I have been thinking about failure and how it relates to creativity for quite a while. About 10 years ago, the school where I taught had a slogan “Failure is not an option.” The idea was centered around the goal of increasing graduation rates, but it was ill conceived. Failure is absolutely an option and in terms of creativity it is a necessity. There are so many cliches that support this statement, but they are all true- 1) If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got. 2) Risk comes from not knowing what you are doing. 3) Success is on the other side of your comfort zone. I think you get the idea. If you don’t put yourself out there and try something— especially when you are not sure that you will succeed, you will not grow and expand as a person…and your creativity will stay stagnant.
If you are a Parks and Recreations fan, you know that Tom Haverford’s character is the penultimate failure embracer. As over the top and ridiculous as some of his business ideas are, he does not filter anything out and he jumps in feet first to follow his dreams. Of course he also displays extraordinarily poor judgement at times, but he is not afraid of having a bad idea. He just keeps churning them out until something finally sticks and he finds something that he is both passionate about and successful at.
This past weekend, I had two major breakthroughs with my creative process. 30+ years ago my grandma taught me how to crochet. Of course I started with basic stitches and I probably made something simple like a scarf. I’m not sentimental enough to still have that product, but I have the memories for sure. For the next 25 or so years, I stuck to what I knew. For many years, I only started a project if I was there with my Grandma and she would help me with the foundational rows of what was undoubtedly a baby blanket of some sort. I seldomly veered from the same projects and the same styles. The only variant was the yarn and colors. I was content. Then one day about five years ago, my husband declared that he wanted fun elf hats for Christmas. I immediately ran to various stores and picked up a variety of hats— knowing in my heart they did not fit what he was looking for. When he asked me if I could just make us hats, I looked at him with such incredulity that he was surprised. “I don’t have the first clue how to make a hat. I have never even read a crochet pattern.” The next thing I knew I was searching for patterns on Pinterest and he was helping me figure out how to read the pattern. Now I regularly make hats for friends, family and also the homeless in our community. If I had not taken that risk and screwed up over and over again while trying to figure that pattern out, I never would have unlocked a new door to my crochet world. Recently I was again poking around on Pinterest and I saw a pattern for the sweetest crocheted dress. I knew it would be adorable for my beautiful niece. I sent my cousin a picture of it and she fell in love with it. There was no way that I could disappoint her and not make the dress, but I had absolutely no idea how to make a dress. The confidence that came from figuring out the hats allowed me to have the patience to piece through the dress pattern and voila now I was making a beautiful gift for my niece’s first birthday.
Earlier in the week, we visited with our good friends who recently bought a farm in Spain. The property featured a 300-year old building that was more than in ruins. They are spending hours and hours learning to do everything from build a solar system to provide electricity to the farm to fixing foundations and replacing a traditional Spanish tiled roof. Why am I telling you this story? We are going to visit them next summer to help them work on the farm. My husband— he is the one with the mad home improvement skills. This is a sour point for me. He complains endlessly about the thousands of hours of work that needs to be done on our house, but I don’t have any skills to help him. Part of the problem is that I am creative, but not detail oriented. He is VERY detail oriented. I was feeling extremely anxious about our trip and that I did not have any skills to offer except to feed, water and photograph the group.
In passing I mentioned to my husband that my oriole feeder was rotting and that I intended to replace it. He suggested that I make a new one. I jokingly reminded him that I had no skills. He offered to teach me! We spent an entire day in his shop working through how I could design, plan and build a new bird feeder. I used what seemed like every power tool in his shop, a bunch of math and a glob or so of glue and I’ll be damned..I built a new bird feeder. I can’t say that I am brimming with confidence, but I took the chance at learning something new and now I have a whole new medium that I am excited to explore. If I were failure averse, I never would have tried and I would still be crocheting baby blankets.
How can you embrace failure?