Whether you fail a test, get fired with a big fat “F”, or just kinda miss your mouth when you go to take a sip of coffee (you’ve done it, we’ve all done it), failure sucks. It’s the one true four letter “f-word”, the internet’s favorite thing to blast in all caps. So naturally, we all have a fear of failure to some degree.
But making mistakes and failing is kind of like the puberty of our creative growth: nobody likes it and it’s a terrible time, but it’s important and necessary for you to grow as a person.
On an episode of Ted Radio Hour, “Failure is an Option“, Astro Teller of Google X Laboratories describes his company as a “moonshot factory” – like the phrase “shoot for the moon: even if you miss, you’ll still land among the stars.” He says that he brought a team who scrapped their project up in front of the whole company and said, “this team has done more to further innovation at X by ending their project than any one of you sitting in your seats has done in the last quarter…and we’re giving them all bonuses for ending their project!”
Of course, getting a bonus for every failure would be great. But what Teller does at Google X is bigger than just monetary rewards. He created an environment where failure isn’t just considered ok; it’s encouraged, and even rewarded. They view failure as a way of exploring new innovations and weeding out the ones that don’t work or aren’t feasible. Failure forwards them.
Of course, any perfectionist might look at this and think, “pfft, you mean ‘shoot for the moon because if you miss, for the love of God you’re left floating off into the void, DON’T MISS.’” But fearing failure so badly that you don’t take any risks is a failure in itself.
In that same Ted Radio Hour, economist and journalist Tim Harford says,
“To be terrible with failure is either to be so scared of it that you never do anything interesting, or alternatively to be so terrified of admitting it that you continue with a disastrous course of action and you keep continuing to fail because you keep telling yourself you’re not failing.”
– Tim Harford
While making mistakes and failure can feel damaging, a fear of failure is damaging. Because failure you can learn from. But when the fear of failure prevents you from ever acknowledging your mistakes or taking a risk, you don’t grow or move forward. And that’s the biggest failure of all. If every author stopped trying after every rejection letter they received, some of our favorite stories, like Carrie and Harry Potter, wouldn’t exist.
So how do we use this knowledge to learn from our mistakes and failures rather than getting frozen by them? Because as I mentioned, failure and feeling like you’ve made a mistake sucks. That feeling won’t change.
What you can change, however, is how you view failure.
Failure and mistakes are necessary for improvement. It’s why editing exists, why concept art exists, it’s why we exist – modern life is made up of the creatures who adapted to survive, which only occurred because of evolutionary failures and changes, trial and error. Re-frame your own failures as part of your creative evolution.
In that same podcast, “Failure is an Option,” Tim Harford talks about famous choreographer Twyla Tharp. She created a musical with Billy Joel called Moving Out, and it flopped. Reviewers panned it as a total failure. But rather than giving up, Tharp looked at what people had to say about the show, and fixed what wasn’t working. Within a few weeks? The show was better…so much so that it ran for two years and won two Emmys.
Just like Astro Teller at Google X re-framed failure to view it as another step towards success, another step in the evolution of innovation, Tharp reframed her own failure.
Failure wasn’t an end for her and her show. It was an edit.
In the ecommerce world, mistakes and failures happen. You might try to sell a design online that you love, but nobody buys, or that you get bad feedback on. You might put money towards a Facebook ad that falls flat. Maybe the brand you’ve constructed just isn’t resonating with people. Don’t let that stop you. Whether you use Google Analytics to figure out what’s flopping and what’s taking off, or just change the colors you use on your site, use what isn’t working to help you figure out what will work.
We’re all destined to fail at some point. The key is not to let failure or the fear of failure stop you – learn from it. Even if it’s just figuring out how not to miss your mouth when you take a sip of coffee.
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We’re an artist community built on the power of helping each other succeed — if you’re reading this and have tips of your own to share, please do so in the comments! Thank you!
Illustrations done by the amazing Katie Lukes