The list of artists who were deemed failures and then went on to great things is as long as it is illustrious. Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Bridget Riley and Damien Hirst were all written off at some point, having been told that they weren’t up to much: that if they pursued their creative instincts they would fail. The same was said to John Betjeman, John Lennon and legions of others.
Fair enough. Creativity is about learning resilience, taking responsibility for your own work, and being willing to go against the tide. As for failure, well it’s but a by-product of the creative process. At least, that’s what I had always assumed. Until, I started researching the subject of failure for my book Think like an Artist, in which I explore creativity and what we can learn on the subject from artists.
But then the more I looked into it, the less convinced I became. I found there’s a lot of nonsense written and said about failure, particularly in regard to human creativity. Motivational speakers bang on about “failing better” (an expression misleadingly isolated from a despairing Samuel Beckett text), while misguided managers tell their staff that it’s “good to fail”.
It’s all cobblers. Managers might want their team to exhibit a little more flair but they don’t really want them to fail. A company going bankrupt or a football team letting in ten goals is not a result; it’s a catastrophe.
What they actually want is to encourage an appetite for risk-taking. Which is fine. But failure and risk do not go hand-in-hand.
If you take an artistic risk and it doesn’t come off, you haven’t failed; you have succeeded. You will have learnt something that will be incredibly useful as you persevere – if, that is, you do persevere.
The invidious problem of associating risk with failure is that it puts us off our stroke, diminishes our confidence, and can all too often lead to us to giving up. Not so, Thomas Edison. The American did not get it right first time in his quest to invent the electric light bulb. Nor did he crack it on the second, third or even the thousandth attempt. In fact it took him ten times as many experiments to arrive at a commercially viable product.
But at no point did he countenance failure. “I have not failed 10,000 times,” he’s reported to have said, “I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”
And he duly did, while ably demonstrating that creativity is an iterative process. You can’t get it right without getting it wrong. Creativity is not easy. But it becomes impossible if we fear failure. Which we shouldn’t. Because it doesn’t actually exist.
Failure in the context of creativity is at best subjective and temporal. It’s a feeling we might have when the painting we are making doesn’t work out as we hoped, or our soufflé fails to rise, or a scientific experiment generates confusion not clarity. But these are not failures; they are staging posts.
Thank goodness that Cézanne and co didn’t listen. But many of us do, and conclude that we are not talented enough to continue, or worthy of creating something that expresses our view of the world. In short, feeling or fearing a failure suffocates creativity and hampers lives. Which is a great shame, because when it comes to creativity, there is no such thing as failure.
So, throw off your inhibitions, quell your natural humility, and back your innate creativity. You’re never too old for art – but if you’re 18 and under, we’ve got the perfect place to start. Why not enter the competition to design a cover for Radio Times to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday (see page 20) and give your artistic self a work-out!
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news