Posts Tagged ‘failure’

A few months back I was working on a book called Failure and Other F Words. It talked about fear of failure and other such things. I hope to publish the book later this year. Before that, I wrote another book called ENOUGH. God and the Fine Art of Measuring Up. Today I realize what I am experiencing is a combination of the two. I’m afraid I don’t measure up. I think I’ve always sort of dealt with this issue, but in the midst of these days it is really manifesting. With all the uncertainty surrounding this “pandemic” it is really hard to know what to do. We cancelled services and two people didn’t get notified. Now I took a lot of steps to make sure that didn’t happen, even putting the notice on TV, but people still managed to get missed and that breaks my heart. The feelings I’m experiencing in these days are not unlike the days when I was doing publication design and the publication came out and the phone started ringing to tell me about everything I missed. Once again I am starting to feel like I don’t have what it takes. Why do I share this? Because this wreaks of something that cripples most people creatively. It’s called perfectionism and right now, it’s really hurting me. Once those feelings set in, all kinds of stuff started to happen. I was trying to figure out how to offer some services to my congregation online. It didn’t work right the first time and rather than looking for the reason why, I immediately started to think, “I don’t have what it takes to do this.” This stuff often seems to compound when I allow myself to lapse into that state.

Should I feel bad that someone got missed? Yes, I love these people and they are very important to me. All I can do at this point is try to rectify the situation. Further, an oversight does not make me incompetent or stupid. I wasn’t too stupid to make the online services work. There’s just a learning curve. Limiting beliefs limit us. The fact is, I’ve never dealt with a situation like this before and neither have most of the people I know. This is uncharted territory, but it’s even more than that. The truth is none of us has within us the capacity for perfection. To live in fear of making a mistake is to live in fear of the inevitable and that, my friend, is an empty life. These are trying times, and trying times are not limited to the length of this “pandemic.” To succeed is not to stop failing, that’s impossible. No, to succeed is to learn to fail forward. In the case of the notifications, there were some problems, Now I need to find a solution. In the case of the online services, there is a solution, now I have to do the work of learning to use it. Will it work perfectly the first time? That’s doubtful, but it will be supremely more effective than doing nothing. This is essentially true in every creative pursuit.

Let me let you in on a little secret. Failure is inevitable, especially as you move into the realm of trying new things. Very few people can do something perfectly the first time and that difficulty is amplified in pressure situations. Try, fail and try again. Now all I have to do is live like I believe this in this stressful time. Please know this, I am praying for you.  God is good and we will get through this.

If you’ve been following along, you know that I wrote a few posts on failure recently. What you don’t know is those posts on failure triggered something in me that has caused me to do a lot of writing over the last few weeks, exploring a lot of areas of importance for the creative Christian life, predominantly around the areas of failure, fear and faith. Here is a little sample of my writings on faith.

“Your talent is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.” Leo Buscaglia

So how does faith apply to the creative life? I think Dr. Buscaglia really hit the nail on the head with the above quote. Our gifts, our talents, our abilities, experiences and a host of other things are given to us by God. Further, in a very real way, they are His investment in us. He gives them to us, knowing how He made us, and the way He “wired” us, in anticipation that we who love Him will faithfully use these gifts for His purposes in our world. I love this. We call these gifts “talents” which is interesting. A talent in Jesus’ day was a unit of measure, specifically it was a way to measure precious metals like gold, and so it could be said, maybe a little facetiously, that our talents are worth their weight in gold. They have value and if they are gifts from God, and I believe they are, then talents are something of great value that God entrusts to us. As a minister of the Gospel, I believe a big part of my calling is to help people to come to believe in God, or at least to work to that end, but our talents say something different to us. Oh, we still need to believe in God, but our talents tells us God believes in us. And so those of us who have a creative bent should be investing at least some of those creative gifts into accomplishing God’s purposes on earth. One might imagine that there are two primary applications of this principle, serving others and sharing the Gospel.

I’ve been pending a fair amount of time thinking about fear and failure for an upcoming project. Here’re some things that occurred to me recently.

