that experimentation and failure are fundamental to the creative process. If we’re batting .1000, we’re not being ambitious enough. If we aren’t failing, we aren’t pushing ourselves.
The real lesson of “fail fast, fail often” isn’t to go super fast, leaving people hurt and confused in your wake, but instead to nurture environments where people can fail safely. In order to shift ourselves away from a product-centered model, we have to challenge ourselves. We have to cultivate a culture that values boldness, intentionality, and play instead of reproducing patterns and behaviors that prize conformity and safety, but that lack the experimentation and rigor that defines great artistic processes.
It’s easy enough to talk about how failure is great, but how do we actually practice reframing it? Below are some thoughts on what embracing failure could look like:
Let go of perfectionism.
So much of my fear of failure was rooted in my relationship to perfectionism, which had been deeply ingrained in me ever since childhood, where ballet classes taught me about the perfect pointed toe. But I’ve been working on cultivating some techniques that allow me to let go of something of these deep-set habits. Sometimes letting go of perfectionism looks like setting a project aside and putting it in my calendar to return to when I’m feeling more energized; sometimes it looks like setting or refreshing boundaries with a collaborator or colleague; sometimes it looks like shutting off the computer and taking a walk; sometimes it looks like junk food and forgiveness.
Reconnect to your WHY.
Your “why” is the deeply personal reason you do the thing that you’re doing. Where does your motivation come from? Dig deeply into the core of yourself to unearth the thing that keeps you moving. Ask yourself why you’re here, why you are an artist, and what brought you to the work that you’re doing. Write about it, sketch about it, dance about it, dream about it, but whatever you do, endeavor to reconnect to the highly personal motivator that helps you to push through when the going gets tough.
Practice going with the flow.
If a failure is hitting you particularly hard, remember that you’re not alone. Call a mentor or friend, try journaling about gratitude, or writing about all the things that this particular failure can teach you. You might be surprised by what a gift failure can be once you reframe it as a teaching moment.
Ultimately, the more you fail, the more comfortable you’ll be with failing. It takes time to grow a thick skin, but nailing that audition, landing that grant, or finishing that draft will make it all worth it in the end.
Trust me, you can do it.