A red sign reading Wrong Way
A red sign reading Wrong Way
#creativity #embracingfailure

Embracing Failure, Yeah Right

Paul Kiernan

As a creative, you’re told that failing is part of the process, that failing is good, and that we make mistakes to learn from them and improve. That's great; good words to hear.

As a creative, you’re told that failing is part of the process, that failing is good, and that we make mistakes to learn from them and improve. That's great; good words to hear. I mean, we all love failure, right? We all know that failure is a vital part of the creative process, so yay, failure!

Yeah right.

One of the things about creativity is that if we’re too trapped in our heads if we intellectualize it too much, it all falls apart. Being creative means being free of the internal editor, being free of judgment, being open to impulse, and not overthinking things. Leap before you look, type situation. The problem is, despite knowing that failure is part of the algorithm that is creativity if we’re being honest, no one likes to fail.

If we’re honest, writers would rather their first draft was perfect, needed no editing, and was just accepted for being great straight out of the gate. No one wants to be told what parts of the book or article need work, fine-tuning, or a little brush-up. It’s part of the process, but can we be honest and admit that part of the process sucks?

Yes, when being creative, failure has to be a viable option. It's not a welcomed option, but we must embrace it to improve as creative folks.

What is failure

The good folks over at Merriam-Webster define failure as:

Noun: A lack of success. A state of inability to perform a duty or expected action.

Now, in most parts of life, failure is apparent. If you fail to land the account at work, fail to meet a deadline, fail to score a touchdown, fail to hit a three-pointer, fail to make the team, fail to be where you’re supposed to be as dictated by law or social rules. All those are prominent examples of what can be called failure. Anyone can see where the failure occurred. And, in these situations, the failure is somewhat easy to rectify. Stay on top of your deadlines, make a schedule so you’re not late or absent, practice your three-pointer, and on and on.

It gets a little more challenging to define failure and remedy it when we’re talking about creativity. Because most people believe the opposite of failure is success. When we see a basketball player miss six of their eight attempts at three-pointers in a game and the next game he hits nine of his eleven attempts, we see that the failure of the previous game was addressed, and now they are hitting those three-pointers left and right. We saw the failure, and now, we’re seeing success. It's clear, it’s obvious, the announcers will comment on it, and all the fans will be aware of it. What was once bad is now better: success.

But when dealing with creativity, success, and thus failure, is more complicated.

Before Failure, Success

It’s not as cut and dried in the creative world to define success. Some people will put a monetary value up as proof of success, but that’s not really what art and creativity are about. Most sane artists do not go into the arts thinking they will make tons of money. They are usually driven by passion and a need to express themselves and what society is to them. Yes, rich and famous dreams are in the back of the mind, but those are not usually the main drive.

With film or TV, we can say a project has commercial or critical success or both. The problem here is the label of success isn’t often applied by the creators. Art critics and film critics decide what is successful and what isn’t. Those who worship money think you can put out crap, but if it makes wads of cash, success!! The artist, the creator, can feel somewhat removed from their work and at the mercy of those who make these decisions; usually, people who know nothing about the creative process have no skills and just want to be part of it or help the artist. However, the determination of success is out of the creator’s control.

It is wise for the creators to decide how they define success. What would success look like for you? Do you define success as lots of money or broad exposure? If you define your success as the creator, you’re less beholding to those who decide what is good and bad. Also, when you define for yourself what success is, then you’re also deciding what failure is as well.

Because, as an artist, your work is public and can be judged by everyone who sees it, there is comfort in controlling the judgment of success and failure. Everyone will have an opinion; ensure you’re ready for that and clearly define success.

If you want huge paydays, world recognition, and adoration, great, go for that. If you wish to tell a story, just want to entertain a few people, and want people to think, then you’re defining success, and you’re in control of it. No one has to know how you define your success, but by defining it personally, you’re less susceptible to crushing criticism and disappointment.

Define what success is to you, make that clear, and make that a goal; if you fail, you’ll know why, and you can work on that. When someone else decides if our work is a failure, it’s much harder to rectify that in the next piece.

“Our greatest is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.”


We will fail. That’s a given. If you decide on what success is, then you’re more in control of your failure and how that judgment affects you. However, that doesn’t mean you’ll be immune to critics and opinion sharers. Your work is public; thus, the public can have its say. And say it, they will.

How you react to the label of failure will determine how you move forward. Just because people have said that part of the process is failure for centuries doesn’t mean you have to like it. You have to face it, accept it, deal with it, but you don’t have to like it.

