Define Failure

I had a really rough morning. I went to bed feeling ambivalent about a creative assignment I had just turned in, and sleeping on it didn’t seem to help. Distancing myself from the work for a few hours didn’t provide the clarity I was hoping for, and instead I awoke with that vague but panicky feeling that accompanies the submission of work I don’t count among my best.

Those of us who work in creative professions hope that our work will always continue to improve over time as we achieve new levels of skill, taste and practice. In general this is true, but like the stock market, improvement over time doesn’t happen in a steady, straight line — it appears through the average of successive peaks and valleys. Though I understand this rationally, when I slide into one of those dips I can’t help but feel like I’ve just gone backwards — like I’ve failed.


Let me pause for a moment to define what failure is to me: failure is the inability to submit work of which I am unequivocally proud. Did I complete the assignment to spec?* Yes. Did it solve the problem in a clever and aesthetically pleasing way? I think so. Did I immediately want to run out and show it to everyone I know? No. And that’s what feels like failure.

Somewhat ironically, the harder I’ve worked on a project, the worse I feel when it doesn’t work out. I take no comfort in knowing I tried my best. If that was my best, then what good am I? Being able to blame a lack of time or effort is much more comforting than having to admit a project fell short due to bad decisions, a lack of good ideas, or poor craftsmanship.

My feelings of failure are also directly proportional to the stakes of the assignment itself. In this particular case, the piece in question was created for inclusion in an illustration annual, where it will serve as the sole representation of my entire body of work to over 1,000 industry professionals. This one piece will introduce me and my work to all of the editors and art directors I have been hoping to reach for years. So pardon the hyperbole (“I didn’t make something spectacular! I don’t deserve to work in this town again!”) but you see, the stakes could not be higher.


I was seriously considering pulling the whole project this morning, $500 investment be damned. How could I have my not-amazing work to appear alongside the obviously-amazing work of dozens of other artists? Allowing such an unfavorable comparison would surely be more detrimental to my reputation than not appearing at all, right?

Luckily I asked that question out loud, to people I trust to give me honest answers, and they wholeheartedly disagreed. My husband insisted it would be a mistake to not participate in the book. As one of the only artists in the book working in three dimensions, my piece will introduce me as someone to consider for editorial props. Other friends agreed that even if it isn’t the piece de resistance of my entire career, my submission is still strong enough to encourage people to check out what else I’ve done.

Fortunately, as with all failures, there is always something to be learned, and the sting eventually fades over time. With this project I learned that complicated assemblages (especially using unfamiliar materials) are better served by a “lean manufacturing” approach (finishing a small section of the project in its entirety before starting on the rest) than by an industrial approach (making all the pieces first and then assembling them all at the end). Never again will I waste time and materials because I discovered too late that a good idea didn’t come together in execution, and that is extremely valuable — even necessary. In fact, I might argue that on the stock market graph of creative development, you can’t have the peaks at all without the valleys. After all, without the failures, what new knowledge is there to propel you to greater heights?

All that’s left to do now is to try to channel my inner zen master and let this project go, while also hopefully maintaining a little optimism. Who knows? Maybe my little sculpture is right up Tim Burton’s/Brad Bird’s alley, and they’ll insist I contribute my talents to their next film. Stranger things have happened.

*For those of you who are curious, the assignment was to create an assemblage using only supplies from a hardware store, a la Project Runway’s “unconventional materials” challenges. I can’t show you the actual piece until the book is published, so the tiny detail up top will have to do for now. This was also my monthly project for April.

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