Expect Failure

Failure is not a pleasant topic to write about, nor is it a pleasant experience in our lives. Yet we all must deal with failure. It is inevitable.

Many oft-quoted remarks are about failure. It’s been said that we really only fail if we give up, and that failure is the pathway to success. “We learn more from failure than from success” is another much-touted adage. I think all of these things are true, so I’m wondering exactly why it is that we’re so disappointed by failure, why we try so very hard to avoid it, and why we’re so often counseled not to even think about it!

Here’s an interesting bit of advice I found:

When you accept failure, there’s this tendency to then expect failure. This is dangerous. When you accept failure, you accept that it’s part of your journey towards the goal, not your end. But when you’re expecting failure, good heavens, that becomes your undoing!  From: Start-Up Journal

Now, I’m not attempting to set  up a new business. An entrepreneur I’m not, but these words can be applied to any endeavor, right? And maybe this sounds like good advice. The message here is very, very clear. It’s not good to expect failure.

Another site offers hypnosis downloads to help you avoid the dreaded act of expecting failure. It warns:

If you’ve developed a habit of always expecting yourself to fail, you’re setting yourself up for failure and not giving yourself a fair chance. From: Hypnosis Downloads

Maybe there’s something to this, but then again, maybe this isn’t really the best advice, especially not in the world of art. I think back often to my own experience, that decision I made to learn to draw. I expected to fail. There wasn’t a single doubt in my mind. I could never learn to draw. Of course I was going to fail. I’d give it a try, but it was really all a bit foolish. I was going to fail and that was that.

But, surprise, surprise! Because I expected to fail, I succeeded far beyond my wildest imaginings! So, maybe sometimes it’s all right to expect failure. In fact, maybe sometimes it’s important that we do.

I’m currently reading Drawing the Head and Hands by Andrew Loomis, and I was ready to stand up and cheer when I read his views on the learning process:

There must be a genuine basic motive behind any genuine effort.

Search quietly and thoroughly for this basic motive, because if it is powerful enough, it will give your efforts the strength to withstand discouragement, disappointment, disillusionment, or even seeming failure.

How’s that again, Mr. Loomis? Are you telling us that learning to draw the head and hands will be difficult? That we’ll encounter disappointments and discouragement? For goodness sake, are you suggesting that we might occasionally fail?

Hurray! Your honesty is refreshing.

Doing anything well means hurdling obstacles of one kind or another most of the way to the goal. Skill is the ability to overcome obstacles, the first of which is usually lack of knowledge about the thing we wish to do. Skill is a result of trying again and again, applying our ability and proving our knowledge as we gain it.

Let us get used to throwing away the unsuccessful effort and doing the job over. Let us consider obstacles as something to be expectedthen they won’t seem quite so insurmountable or so defeating.

I loved reading this. It’s all right to make drawings and paintings that are so awful I have to throw them away. It’s just part of the process of developing my skills. I have to expect obstacles. Instead of trying to run and hide at the thought of failure, why not simply embrace it?

I can sit here looking at an ugly charcoal portrait I drew yesterday during an online session. No, I won’t show it to you. It’s too awful. But I can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that it’s merely another little failure along the way, a marker of where I am right now, not an indication of whether or not I can develop this particular skill.

Maybe there’s something inherently right about expecting to fail as we are learning. Maybe we do ourselves a disservice when we expect success at every turn. Maybe we’re actually cheating ourselves if we arrange to succeed in all we do.

I’m thinking a bit about Montessori teachings — one daughter has taught in Montessori schools for decades — and here’s one of the guiding principles:

Let Them Fail: Like grit, almost all lists for raising successful children say we have to let our children fail.  Let the cup fall, let the glass break, let them forget their library bag, etc.   This is at the heart of Montessori’s focus on independence.  Mistakes are learning tools, so our teachers will let the Toddler drop their plate as they throw it in the trash or allow a Kindergartner to work all the way to the end of math problem they can see won’t work out.   Even the Montessori materials are designed with a “control of error,” an indicator to the child that they have not successfully used the material so they have to try again.  They figure all of this out on their own, without an adult’s feedback or intervention.

So right now, I’m saying “Phooey!” to all those well-meaning counselors, psychologists, and coaches who tell us it’s wrong to expect failure. I’m shouting “Nonsense!” to those who believe we should make things easy enough to guarantee continued success as we learn.

We will fail. We need to fail. So, why not just accept that fact, prepare for the inevitable, and greet failure with open arms when it comes?

Welcome, failure, my old friend. Come sit down and have a cup of tea.  I’ve been expecting you!

