Let’s face it. We’re human. We all make mistakes. We do our best to avoid them and are embarrassed when they happen. In our culture failure is something to be avoided at all costs, but ask yourself, where would we be without it? In the creative process, both hits and misses play an essential role whether we like to admit it or not.
Where would we be without the electric light bulb? Thomas Edison’s creativity provided us with an invention that changed the world, but did you know that it took numerous attempts to get it right? Edison missed the mark over and over again before arriving at the final functional version. Edison famously said, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” What a great way to look at it!
In the creative process, just like any other endeavor, the best work is achieved by trying many things to see what works best. What’s more, genuinely groundbreaking ideas are almost always the result of trying something new. That involves taking risks and having the courage to face the specter of potential failure. It’s scary. When big ideas fail, they tend to fail big.
The creative process involves defining a problem, looking at it from all sides, and imagining numerous possible solutions. Some will work, some won’t. Some might work adequately but may not be the absolute best solution. The key is imagining, evaluating and testing as many ideas as you can come up with, then editing them down to the ones with the best chance of success. The process of trying and failing is a learning experience that helps us become more informed and focused. Great ideas don’t come from “nowhere”. Often learning what doesn’t work is as valuable as learning what does. Both hits and misses are instructive. The process of trying, failing and learning can lead to those “aha!” moments—when the best idea becomes crystal clear.
In my practice as a communications designer and brand consultant, clients occasionally ask if they can save money if I present only one idea. What they don’t realize is that to arrive at that single workable idea, I develop numerous concepts that they’ll never see because they didn’t quite work. They did, however, lead me to the solution with the highest potential.
No Guts, No Glory
If, as Edison suggests, failures are necessary stepping stones on the path to success, why are we so often averse to taking risks? The fact is, while everyone pays lip service to creativity and “thinking outside the box”, few want to assume the inherent risks. I can’t count the times clients insisted on something different and creative, only to back-peddle and adopt a common, predictable, “safe” solution.
Whether it’s achieving success in the stock market, launching a new product, buying your first house, or launching a new advertising campaign, nothing worthwhile is accomplished without assuming carefully calculated risks—and along with risk comes the prospect of failure and all the agony that comes with it. A prerequisite to success is the courage to fail. Ironically, however, if you don’t try, you can’t succeed—and isn’t failure to succeed still failure?
The Power of Persistence
It’s a common notion that some are naturally creative and others are not. Some have it; some don’t. While it’s true that creative thinking comes more naturally to some than others, recent studies have found that creativity can be developed and exercised much like a muscle. To some extent, creative thinking is a process that can be learned and nurtured. The problem is, people who don’t think they’re creative give up too soon. After a few unsuccessful attempts at coming up with an original idea, they throw up their hands in frustration.
The best creative thinkers understand that the most viable ideas appear only after many others were considered and discarded as failures. To quote Edison again, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” Creative thinking is a process of trial and error and often requires many before getting it right, so it’s essential to accept mistakes as a necessity and embrace them. When failure happens—and it will—get up and try again.
Many of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs suffered numerous failed attempts in business before finding something that worked. “Colonel” Harland Sanders tried being a fireman, an insurance salesman and gas station owner before selling fried chicken. Even then, he pitched his recipe to over a thousand investors before he found an interested buyer. His franchise was finally born but not before he was 68 years old!
All of this begs the question, “Is there such a thing as failure?” I like to think not—especially in the realm of creative thinking. The prospect of failure is probably the biggest roadblock to success. Steve Jobs once opined that if you’re afraid of failing you’ll never get very far. Oprah Winfrey may have said it best when telling Harvard graduates, “There is no such thing as failure—failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”
By definition, failure is falling short of an expectation. What expectation? Whose expectation? If we define it as learning from one’s errors, then it can be argued that there is no failure. If we embrace “failure” as a necessary step in the creative pursuit of success, we are free to adopt it as something positive and useful.