Maybe it looks like I’ve turned a few words around in the title of this post. You might think I meant to write “Don’t Fail to Plan”. Nope. The title is correct. There is, of course, a connection between the two phrases, and an oft-shared quote reminds us that, “Failing to plan means planning to fail.”
But, again, the idea of failing to plan isn’t quite what this post is about. As the title says, it’s about planning to fail. Similar, yes, but different.
Thoughts of planning to fail came to mind as I began reading an “advance copy” of Uncommon Measure: A Journey Through Music, Performance, and the Nature of Time. The book will be published in March, 2022, and it is available for pre-order now through Amazon.
The book is written by Natalie Hodges, a young violin virtuoso who gave up her career as a soloist due to intense performance anxiety. As a musician, I can relate to her questions and concerns, her search for “a new mode of artistic becoming.”
I think, as artists, we can also relate to her doubts, her fears, and her apprehensions. At this point in my pursuit of art, I can definitely relate to the idea of “moving toward the freedom of improvisation.” Hodges was trained as a classical violinist. Her life has been shaped by the accepted standards of classical music. Again, being a classically-trained pianist, I can fully understand and appreciate her journey. Classical music — and the performance of it — has its own set of rules, its own expectations.
In the opening chapter, she notes her tendency to focus on the most difficult part of a particular piece. This focus would then become a plan of sorts — a plan to fail. She writes:
Days, even weeks before the performance, my brain would begin to fixate on a spot in the score that it knew I was going to mess up… once my mind had sentenced a passage to execution — or rather, to my failure to execute it — that particular spot in the piece was done for. This was the only thing I could be sure of, going into that performance: where and when I was going to have my big botch. I’d spend the first part of the piece waiting for it, and the rest cursing myself for it.
Oh, I can so identify with this! She’s right. In every piece of music, there’s always that one spot, that one measure, that one phrase that — for one reason or another — trips us up every time. The more it happens, the more certain we are that it will continue to happen. Again and again. No amount of practice — or even perfect execution of that passage — will allay the uncertainty, and that uncertainty nags at the mind, so much so that we come back around to expecting failure, and sure enough, that’s what happens.
As I read about her experience — what she calls planning to fail — I considered it not only from a musician’s perspective, but from my perspective as an evolving artist. How often, when I look at a landscape scene, does my attention go first to what I perceive to be most difficult?
Yes, I could paint that sky and the clouds, but no, I could never paint those bare trees! Maybe I could get the shape of those rocks, but I wouldn’t be able to get the colors right, and I’d struggle with the lights and shadows.
Like Natalie Hodges, I’m setting myself up. I’m picking out the problem areas and predicting failure before I’ve even picked up a paintbrush! In other words, I’m planning to fail. I’m putting a canvas on my easel, setting up my palette, and telling myself when and where it’s all going to go wrong.
So, how do we change this unhelpful mindset? How do we shift our focus away from the problem areas?
Unlike music, art is generally not “performance based.” Yes, of course, there is performance art, but that’s a horse of a slightly different color here, I think. Most of us don’t usually “perform” for an audience while we’re drawing or painting — at least evolving artists like me are apt to avoid any situation where my drawing or painting abilities might be observed by spectators.
To be a bit more direct, I’m talking about plein air painting, or open studios, or art club meetings where I’m expected to pick up a pencil, a pastel crayon, a paintbrush — whatever — and actually create a piece of art in the company of others. It’s intimidating! How many club meetings have I actually missed simply because I don’t want others watching me attempt to draw or paint?
As with picking out the “hard places”, here, again, I’m starting from a point of “I’ll fail if I try.”
What we’re discussing here might also be called a “Self-fulfilling prophecy.” This term was first used in 1948 by American sociologist Robert K. Merton. He described it as “a false definition of the situation evoking a behavior which makes the originally false conception come true.”
But when I fear — or anticipate — failure, it isn’t really a false conception. I expect failure because of previous experiences. Having failed repeatedly at painting bare tree limbs, having tried and failed again and again to create “good art” in the presence of others, of course I expect to fail when I attempt these things. I’m not setting up a “false definition of the situation”; I’m merely being realistic.
