There’s Only One Way to Fail

I run my life and my business as if I have never failed.

I never thought about failure until I asked people on the Art Biz Blog about the role of failure in their art practices. You can read the responses here. There are some insightful observations and excellent dialogue. I read through the comments once before deciding to isolate myself from them because I had something to add.

only one way to fail

It might seem strange to you that I have never, until now, considered failure, but it’s true.

True failure is rare. It’s more likely that one experiences disappointment or dissatisfaction.

I believe the only failure is not trying your best.

Perhaps it’s how I was raised, but failure wasn’t an option. I don’t mean “failure isn’t an option” in the Apollo 13 sense. I mean that I always believed I’d succeed . . . at something. So I just kept moving forward.

I know I’m lucky to have this mindset and wish I could instill it in others. Let’s see if this helps.

What’s The Lesson?

There’s a lesson to be learned in every attempt. Yes, I know you’ve heard this before, but stop to think about it.

Whenever something negative happens to you,
there is a deep lesson concealed within it.
- Eckhart Tolle

How will you improve if you don’t look for the lessons, and if you give up because things didn’t go exactly as planned?

You won’t learn how to do better next time until you’ve analyzed what went right and what didn’t go so well. Do this exercise – this analysis – after every exhibition, event, or marketing action.

While analyzing, resist the temptation to project blame for your disappointment onto someone else or outside circumstances. When you accept 100% responsibility for your life, you understand that it’s up to you to do the research, ask questions, and follow through with appropriate action.

Always aim for improvement in your results and in the way you present yourself as a professional.

I’ve created many programs that have had results far below what I had anticipated.

Just two weeks ago we had a disastrous Google+ Hangout. By anyone’s standards, it was a failure because I didn’t know how to use the technology properly. But I don’t look at it that way. I broke through a technology barrier and I learned.

And . . .  I had a wonderful guest with valuable insights. Those who watched got some excellent information. I will definitely do another Hangout, and you can bet it will be an improvement.

When Art or Marketing Go Bad

When something doesn’t work well, try it from a different angle, turn it upside down, or deconstruct the parts to make a new whole.

Maybe your latest artwork didn’t turn out as you had hoped.

It’s not what you thought it was going to be, but it’s not a failure. It’s one step closer to the work you were born to do.

Fix it. Paint over it, or break it down and recycle the parts.

What questions could you ask about the situation that will lead to progress?

It would be a failure to let it out into the world without your full endorsement. If you don’t believe in it, nobody will.

Perhaps you had a low turnout at an art opening.

While low turnout might be a disappointment, it isn’t a failure. Analyze it.

Why were there so few people?

Was it the weather? Was something else going on? Was parking bad?

Did you rely on social media or word of mouth and not send that last email reminder?

You get the point.

Accept the responsibility that things didn’t go as planned and, if you think your idea still has merit, analyze it. What will you tweak to get better results?

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29 comments to There’s Only One Way to Fail

  • Insightful post. Excellent and timely (for me).

  • I totally agree,Failure is not an accepted outcome.And it is, in most cases, lack of preparation.

  • I used to look at failure way differently until I had my son Blake who has Down’s Syndrome. Just learning how to crawl for him took him months. Simple things like standing, eating, talking, holding a pencil all became a challenge. But Blake never got upset, he would just smile and keep on trying. I realized that in his small gestures he was much braver than me. He hardly ever complains. I realize failure can be not acknowledging what you are already doing right. I realized failure can be not surrendering to what is. I realized failure can be giving up what is meaningful for what may be easy gratification. I realized that failure can be not looking at the big picture. I realize failure can be never trying and living with excuses. And yet like Blake he may fail at the specific action but never fails in spirit.

  • Alison, I also don’t have a concept of failure when I think about my work. Of course things often don’t go as planned, but it’s pointless to look back and beat yourself up about it. Instead you can just go forward from wherever you are now and see what you *can* get to work. I didn’t realize there was anything unusual about this philosophy until one day I heard someone talk about having tried to sell her house. “I failed,” she said. I realized that no matter what had happened, I would never have said that, either to myself or to anyone else. I would have said, “I didn’t find a buyer for the house.” That’s just a simple fact. No denial, no blame. “Now what? Try differently?” I am guessing that a whole lot of emotional energy goes along with “I failed” that could otherwise be used more productively.

  • I find it an interesting paradox that we need need to learn from our “less than successful outcomes” but we can’t call them failures.

