“Make failure your fuel…It is the highest octane fuel your life can run on”
– Abby Wambach
How do you get comfortable with failure?
We are taught from a very early age to get the “right answer” to work towards getting an “A” and being perfect. I have watched my own teens worry over the possibility that they would get an A- and not the coveted A. We teach our kids to avoid failure at all costs because it shows us as not as good as the next person, that we are less competent. But what if we have gotten this all wrong. What if deep learning occurs when we learn to relish our mistakes and failures and find a way to learn from them. What if companies encouraged failing, had days where mistakes were encouraged. If we look to some of the most groundbreaking artists and scientists it is those who looked at what was “a mistake” as a new discovery.
“Sir Alexander Fleming, a Scottish researcher, is credited with the discovery of penicillin in 1928. At the time, Fleming was experimenting with the influenza virus in the Laboratory of the Inoculation Department at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. Often described as a careless lab technician, Fleming returned from a two-week vacation to find that a mold had developed on an accidentally contaminated staphylococcus culture plate. Upon examination of the mold, he noticed that the culture prevented the growth of staphylococci.”
Jackson Pollack followed a drip into a new approach to painting. He created a way of painting called, “Action Painting.” By allowing his creative process to follow unknown outcomes and the movement of his body over a canvas was he able to discover a new approach to making a painting.
“My painting does not come from the easel. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting”
– Jackson Pollock, My Painting
These individuals kept an open mind and accepted the possibility that what may have been deemed a failure by someone else was actually an unintended discovery. When you approach life and work in a mindset of experimentation then you are open to practicing what I call, “magical mistakes.”
As an artist and teacher, one of my foremost rules in the Drawing Lab is: “There are no mistakes and no erasers.” I don’t allow anyone to use an eraser in the Drawing Lab. I encourage everyone to figure out a way to turn what feels like a “mistake: into something new. If you ever watch kids draw most are very attached to their eraser. They will draw a piece of something and then erase it and then draw it again and erase and it can be 30 minutes and nothing has been actually drawn on the paper. They become paralyzed with the fear of making a “mistake” in their drawing. They have a mindset that there is one way, one “perfect way” to draw what they have envisioned. So, instead of the drawing being about discovery and seeing it is about making it look real and “perfect.” So the eraser has to go, at least at the beginning. I want my students to experience a feeling of something possibly “failing” and then using that “failure” as a new place to start from and discover. How can you draw something and then draw it again and then get lost in the drawing so that the idea of “mistake” is erased from the experience? I believe that by practicing this form of drawing one can learn to feel more comfortable in making mistakes and in failing.
One of the first things I teach in the Drawing Lab is blind contour drawing. This is the staple of most drawing courses but I do it a bit differently than most teachers. When you make a blind contour drawing you are actually drawing something without looking at what you are drawing. You are giving up control and not allowing yourself to judge the product of your hand, the drawing that is unfolding. In this way, you can not judge yourself making mistakes and “failing.” Once you have finished making the drawing you can look at your paper. Many people laugh or point to the drawing and feel a discomfort in what has been produced. But what is essential is the process of looking carefully at something and drawing it and discovering what is before you. The drawing is a record of the journey your eye and hand take while looking. But when you study the drawing within the jumble of lines are usually gems of discovery and deeply seen and felt lines.
Once we tune into those we can make our next drawing with a knowledge of what we have drawn before. It is from this feedback loop of drawing and “failing” and doing it again that we are gaining knowledge and insight. When Matisse made his drawings he did use an eraser and he would draw and erase and draw and erase because he did feel like he was failing and not getting the image “right” in his mind. When you look at his drawings you can see the energy of discovery through drawing. So give it a try. Practice failing. Do a blind contour and see what it feels like. Have your team do blind contours and discuss what it feels like to invite failure and then work through it. Brainstorm activities that your company or team can do to practice failing.
“Someone once asked Edison if he was disappointed after trying 382 ways of making a lightbulb. He answered that he wasn’t. He was glad that he now knew 382 ways not to try” – Fred Rogers
Practice failing and then getting back up and trying again.
Because I am not talking about being lazy and failing and then giving up, I am talking about using failure as a force, as a propellant for new solutions and new ideas.
Some other great quotes related to failure:
“Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” – Robert F. Kennedy
“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing.” – J.K. Rowling
Featured Photo of Abby Wambach by Nicole Miller
Photo of Winston Churchill by OliBac
Photo of Robert F. Kennedy by Kheel Center