What is failure? I’m sure we could find a definition in the dictionary that would suffice. I’m sure, if we were together in person, you could give me a definition in your own words. The problem is, it’s a sliding scale and everyone defines it differently. You might think of the teacher handing you back a paper with a lot of red ink, and maybe even a big red F in the corner, likely with a circle around it for emphasis, as if the failure was entirely your own. Maybe the F was on your report card. By the way, have you ever noticed most schools skipped right over “E.” A, B, C, and D represent nothing but a level. They are not initials for some word, like “lofty” or “proficient” or “mediocre” which is essentially what they mean, yet we don’t get L’s or P’s or M’s, so there is no earthly reason, why the grade below D is F, except that F means failure and the grading system wants to make sure you didn’t miss the fact that you failed and are therefore a failure. Maybe you’d equate failure with not reaching a certain level in your career or a time when you let someone, maybe even yourself, down. It might reflect a time when you just couldn’t reach the goal. It might even be something your rational mind knows was not your fault, but still you take the blame.

For some failure becomes their name, as in “I’m a failure.” Others will adopt it’s cousins, like “Loser” or “Waste” or “Idiot.” It manifests in questions, like “How could I be so stupid?” Sometimes we think we’re failures because someone labeled us as such. Other times we just see the evidence on the faces of those around us. For me it was all of the above. Sometimes I’d hear statements like “If brains were dynamite, you wouldn’t have enough to blow your nose.” Other times it was the C on the report card in a field of A’s and B’s. Ironically, that C was for something most people don’t even teach anymore, Cursive. This brings me to another point. A grade of C, is essentially translated as average. For most people C is okay, you’re not the best but neither are you the worst. Most people would see it as maybe needing improvement, but nothing to lose sleep over. For others, a C might as well be an F. In their minds, average, being on par with everyone else equates with failure. Further, why was it so easy to miss the A’s and B’s and the lower grade of C becomes the focus. Please tell me I’m not the only one who does this. I can get a hundred positive comments and one negative and that one negative becomes my entire focus. I’m almost positive I’m not the only one and that needs to change.

Yesterday we looked at failing like a scientist and today I need to reiterate it. A scientist who fears failure is doomed. Scientists’ lives depend on failure. One of the great minds of science, Albert Einstein once said, “A problem will never be solved using the same level of thinking it took to create it.” Further he said the more famous, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” The essence of both sayings is the same, to solve our problems, we have to try new and different things, otherwise a new old saying will come to bear, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.” Problems are almost exclusively solved by trying something new.

Of course, as we venture into uncharted territory, the risk of failure looms even larger than usual. The scientist is okay with this, because failure is a mighty tool in his arsenal. He tries something knowing the odds of failure in the first attempt, and sometimes the second and third, and occasionally the thousandth, are probably quite high. Rather than fearing the failure, he takes notes of what worked and what didn’t and then changes the variables until he arrives at success. Even if success never comes, much has been learned that will guide him to another idea and a better solution. That’s the power of failure. It allows us to learn from our mistakes, and move toward solving the problem before us. I call it failing forward and I believe it is essential not just for scientists, but for all of us, especially those with a creative bent.

Consider a baby. He doesn’t try walking once and then give up. Nor do we who love him say, “Oh well, you tried.” Unless that child has a physiological reason why walking is impossible, we pick them up, dry their tears (if there are any) and set them back on the path until walking becomes second nature. That is called growth, and growth almost never comes from instantaneous success. Rather it comes from trial and error, learning from the error until success is imminent.

My first drawing, at least the first one my mom kept, is quite good for a three year old (and yes, I was three when I did it!). That being said, it pales in comparison to what I can do now 53 years later. The reason for that is the hundreds and thousands of drawings and other art pieces I have done in the interim. Some of those pieces made me very happy, others I would consider failures, but each of those pieces led to me being able to do the best work of my life, and yet I know, if I live and my physical capacities remain as they are, I will be doing much better work in twenty years than I can today.

The reason is simple. I have determined to risk creative failure every day to that end. That’s the power of failure. If you want to be truly successful, fail and fail often, but whatever you do, fail forward.

I’ve been doing some thinking lately on this topic. When it comes to my ministry and yours, what is our responsibility? It may not be what you think. Here’s what I mean. I tend to work really hard. While I know all glory belongs to God, I am also fully aware that I have work to do. There is a part in my ministry that is my responsibility. The thing is, more often than not, I get it wrong. You see I tend work as if the success or failure of the enterprise belong to me and that the outcome depends on me. That’s not the case.

