The truth about failure

2014

There have been many articles about the Pixar model for creativity and filmmaking. One aspect that is always emphasised is that the company makes it safe to fail. In his book, Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, writes, “The goal is to uncouple fear and failure - to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your

employees’ hearts.”

He cites the example of Cars 2 and Monsters University, in which things went so wrong that they had to replace the films’ original directors. OK, but how do those two replaced directors feel about the Pixar approach to failure?

I’m not saying it was necessarily wrong to replace them, but when you put yourself in their shoes it does put a dent into the romantic notion of failure as a neutral experience, nothing to worry about.

Of course fear of failure isn’t limited to people working within a company. It afflicts entrepreneurs, consultants and freelancers as well, sometimes to a crippling degree. Failing is never going to be fun, but there are some ways you can reduce the fear and move forward.

Reconsider your definition of success and failure

Many people have a very limited definition of success. They see it as an either/or proposition. In fact, things are seldom that clear-cut.

Most entrepreneurial and creative endeavours develop over time, so it’s useful to consider success not as one outcome but rather as a continuum. Staying with the example of writing a novel (but this applies just as much to any entrepreneurial endeavour), what are some of the outcomes you might consider successes?

One might be just finishing it, especially if you’ve never written anything of that length before. Another might be showing it to some people for feedback, and submitting it to publishers or agents, if that represents a breakthrough in confidence for you. Another might be self-publishing it and selling even fifty copies, knowing that your work has reached readers. Or it may be having the courage to put it aside and apply whatever you learned in the course of writing it to writing the next one.

Success is a trickster!

Even if you don’t choose to redefine success, sometimes time does it for you. Many of us can think of times when something happened that at the time seemed like pure catastrophe but later turned out to be, if not a blessing, then at least a mixed bag.

Almost every successful novelist will tell you that the first book they wrote, and sometimes the first several, were never published - and they’re glad it wasn’t. From their current perspective they realise that these books represent a valuable learning experience. Without writing a couple of not-so-good books, they would never have been able to write their later successful ones. Yet I’m sure at the time the rejections hurt plenty. The same is true of a business venture

Have a method for dealing with failure

Dealing with (apparent) failure is another thing that people often approach in an all or nothing at all manner. Either they pretend it doesn’t affect them or they go into a downward spiral that ends with questioning not only the project that has been rejected but their talent and ability in general and sometimes even their lives.

A healthier approach is to acknowledge the setback and the emotions it raises. It’s not wrong to feel bad about it. It’s human. But it’s useful to remember that your value as a human being is not dependent on the fate of any one project.

You can even decide how long you’re going to let the disappointment affect you. A few days? A week? During that time feel free to rail against the ignorance of investors, editors or agents or whoever was foolish enough to reject your work or ideas. If the setback is due to something you did, allow yourself to rail against that mistake. Eat ice cream. Stay in bed watching old movies.

Then declare the period of regret or mourning over. If you have trouble letting go of it, remember other times in your life when you felt this way and got over it. In your imagination go forward in time. How important will this be in another month? In three months? In a year? In ten years?

Pause long enough to consider whether you’ve learned anything useful. Does it make sense to do the next step or the next project differently? Then move on.

Failure - be it real or apparent - will never feel like our friend. But neither do we have to let it stop us from moving toward our dreams.

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About The Author

Jurgen Wolff
Jurgen Wolff

Jurgen Wolff is a writer, teacher, and hypnotherapist. His goal is to help individuals liberate their own creativity through specific techniques that can be used at work as well as at home. His recent books include "Focus: the power of targeted thinking," a W. H. Smith best-seller, and "Your Writing Coach".