 

26 Comments

  1. Your attitude makes all the difference! So what if an art project doesn’t work out! In the future you can try again and it will work out the way you want it, and it will be an accomplishment you can be proud of! Failure in an art project doesn’t hurt anyone else and it won’t hurt you. But, if you fail to learn to drive and you go out on the road and someone dies, that’s a failure a person can’t recover from, but art? No problem. Art can give you a better perspective on failure, among other things.

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    1. So true! I loved reading what Loomis wrote about accepting failures, realizing that our work is sometimes going to be so awful we have to throw it away and try again. He makes it clear that failure is part of the process, not something to shy away from, but something that’s necessary for our growth. I’ve definitely struggled with his techniques for drawing heads — haven’t attempted hands yet LOL — but when I do, I just shrug it off and try again. It’s actually a relief at times to fail. It means that I’m putting forth effort to learn.

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      1. The Loomis studies look like a great way to improve drawing! Go for it!
        I throw away or give away a lot of my art because I don’t want to leave my daughter with a lot of bad art when I die. hahahah When you have less attachment to it you’re more free!

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  2. This was one of the things I loved about living in Japan: Asian cultures in general have a healthier attitude toward obstacles being the path and failure being part of life, compared to America, where we are taught to associate failure with shame, ineptness, weakness, etc. There is a Zen proverb that says, “Obstacles do not block the path; they are the path.” And then in Japan specifically, there is the wonderful concept of wabisabi and the art of kintsugi. If you haven’t heard of these concepts, wabisabi is the appreciation of something’s beauty *because* of whatever hardships/failures it has been through. It’s seeing the beauty in the worn and marked-up table-top where children did art. It’s appreciating the dripping glaze on the pot because the artist making it by hand put too much one side. It’s recognition that being broken is part of what teaches us, shapes us, and makes us unique.

    On a smaller scale, the art of kintsugi is probably the best-loved example of this principle because when a ceramic thing is broken, the pieces are put back together with a gold filler, making the broken pot even more beautiful than it was before though you can more clearly see the imperfections. There is also a Japanese proverb that is translated, “Even monkeys fall from trees.” No matter how good you think you are at something, you will sometimes fail. So, the focus in not on teaching people to avoid failure, but on how to get back up *when* they fail. Resilience. … Because you WILL fail. Things WILL fall apart. Pema Chodron has a wonderful book on this concept, too: “When Things Fall Apart.” All of this is about learning to embrace our imperfect nature and do the best we can with what we have, but to expect and accept failure as part of life.

    So, of course it’s necessary to be more “perfect” and not accept failure than in others. But the principle is the same. Even heart surgeons who can’t afford to make mistakes with someone’s life will on occasion lose patients no matter how hard they try to save them, no matter how much they know, no matter how correct their procedure was or how long they’ve been at the job. Life is organic like that. Best intentions and skills are tools, but they are not promises that everything will always be okay. Just the opposite. “Security is an illusion. Anything can happen at any time.” Therefore, when we fail, it’s important to not beat ourselves up, give up, or write ourselves off as failures just because we experienced a failure.

    So, this article brought back all those thoughts and memories and more. 🙂 I feel like I have a hard time with failure as an adult because I wasn’t taught this concept of resilience at all until I moved to Japan. I was taught to “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” sure. But that’s not only a metaphor for impossibility (which some people don’t realize regarding the origins of the phrase), it means that if you can’t pull yourself up, you’re a lazy disgrace. And therefore shame, fear, etc. all these negative emotions become new obstacles. Focusing on not failing breeds fear of getting things wrong, so you don’t take risks. But if you expect to fall, you will be better prepared and develop courage and wisdom to make progress little by little toward whatever you set out to do. Failure is more like stepping stones when viewed as normal, to be expected, necessary, and, yes, sometimes even beautiful in life. 🙂

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    1. I really love the concepts you’ve shared here, especially making the broken pot more beautiful than before. I recently had a painful experience with art (you’ll be reading about it in upcoming posts) and sometimes it’s difficult to get back up again. I thought a bit about the old adage of falling from a horse. The first thing you do is get back up and get on the horse again. And that’s what I was finally able to do, so while the experience was — and is — still painful, that’s part of life. I’m learning more and more to appreciate the imperfections in my art, to see them as what makes my art uniquely my own, and to recognize that my mistakes and failures are necessary stepping stones, just as you’ve pointed out. We do learn so much from our failures. Many times failures force us to “figure things out” on our own, teaching us to think in new ways, and ultimately giving us greater confidence in our abilities. I will look for the book you mentioned. Sounds like something I would enjoy. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

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      1. Yes, it’s like that proverbial getting back on the horse or bike right after a fall. Because it’s more important than you find the courage to keep going in spite of the failure than to focus on the failure not ever happening.