The success of any ministry or other enterprise, totally and completely belongs to God. Because of this, that responsibility is His and that is a very good thing, because only He really understands what success means. Thing about Jesus. He worked for three years and ended up with a core group of 12 followers. That would get Him fired in a lot of churches today. That’s because we don’t understand success. Jesus invested in those 12 men and they in turn were used by God to change the world. Jesus’ ministry probably didn’t look like a success “on paper” but on the pages of God’s Word we see something different happen, success beyond measure, because God can use anyone to do anything. Success is His. It all depends on Him.

So if that’s the case, and it is, what is your responsibility, and mine? One word, faithfulness. We are told in Scripture to make the most of every opportunity and that is the key. You use your every God given gift, to the best of your ability and trust everything else to God. Too many people want to make serving God about their ability. They throw around words like excellence, and we should strive for excellence, but that begs a question. In the world of faithfulness, how do we define excellence? I believe there is only one way. Have we worked to the best of our ability today? In faithfulness, that is the best we can do. From there it is in God’s hands. This is important in every walk of life, but it’s crucial when you live in the very subjective area of the arts and creativity. Is Picasso excellent or is Rembrandt? Is Pollack excellent or is Van Gogh? The answer to all the questions is yes. They did their best, found their audience and blessed them. In creative ministry, the same rules apply. Bring your best to the table and trust God to use it to bless people, knowing full well that if we persist in working and bringing our best it will get better and better and bless more and more.

If you’re a creative, learn this now. You will not please everyone every time no matter what you do. So create work that pleases God and be faithful.

That’s your responsibility. Everything else is up to God.

Sometimes the hardest part of a project is not finishing. It’s starting. I find myself there right now with a project I wrote about earlier. My Stations of the Cross series of paintings. Here’s the thing. It’s not that I don’t have an idea. I have one that I have clearly delineated and even wrote about here. I love the idea, I’ve wanted to do it for a long time, but I’m stuck at the starting line. I know the project is going to be a huge amount of work; fourteen pieces of art. I also know I want them to have a common style so they look like a cohesive collection, and that is at least part of the problem. I want to make sure I am happy with the direction it is going because once I do one, I am going to have to make all the others fit with it (or at lest thats how it feels in my mind.)

As I think on this issue, I think I have found my way around it. This is not an all or nothing situation, or at least it doesn’t have to be. If I create the first piece and I don’t like it, I can use it for something else and start over. Thinking like that removes the pressure of getting it right the first time. In creative things, that almost never happens anyway. Secondly I know I want to have it all done for next holy week. This deadline is also pressuring me because I feel like I have a limited time to experiment to get it right. Now if you’ve been reading this for any length of time you know I am a big fan of deadlines. They help us stop procrastinating and get it done but with a project of this magnitude, it may just take longer than a year. I imposed the deadline and I can change it. That alleviates a lot of pressure as well and as I’ve said many times, “Artists who say they work best under pressure are full of it.” Pressure can really curtail creativity and help to keep us from starting.

The other problem I am having that is keeping me a little stuck at the start is how will I use it? Will it be for my church, my speaking ministry or both? Do I want to do something I could get into a gallery or something that will travel with me and end up being speed painted. Working this out will also help me know which direction to take and for this project at this stage, that is important.

When it comes to all this stuff, I am usually a “ready, fire, aim” kind of guy. Starting and pressing through it to the end. I love working that way because even my false starts will often lead to something new. The starting line can be intimidating, but it is an essential point on the journey to finishing. To finish you have to start. So start. I’ll start too. The worst thing that can happen is I end up messing up and have to start over. Failure is not an option to creatives, it’s a necessity, so start. You’ll either succeed or you’ll fail and if you fail, you’ll learn from it, fail forward until you succeed.

wcfieldsOkay, I will admit, while I try not to get frustrated, there is one thing that will always put me over the edge. You get an idea, you present it and someone says, “We tried that…” The implication being that, “We did it. It failed. We’re never doing that again.” I hope people don’t approach their whole lives like that.

Now I will admit, there is such a thing as knowing when to quit. Every day of my Jr. High gym class years, I passed by a poster the teacher hung in the locker room. It held a picture of W.C. Fields saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again… Then quit, no use being a ___ fool about it.” I’m not sure it had the effect my teacher desired in my case because I applied that philosophy to things like pull-ups, chin-ups and rope climbing. I’ve never done any of those. There is a time to give up, but I think most of us think we hit that point a long time before we actually do.

