Creativity and Fear of Failure

Fear of failure stops success right in its tracks. Failure is an illusion of the ego with no basis in reality. This powerfully inhibiting fear is an illusion based on misunderstanding the creative process, the process of life itself.

What we call failure is actually a learning process, a method of gathering information. If recognized in this way, life transforms into an enthusiastic and successful adventure. Such feedback gives us the information we need to proceed further.

Many artists hesitate to start a new canvas because they want to be sure they have it perfected before they begin. They fear they will not execute it correctly and continually delay the actual painting process, sometimes to the point they never paint again.

My artist husband has a great statement for these people. “You just have to put some paint on!” Nothing really happens until the paint goes on the canvas. Maybe that paint is utterly wrong with color that does not work, shapes that lack the right form, etc. It does not matter.

Once the paint is on the canvas, the artist can engage in the process of adjusting colors and shapes until they do work. The artist’s mind is then occupied with solving the myriad challenges the painting presents, instead of stewing in imagined misunderstandings of the creative process. The painting is now underway with the promise of many changes to come.

What happens if the painting itself never works out? What if it simply is a dreadful painting? Frankly, it is perfectly ok to burn a canvas. Sometimes that is the best thing to do with certain canvases.

The truth is that failed paintings often are more helpful than the ones that easily succeed, because easy success does not cultivate an awareness of the elements that actually created the success. Failed paintings, however, when fully understood, are great teachers of the elements necessary for success.

Bad paintings are simply part of a progression to better paintings and can be significant mileposts along the way. Better yet, with a healthy attitude, they can be creative launching pads for unexpected success.

I once knew an artist who took this approach to interesting extremes. Disgusted with a painting, he might bury it in his backyard or throw it in the swimming pool and leave it there for several months.

When he retrieved the work, he had to replace the stretcher frame as it generally was ruined by then. Sometimes great chunks of paint peeled off as well. The painting was greatly changed from when he quit working with it. He would get excited about new possibilities in the wreckage and go on to create a satisfying work from it.

How many of us have had failures in our lives which we handled that well? How many opportunities have we missed because we judged the events to be total failures that had no potential to become anything different?

The artist demonstrated another helpful technique in that he detached himself from the painting by ignoring it for a time. When he returned to it, not only had the painting changed, but he himself had changed and was ready to see it with new eyes.

At any time we choose, we can revisit old events we deem to have been failures and see what new and transformed qualities we can lift from them. This creates a great freedom of expansion and a platform for further success.

This exemplifies a healthy approach to painting, and to life. We just have to give ourselves permission to fail so that we can wholeheartedly engage in the process that genuinely creates success.

This post appears in Bryan C. Fleming’s Personal Growth Carnival, along with a great collection of articles.

This post also appears in the Personal Development Carnival hosted by the Urban Monk, which has an interesting collection of creative articles.

This post is included in the Carnival of Powerful Living, and I recommend you check out the other articles as well.



Copyright © Lexi Sundell 2007. All Rights Reserved.

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9 thoughts on “Creativity and Fear of Failure

  1. Pingback: Bryan C. Fleming » Personal Growth Carnival 36

  2. Pingback: Carnival of Powerful Living - April 15th, 2007 at Verve Coaching:: Life, Growth and Leadership, Boston MA

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  4. Lexi Sundell

    Good luck with using that technique, it offers all kinds of new possibilities!

  5. JoLynn Braley

    Hi Lexi!

    This is a great post because you can apply the lessons to so many other projects or goals in life, using the analogy of creating a painting. Thanks! 🙂

  6. Lexi Sundell

    Definitely! Failure is just part of the process of succeeding, in anything.

  7. val

    I think I am slightly late on the scene, but this is similar to another truth that was also revealed by Billy Childish of the stuckist movement. One of their manifestos (Hangman communion 0001) greatly inspired me. I have it stuck on my wall so I’ll transcribe the most relevent bits:

    “The conceptual artist arrives on the scene frozen with fear and is too scare to transmute his ideas into paint and commence a string of unacceptably pathetic canvasses and thereby experience himself as crap. It is essential for every artist to paint a succession of unacceptably bad paintings.”

    “Artistic talent is the only obstacle”

    “Art is made to impress, but we are not in awe”

    “we stand firm by the rights and laudability of the intrepid explorer. In short the critic without and within must be trampled underfoot.”

  8. Lexi Sundell

    Hi Val,
    I don’t see you as late at all, welcome to the discussion!

    Your quotes address the same subject this post does, but from a wholly different point of view.

    My personal disagreements, “It is essential for every artist to paint…bad paintings.” I would not say essential, merely likely. And that plowing through them can lead to better paintings if discernment and efforts to improve are applied.

    “Artistic talent is the only obstacle.” Not at all. The primary obstacle is our own distorted perception of how to use that talent and how to stand in our own power in the midst of a rather deranged world.

    “…the critic without and within must be trampled underfoot.” This one grazes the truth without hitting it dead on. Criticism from dysfunctional sources both within and without needs to be discarded. Emotional distortions are simply not helpful.

    However, discernment is essential to recognize what works and what does not. If that comes in the form of criticism it can be most valuable.

    In any event, we all need to take our inspiration where we find it! Thanks for participating!


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