Is it possible to overcome the fear of failure?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the fear of failure, which is something anyone who engages in creative activities has to some degree. I certainly have it. I’ve cried and ranted and raged over art projects going horribly wrong. My children have it. People who don’t engage in creative activities have it. Everyone fears failure because failure feels horrible and it loses you credibility. It is quite hard to get back from failure. With success comes confidence. With failure comes wallowing. This is something I think about a lot, especially when I’ve produced something I like. What can my creative genie do to top that?

For a little light reading on my train rides to and from Wolverhampton at the moment I’m reading Think Like An Artist by WIll Gompertz.

Is it too late for me to be reading this?

Is it too late for me to be reading this?

This book is good so far (I’m about half way through it). One valuable piece of advice which this book has given me is: do not fear failure. When I read that I thought: ‘Gosh, if only it were that easy, thanks, Will, for that one’.

That same day we had a visiting artist deliver a lecture at the art school in Wolverhampton:  Lise Autogena. Autogena, originally from Denmark, spoke for 90 minutes of so to an assemblage of fine art students about her life, career to date and some of her projects. She was a very interesting person. She has lead a very interesting life to date. She’s the sort of artist who deals with Big Crazy Ideas. The sort of Big Crazy Ideas that could easily fail, the sort that need bravery and the sort that take a lot of investment in time and energy.

Coincidentally, I had come across one of her projects just last week at an exhibition in London at Somerset House. The exhibition was called Big Bang Data and it looked at the blending of art and data in the 21st century. It consisted of a number of art works and projects that have examined the virtual world in some way. One of Autogena’s works, which she created with Josh Portway, was in this exhibition: Black Shoals; Dark Matter (2014). I came across it towards the end (when I was starting to get a bit tired and satiated by all the ideas in the exhibition). It consisted a large planetarium-like dome just near the exit of the exhibition.  The dome is connected to the financial markets of the world and shows in real time the activities of these markets. Companies are represented on the dome surface as stars and these flicker and glow as shares are traded. The brightness and duration of the glow is relative to the volume of trading activity. The piece is even more complicated than my description indicates in that feeding off the light is an ecology of artificial beings. What happens to these beings, is hard to determine. The result is really quite beautiful and mesmerizing, and calming. At the time, I slumped down with my heavy rucksack onto one of the beanbags below the dome and took the opportunity to pause for thought after 90 minutes of looking around at thought-provoking art. I lay and stared for ages and the lights moving around. It wasn’t until I was in Wolverhampton and heard Autogena speak about this project that I realised how immense the project had been and how complicated it was, and, most importantly, how much effort had gone into it.

Black Shoals; Dark Matter

Black Shoals; Dark Matter

What baffled me on hearing Autogena speaking about this project, was her utter tenacity to pursue it to the end. She had felt so passionate about it that she had spent many months, years even, doggedly trying to get it realised despite many obstacles and difficulties. This project,as it turned out, was a success.

However, she also talked about an earlier project that hadn’t worked (or not yet at least). This was a project that had aimed at constructing two new sound mirrors – one in England and one in France. The new mirrors were going to face each other across the English Channel, and the aim was to enable the French and the English to speak across the sea. The project had stalled for a number of reasons, so in that way it was a failure. She had spent many years trying to realise this project (it may yet come to fruition). Her determination was infectious. She talked of her hope at not yet to give up on it completely. I, too, felt that she should take it up again and try again.

From Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon

From Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon

Hearing her talk reminds me a little of the question I was trying to answer a couple of weeks ago when I wrote about the Wolverhampton Jehovah’s Witnesses: what makes a successful artist? The answer then came in one single word: tenacity. Autogena is a successful artist, despite any failures she has experienced and this is because she is incredibly tenacious. As well as seeing failure, she has prevented other projects from failure because of her determination where others might have given up. She is tenacious because she believes in the authenticity of her ideas.

Will Gompertz argues further in his book that failure should be embraced not feared because it is just an inevitable part of life. If you avoid failure, you won’t get to that point of success. Everyone fails at some point and even some of the greatest artists have seen great failure. He cites examples such as Bridget Riley who struggled for years to find her voice through her art. Some of the most successful artists ‘found their voice’ through failing first and not giving up hope. Another way to phrase this type of success that comes through failure: happy accidents.

I think that were I to become a curator, my first exhibition would have to be the exhibition of ideas which I have discussed here before, but my second one would definitely be the exhibition of happy accidents.

Hopefully, I will have a few more happy accidents before I put down my paint brush, pen, pencil, laptop, plasticine, iPad, balloon and anything else that makes a mark. And hopefully I will learn how to love failure.




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