A big part of a successful creative life, is allowing yourself to fail, and then allowing yourself to take what you learned and try again. Remember creativity is solving problems and not all those solutions are going to be easy. Some are going to require a lot of different efforts and sometimes you’re going to need to do something more than once in order to succeed.

Some of the problems we need to solve are huge and some are “life and death” at least for the organizations we serve. Looking to the past, saying we tried something once and giving up is really not an option. If we’re truly committed to solving a problem, we will keep trying things until something solves the problem. There is a name for people who do that…


Keep trying until something works. Do that until it stops working and while it’s still working figure out what’s next. Then start doing that as soon as the first thing stops working. Then just repeat this process infinitely.

YOURENOTCOVERI say it here a lot, but failure is part of the creative process and a necessity to creative success. After all the only people who never fail are God and people who never try anything new. Since we’re not God and creativity is all about trying new things, failure is inevitable. PERIOD! Since failure is part of the creative life, we creatives need to learn to fail forward.

The first step is to start ,and fear of failure keeps more people from starting than any of us will ever know, largely because these great things they should have started never made it out of their imagination. Once you have started, the next step is to finish, but before you’re completely finished, it’s a good idea to take the idea far enough so that someone else can see it and share it. This might be a drawing or a mock up, maybe even a prototype, depending on what you do. The idea here is to get some feedback before you’ve invested tons of time and money in something that is not going to work, because nothing crushes the creative spirit faster than an epic fail (especially if other people’s money is involved.)

Please note I am not necessarily talking about sharing this half formed idea with the world and certainly not with people who are consistently nay sayers, but with a couple of visionary people (you should be building this group if you haven’t already) who can look at an idea and see potential. The main thing with this group of people is that they can be constructive. In some cases one or two will not see it yet. Most of the time, this is not yet time to put on the brakes. If everyone sees too many fatal flaws, it may be time to scrap the idea, but more than likely, it’s just time to go back to the drawing board and work out through the flaws. By the way, I am not a fan of scrapping any ideas. There are some ideas that may just be miles ahead of their time and the rest of the world, technology, etc. may just not have caught up yet.

Now suppose everyone thinks your idea is the best thing since sliced bread (what did they say before sliced bread was invented?), what do you do next? The obvious answer is to finish it and make the thing real. Here we need to set a deadline. When will you release your project? Set a realistic deadline and stick with it. Here’s why. Fear of failure is still out there and at this stage it manifests in endless tweaking rather than what must be done. What’s that? It needs to be released, It needs to be shipped. It needs to be shared with the world however that happens in your world. You send the manuscript to the editor. You release the song. You perform the play. You hang your painting in the gallery or wherever you put your work.

Here’s the thing, even with all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted, there will still be times where your work will flop. You will still fail. What to do then? Learn and move forward. If your work is flawed, fix it and try again. If it feels hopeless, put it aside and start the next thing, remembering you’re not a failure, you just tried something and it didn’t work (for now). For scientists, this is called an experiment. Thank God they don’t quite when one of those fails because they fail by the millions daily. They learn from what didn’t work, and try something new. We creatives have to do the same thing. While focus is huge, you should always have another idea on the back burner. The reason is simple. We get invested in what we do, sometimes so invested that we will wallow in a failure and give up. The only fatal failure is the one that makes you quit. Don’t do it. Get right back on the proverbial horse and start again. Fail forward until eventually you succeed…

and you will succeed.

“Failure is simply an opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

What would happen if we could bring ourselves to see failure that way?

From time to time I am going to share things just as a reminder. You may look at this loud, garish and slightly tacky graphic and think “…and he calls himself an artist???” I made it loud and obnoxious on purpose because I think it is something we all need to remember, especially those of us who work in the creative realm. This came from a conversation at a really great men’s breakfast I attended this morning. We can’t choose not to fail and remain a creative. The very nature of what we do demands that we try and fail. We can’t choose to succeed either, that is often in the eyes of the beholder of what we create. What we can choose is our focus. There are plenty of joys in the creative life. They are what we find when we choose to focus on how much fun what we get to do really is and the ones who are blessed by what we do. If you’re like me and so many other creatives, you an get a thousand compliments and one detractor and we focus on the detractor. If that’s you…


Celebrate the victories!
celebrate success