Even so, starting off with expectations of failure — even if justified — probably isn’t conducive to success. So, again, the question: How do we change this unhelpful mindset?
I had to search quite a bit online to find possible answers. Although there is a lot of advice and information about how to deal with disappointment or overcome failures after the fact, there isn’t much to tell us how to stop the self-sabotage that comes from planning to fail.
From the reading and research I’ve done, I’ll suggest these tips:
We have to trust ourselves.
What does this mean, really? It means knowing that we can do things without harshly criticizing ourselves. It’s being willing to say “I’ll try this, and it’s all right if I don’t succeed.” It means being who we are, not trying to be someone else. In art, this is truly important, and it’s part of finding our own style. After 6-1/2 years, I’m only now beginning to understand what it means to “be myself” and to let my art be what it is.
I think, too, that trusting ourselves means cheering ourselves on, much like a loving parent encourages a child in sports, in school, in social activities. We have to be able to count on ourselves to be there, to offer those kind words and assurances.
We need to set realistic goals.
When I first began learning to draw, just making basic shapes and forms was enough. That was a very realistic goal at that time. Now, I can set higher goals, and it’s all right for us to “push” ourselves a bit. But it’s not all right to set objectives that are so far above our abilities that the result will most likely be failure.
Recently, I saw a scene on a Christmas card that appealed to me. “I want to draw this!” I exclaimed, thinking that maybe I could even paint the scene. Seriously? Who was I trying to kid? Maybe I could draw a similar scene, but painting it would be out of the question. I had the card sitting here in the art studio for several days. Finally I faced up to the facts. I don’t have the skills for this. It would be a highly unrealistic goal. I picked the card up and set it aside. Maybe next year.
We should accept and validate our emotions.
Emotions are tricky things. Sometimes they’re good; sometimes they’re not. Our tendency is to enjoy the good emotions — happiness, serenity, feelings of accomplishment, moments of hope — while hiding or denying uncomfortable emotions.
Negative emotions, however, don’t just go away if we ignore them. These damaging feelings include:
- Being Overwhelmed
Yes, there are a lot of negative emotions we have to deal with. As artists, I think we’re probably more sensitive to emotions than others are. Emotion is a large part of our work, part of what we are expressing in our art. We have to accept that negative emotions exist as part of who we are.
Art journals can help, I think. We can take whatever we’re feeling — good or bad — and turn it into a journal page. Just acknowledging our emotions is helpful. I can look through this list and claim a lot of these negative feelings in the context of my art. I often do feel frustrated and inadequate. I occasionally get overwhelmed. Now and then I feel a touch of resentment, too. Why is art so easy for some, yet so hard for me?
When bad emotions hit, I try to take an objective, honest approach. “Yes, I feel frustrated right now, but I know it’s temporary. I’ll put this aside, move on to something else, and the frustration will pass.” That helps a lot.
It’s important to be decisive.
Being decisive means making a decision and sticking to it. In art, I’ve learned to apply this by having a “No wiping away” policy. When I first started oil painting, I was wiping away whole paintings. I’d get off to a good start, make mistakes, choose the wrong colors, or do something that was otherwise disappointing. Out came an old rag, and away went all the paint. Over and over, I’d wipe away a morning’s work, always coming away feeling disappointed and discouraged.
I then learned to let the mistakes alone. Oh, I could wipe away little things and try again, but under no circumstances could I wipe out a whole painting and start over. I had to look at my mistakes, accept them, and learn from them. It made a big difference in my attitude, and that made a big difference in my paintings.
Go with the flow.
In her book, Natalie Hodges writes at great length about time. Music is centered around time; rhythm, tempo, intervals of silence. We have similar concepts in art. We can settle in to a comfortable rhythm, we draw or paint at a certain tempo, and we need those “moments of silence” where we can step away.
Hodges speaks about getting into the flow of time, seeing how it speeds up or slows down according to our thoughts. With art, as with music, it’s good to let go, to just go with the flow as time passes by around us.
All of these ideas have been coming to the forefront in my art practices in recent weeks. It’s all part of finding a precious new freedom that allows me to be who I am, a freedom that isn’t based on expectations but simply on being and doing — and upon understanding that accepting who we are is the key to fulfillment in anything we choose to do.