I recently stumbled across an article on the BBC website entitled ‘How creativity is helped by failure’. The title immediately grabbed me as the general precept is a notion I have always held central to my work. Experience teaches me that risk taking is an integral part of creative practice – significant breakthroughs and Eureka moments rarely occur without calculated risk. Indeed, this notion is central in my approach when teaching, and appears to be shared by many like minded individuals and organisations also.
I have always maintained that we learn far more from a failure than we do a success. From a success all that we learn is that our initial expectations and observations were correct – a theoretical ‘pat on the back’. (not overlooking of course that a ‘pat on the back’ can be highly desirable during periods of creative struggle). From a failure, however, providing we analyse and reflect upon our failings, we can gain valuable lessons as to why we failed, and learn an almost endless number of pointers and possibilities to apply to our future endeavours.
The article; ‘How creativity is helped by failure’ references an exhibition at a U.S Design College entitled ‘Permission to Fail’. The curator of the exhibition at Mount Ida Design college in Massachusetts, invited designers and illustrators to submit rough drafts, preliminary sketches, and ‘mess-ups’ to be put up on display. The exhibition is intended to explore the characteristics of how creativity happens, and engage students with what happens before the flawless finish and pristine edges of the final product we see in exhibition spaces and galleries world wide.
Imagine if Tate tomorrow announced a ground-breaking exhibition of failed paintings – examining the painting processes of the grand masters. How valuable a resource it would be to examine and learn from the failed drafts of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, or Monet’s failed studies for his water lilly series. If nothing else is would act as a much needed confidence boost at times of painting turmoil. These paintings of course unlikely exist any longer and have long been destroyed or painted over. John Constable proves that even the masters were capable of getting it wrong sometimes, as advances in technology enable us to x-ray paintings and view previous layers and guises.
As the article reveals, Richard Dyson produced 5126 failed prototypes before arriving at his design that revolutionised house hold cleaning.
“People think of creativity as a mystical process. This model conceives of innovation as something that happens to geniuses. But this could not be more wrong. Creativity is something we can all improve at, by realising that it has specific characteristics. Above all, it is about daring to learn from our mistakes”
“Early on, all our movies suck!” … Ed Catmull – President of Pixar
The key to success is an iterative process of trial and error. A process of learning from our failures and applying the lessons to our future endeavours. As neuroscientist David Eagleman suggests, ‘insight is the end point of a process… not the starting point.’
From a scientific perspective,
“When an idea is served up from behind the scenes, the neural circuitry has been working on the problems for hours or days or years, consolidating information and trying out new combinations”
‘Permission to Fail’ encourages students to engage with their failings and approach them from an intriguing and educative perspective. By adopting the notion that failure is an inevitable, and indeed a valuable aspect of the creative process – we rid failure of its negative connotations and in so doing create a culture that empowers failure.