Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Audacity of Failure

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
If you've visited our "How" page, you know that Tuesdays are inspiration days. This week, we're talking about the challenges faced by creative individuals, and how those challenges can lead into the Art Abyss - but also how they can lead back out, into greater achievement and more creative fulfillment than ever before.

As I sat down to write this post, one creative individual immediately sprang to mind as an example of someone who walked through the abyss and emerged thriving. The tired stereotype of the starving artist suffering in a garret is often used to discredit and put down people who choose to pursue a creative lifestyle -- I personally can't count the number of times I've been told by family and family friends that they "just hope I can afford to eat," or that "I find someone to take care of me." In J.K. Rowling's case, experiencing that very form of 'failure' was exactly the transformative process she needed:

Does this woman sound like a failure to you?? Me neither. Some of my favorite takeaway moments:
"I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive." 
"Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life." 
"It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case, you fail by default." 
"Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way." 
"The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are ever after secure in your ability to survive." 
"Happiness lies in knowing that life is not a checklist of acquisition and achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life."
Can I get an AMEN?? Seriously, the faster we rid ourselves of the idea that failure is a bad thing, the better. I had a music teacher at my undergrad who demonstrated the concept perfectly. He set up a music stand so the wide flat part was parallel to the ceiling, then asked a class member to throw a wadded up sheet of paper onto the stand. The first time, the paper completely missed the stand; the second, it rolled off; the third time, the paper landed perfectly. Afterward, he asked her how she felt when she missed -- was she a terrible person, a failure and a disappointment?

Of course not -- it was just throwing a piece of paper. What he then went on to explore was why, when we are performing a piece of music, or creating a painting, or writing a poem, we suddenly lose that sense of perspective. Failing at the task we are attempting becomes something that reveals a deeper lack within ourselves. By extension, failure to "live a successful creative life" -- becoming the ignored and starving artist in the garret instead of reaping the financial and social rewards of artistic popularity -- can lead us to feel that we are not worthy of anything more, that we don't have what it takes to follow and succeed at our passion. Yet when you really think about it, how is a creative endeavor any different from throwing that piece of paper? You conceive of the idea, you give it your best shot, and if it doesn't work out, you try again. What's there to feel bad about?

Once a year or so, I manage to convince myself that I enjoy skiing. I travel to the nearest snowy slope (which in southern Arizona usually means driving for five or six hours), rent my gear, and hop onto the ski lift -- usually getting at least one ski tangled along the way. Once I get to the top, I remember that I am absolutely TERRIFIED of skiing, and proceed to slide down at an incremental pace, usually resulting in my husband deciding to zoom ahead and catch me on his next time down. But every once in a while, I decide to live dangerously - I let my speed pick up, focus my eyes on the beauty of the mountain around me, and enjoy the wind rushing past my face as my panic gives way to exhilaration . . . until I fall, of course. I am the world's worst person for getting back on my feet while wearing skis -- my friends can tell you, there have been more tearful mountaintop rages courtesy of yours truly than most toddlers would be willing to admit. I remember one particularly spectacular fall where I ended up deep in powder - lovely to look at, but with one ski buried somewhere up the hill and the other tucked entirely underneath my body while still somehow attached to my foot, that powder became the bane of my existence. I lay trapped, staring up at the sky, and because it had already been such a hard day, with so many, many falls, I was pretty sure it would be easier to just lay there and freeze to death than it would be to get back up. Chad wasn't such a fan of that idea, and with his cheerleading, I hauled myself up one more exhausting time, found my ski, fitted it back onto my boot, and got back on the hill. I wish I could say I made it to the bottom without another fall, but one particularly sharp turn and an unexpected lump in the snow had other ideas. Yet getting up that next time was easier, and all the times since then have been easier still -- and though I won't be jumping moguls anytime soon, I fall less often these days -- which means more time for actual skiing.

Not here yet.
 The reason for my token sports metaphor should be obvious - embracing a creative practice can be a wonderful experience, full of excitement and beauty and personal fulfillment. But it requires that we take risks, real ones, and sometimes we're going to fall. Sometimes we won't land the paper on the music stand. And sometimes that failure is going to leave us flattened, wishing that someone else could rescue us, because we're so tired of trying to do it ourselves. Yet as J.K. Rowling points out, taking the risk that ends in failure is the transformative element we need to determine what is necessary in our lives, what is real, and it leaves us ready to begin again, with a solid ground to build upon.

It may be hard work, but choosing to live a creative life is a noble calling - you are offering yourself to the world as someone who helps other people feel and see things that they might otherwise miss. You are a steward of imagination, and as Rowling points out, imagination may be the most transformative element of all: 
"Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not . . . it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared."
This week, let's forget the fear of failure. Embrace your risks, and learn to fly. 

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