        I thought I would add something else interesting along this line of thought. I just finished listening to Calm.com’s masterclass on Stoicism, and one of the things ancient stoics did to take a healthier approach to life was to expect things to go wrong. 🙂 “It’s better to be pleasantly surprised by things going right, than to be unpleasantly surprised by things going wrong.” And this isn’t the same thing as a pessimistic outlook. It’s simply being wise about what could happen that you can’t control, and trying to be prepared for it to minimize the damage. Kind of the old scout adage about expecting the best, but being prepared for the worst. If you’re prepared for failure, you more easily recover and move forward again. So, I found that interesting. It seems to be a theme for me today. LoL … (By the way, this concept is balanced against several other practices in stoic philosophy, such as always looking for the good in things. In other words, try to reframe whatever goes wrong as something you can use toward your purpose. And that includes intentionally looking at mistakes as teachers or stepping stones to help us improve.) Interesting connections. 🙂

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      2. I definitely appreciate Stoicism. Do you subscribe to “The Daily Stoic”, by chance? I enjoy the reminders each day. Today it was all about having a vision. “The impediment to action advances action… but only if you know where you are trying to advance and the kind of person you want to be when you get there.” In other words, setbacks can be useful as long as we understand what our ultimate objective is. Obstacles come in many guises — hardships, hurdles, problems, disappointments, failures — but if we know where we’re going, we’ll figure out how to deal with them constructively so that they actually bring us closer to becoming who and what we hope to be.

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      3. I’m new to it, but I think it’s the same guy that did the masterclass. He has a website and has written several books on the subject. I admit I’m curiously hooked to find out more, so I will check that out! 🙂 It sounds like just what I need right now. I’ve been in a major slump for awhile now, and this stoicism masterclass was kind of the kick in the pants I needed to make me pull out my journal again do some deep thinking on how to move forward from here. Thank you, I will definitely look into this further.

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  3. Very good article Judith, I like it! If we are afraid of failures will never take any risks and in this case our works will be repetitive and boring! It was a surprise for me when years ago, before the digital photography I realized my best photos were the ones I did only to finish the roll of film I had in my camera. Why? Becuase I had no expectations from it. I was shooting in a loose way. Like I would learn to do with watercolour now! LOL!

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    1. I know what you’re saying. This is why watercolor has helped me immensely with my oil painting. It’s not only helping me physically “loosen up” my brushstrokes, it’s also helping me “loosen up” my mindset. I’m focusing more now on “doing” and not thinking about how it’s going to look when it’s “done”.

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  4. I have as most people out there experienced failure. My first blog failed completely, but two new blogs came out of it. I know I`m not a skilled drawer but I have learned that it doesn`t matter. The most important thing is that you enjoy what you do. I thought I wasn`t good enough – and listened to people in my surroundings told me that I wouldn`t make it. Today I have “secret blogs” to avoid those people dragging me down – and having more fun blogging and drawing than ever. I don`t care if my drawings don`t fit in the category of good drawings – I`m just having fun. One of my mottoes is “draw don`t think”.

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    1. I have a post here titled “Don’t Think… Just Draw” so I think we probably share a few similar experiences. I think it’s good to “expect failure” — in other words, to know that it’s all right when our work doesn’t meet our initial expectations. It’s part of the process of art. Just this morning I did a watercolor portrait that turned out horrible. I can’t even look at it LOL… it’s that bad. But maybe the next one I do will be better, or if not, maybe the one after that. We just keep plugging along, doing our best, and learning as we go.

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      1. Well then, I have to read that post to.  Ha, ha I can relate, sometimes it just doesn`t work. Agree, I missed that when I started my blog, to find someone to relate to, sharing their failures – «everyone»  had perfect art except me.  I mean, you can have so much fun, and it can give you so much to draw/do some kind of art even if you are not so-called skilled or your art turns out as a failure.

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      2. I started learning to draw in June 2015. In March, for some crazy reason, I started this blog. I wasn’t an artist. I knew real artists would look at my drawings and laugh, and I wondered what I could possibly write about! You know what happened? Nobody laughed. Other artists — real artists — encouraged me and cheered me on. I made friends who could answer question and give me advice. And I very quickly realized that I had a lot to write about. My blog wasn’t about showing off my art — which is still laughable at times — but about sharing my journey and hopefully inspiring others who are going through the same learning process. I’m glad to say that in the last 5 years my drawings and paintings have improved. I’m proof that art is a skill that can be learned, and I am always excited to share my “art discoveries” with others. So glad we connected here!

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