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 expected; then 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!