    How do you learn if you can’t identify what worked from what failed? Don’t you need labels to sort out the situations into categories?

    To evaluate “what went well” and “what didn’t go well” you are essentially identifying what was successful and what wasn’t. Isn’t the definition of failure simply “lack of success”?

    I guess I am failing :) to see how I can learn from my failures if I refuse to identify them as not being successful.

    I tend to think this is a semantic discussion and the real problem is people carry a lot of emotional baggage around with the word failure. So maybe the solution is to learn to embrace that word as a positive – which is what intelligent fast failure is about (it’s from the coursera class I’m taking on creativity that I mentioned in the last post)

    Alyson – I think what you are describing here is essentially the same as intelligent fast failure but you are skirting around using the word failure, where they embrace it.

  • Above it was stated that the only failure is not trying your best. I might add that with any endeavor whether artistic or not, we all are going to make a wrong turn, stumble, fall etc., at some point even when trying our best.

    I think failure can have at least two shades of meaning.

    For example: Some of my art students have lamented they can’t mix colors the way they want, when I make it look so easy. Of course I have a lot more experience and I try to point out that they still succeeded in mixing a nice color. It may not be what they were after, but they still learned and they may yet use that same color they mixed another time. The real failure would be if they stopped altogether and totally gave up. That’s one kind of failure. The other kind of failure is simply a by product of refining your skills.

  • […] wrote a follow up post today and she selected answer #2 by saying “The only failure is not trying your […]

  • It was King Robert Bruce who stated “If at first you don’t succeed; try, try and try again”. (Try x Three). I read that story in the sixth grade about him seeking refuge in a cave observing a spider who gave him the courage and inspiration to fight back his enemy. That story along with many other similar stories have stayed with me to this day.
    I applied that very principle in finding love. I had two unsuccessful marriages in my twenties and yet I dared to get married the third time in my mid thirties. Finally I found exactly who I was looking for (actually he found me) and it has been the most amazing six years of my life. So yes, good things do happen and to those who believe in themselves and in their dreams.
    I don’t have that “F” word in my vocabulary. I have replaced it with the word “will”. I will do it. It will get done. I will it. It will succeed. It is my “will to power”. My creative Right Brain dreams it, my strategic Left Brain makes it happen. It is a team work effort within oneself and there is no room for failure if one is relentless. I am relentless – in love, in creating paintings, in writing books, in playing chess, in making connections, in exploiting new ideas, and in achieving success.

  • “I believe the only failure is not trying your best.” You nailed it Alison, with just one line! True, when we perceive our numerous efforts with out the label of this word, the self esteem remains intact, that is most important to taste success, thank you for this insightful post and Thank you Janet for sharing your enriching experience.

  • Beth

    Thank you for this encouragement!

  • Failure is only a negative success…learn from it and move on…do not dwell on the past.

  • Failure is good! Failure is normal! Why are we all so afraid to fail, or to even call what happens to us “failure”? I fail all the time. And I’m ok with it. It’s a normal part of life.

    In her song Walking and Falling, Laurie Anderson explains how walking (progress) is intertwined with falling (failure): “You’re walking. And you don’t always realize it, but you’re always falling. With each step you fall forward slightly. And then catch yourself from falling. Over and over, you’re falling.”

    Douglas Adams describes how a character learned to fly: “There is an art… or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” So flying is failing at falling.

    And while I always hope I’m trying my best at everything, I know that that’s an impossible goal. Some days, I’m just not that good. Some weeks, I’m not that good! And that’s fine. As long as I get up each time, and dust my self off, and take another step, I’m making progress.

    • ” Why are we all so afraid to fail, or to even call what happens to us “failure”?”

      Excellent question Daniel.

    • I think it’s great that you embrace this, Daniel. I have no problem with others using it. I’m just saying that, for me, failure means giving up. As Lisa said, it’s probably just semantics. But it’s a word I don’t use in my journey. As I said, it probably seems strange to others, but it’s true.

      So interesting to see the different takes on the F word here.

    • Also, not every situation calls for doing your best. But if you didn’t try your best I’ll bet you wouldn’t call the resulting disappointment a failure.

  • […] a very inspiration article written by Alyson Stanfield at the Art Biz Blog about failure.  Alyson definition of […]

  • Hi Alyson, Thank you for the blog link, I’m highly honoured to be referenced in such an insightful blog post.
    BTW I love your blog and advice, keep up the excellent work! Cathy

  • […] answered in a follow up post, saying “The only failure is not trying your […]