Believe me, when I read negative reviews of my work, I don’t jump about and thank the universe for giving me this lesson. No. I hate it. I want to go down to the local paper and punch the critic in the nose. I want to rail at them, “When have you ever been on stage? When have you ever put yourself out there? When?” But I don’t. In time, I let that person’s opinion pass because that’s what it is, someone’s opinion. They could have PH.Ds in criticism, that gives them some knowledge, but in the end, it’s still just someone’s opinion. However, when you put your heart and soul into a piece of work, even one person’s opinion can feel like a knife through the lower bowels. No one said you must like failure; you must know it is part of the process.

As Confucius said, it’s about rising up every time we fail. How you rise and deal with failure will define you and your work.

When I started as an actor and had auditions, that was my day. I would audition for something, a play or film, and overanalyze the audition for the rest of the day. Did the casting director say something? Did I make all my choices clear? Did I look okay? Did I blow this line? On and on, through the whole day, my mind was fixated on the audition, and I was worthless to do anything else. I didn’t want to fail.

Over time, I learned a few things, the most crucial being that I can only control my bar of the spectrum. Meaning I was in control of how I auditioned, how prepared I was, how focused, how clear my choices were, etc. The rest was out of my hands if I did my part well. I could only control what I could control. If the director liked what I did, maybe I’d get cast. But the producer might know what the character should look like, and perhaps I didn’t fit that look. I grew to understand and accept that there were so many factors I could not control, so I defined my success.

I started keeping an audition journal. In this, I wrote what I wanted to achieve at every audition. Getting the part was not in there. I could not control that. I could control my choices, my dialect if called for, my wants, and the rest. This allowed me to walk into an audition and not care what the director thought. Instead of going in with the undefined plea of, I hope they like me; I now go into auditions with an idea of what I want to accomplish. The determination of success wasn’t about whether I was cast but if I accomplished what I set out to do. If I did, great. If I didn’t, okay, I failed on my terms and knew how to move forward.

By tightly defining success, I could also recognize how I failed and how to fix that for next time. It was in my control. The director and producers would have their opinion, good or bad. The casting director would have their opinion, good or bad. But the most important opinion, mine, was clearly defined and easy to digest, rectify, and work towards fixing.

It is much easier to rise up again when you know what you need to do not to fail next time. When you’ve defined your success, put the control back into your own hands and have clear goals to work on. With each piece, film, dance, poem, or whatever your artistic/creative outlet is, define clearly what you mean by success, and then only you can determine if you’ve failed. The critics will have their say, but unless they are with you the entire step of the creative process, they have no idea what you were going for, and thus, they have no idea if you failed.

A grey scale photo of a thorn millimeters away from and woman's eyeball
“It’s only when you risk failure that you discover things. When you play it safe, you’re not expressing the utmost of your human experience.”
Lupita Nyong’o


It is still a risk; any creative endeavor is a risk. Defining success for yourself isn’t a way of avoiding risk; it’s allowing you to risk more. When you push aside the worry of “what will people think?” you’re free to open up more of yourself and expose more of who you are, and the risk becomes even more significant.

Defining success for yourself doesn’t mean you stop listening to what others say or think; it means you have clear goals, and when you hit those goals, you have had success. Defining your idea of success isn’t meant to hide or shield yourself from the world; it is a way of giving yourself some armor against those who make vague comments like, “I don’t like this,” or “This is dumb.” the sort of unthinking remarks that people make, that hurt and are not helpful as you try to get better at your craft. To create freely and full-heartedly, you still must take risks.

Having a personal idea of success gives you concrete tools to help you move forward and hear what is constructive and what is just words, words, words.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” - Beckette

Summing Up

Failure is inevitable in the creative world, as in the rest of the world. It is part of life; you cannot succeed without facing or experiencing failure. It’s going to happen. Who defines failure and how the failure is dealt with is the choice of the person who has failed.

Controlling the situation by defining our idea of success leaves us less vulnerable to those in the world who want to criticize just to destroy. The ones who think hating everything is some sign of taste or knowledge. We need to keep ourselves safe from those types while listening to those who want to raise creativity and offer constructive views of the work. But, even with the good kind of criticism, the creative has got to apply filters. Everyone can’t be right, and everyone can’t be wrong. It’s not a matter of the critic being right; it’s a matter of the criticism being helpful.

If people are vague and say, “I don’t like that,” without reason or thought, that is useless to the creative. It’s imprecise and unspecific. But if a person says I don’t like this because … and gives clear, well thought reasons, then the creative has something they can work with.

Being a good creative means being a good filter and allowing the thoughts and ideas of those who are useful, constructive, and forward-moving to reach the ears and maybe the heart while filtering out the useless, mean, damaging thoughts. This allows the creative to learn and progress without getting caught up in thoughtless attacks.

Accepting that failure is part of the process is good; it limits the damage failure will do to you; it’s just part of the process. You must accept it, but no one said you must like it. Allow that to push you further when you want to give up. Keep going, have faith in yourself, and never allow failure to stop your creative drive.