climbing stick figure

Failure is an Event…

Not an Identity

What to do when -it- goes wrong!

So, what do you say to yourself if you try a drawing exercise, or some sort of creative project and it doesn’t work out well or seems confusing or flat out impossible in the moment? What do you say?

What goes through your mind when you attempt a new “thing,” and it just goes wrong on so many levels?

  • Do you say “Well, that didn’t go as planned. That looks bad! That failed miserably! Moving on!”
  • Or do you say “I didn’t do that well at all. I can’t do this. I’m not good at it. I’m such a failure!”

Tough love” V comin’ atcha – Failure is the event, not your identity!

In one of the Creatively-U classes, we talk about ways to avoid taking a temporary situation and turning it into a permanent identity – especially where creativity is concerned. There’s not room in this short article to go deeply here. So, let’s just make this our mantra for today:

Failure is an event, not an identity.

But how?

How do you avoid feeling like a failure when it can feel so utterly devastating to put your creative heart and soul into something and have it – well, FLOP?

I must thank Jeff Walker for drilling this in at our conference several weeks ago.

We talked about the “debrief” a while back and how it can help to look at a project after the fact. It helps to clarify what worked and what we might want to do differently next time.

Well, let’s stretch that out a bit. If your creative attempt doesn’t go as planned, it’s not necessarily a “failure” full-stop. And YOU certainly aren’t a failure. Failure isn’t in the falling down or the falling short. Failure is in the refusing to get back up. (That’s based on a Chinese proverb I heard long ago.) See the difference? The “failure” of an attempt isn’t an abject failure unless you let it be one.

Don’t lose. Learn.

So, you know I live by the line “I never lose. I either win or I learn” from Nelson Mandela.

I know some might look at the title of this article and remind me of that! But the truth is, losing and failing are two different things when it comes to our creativity.

The true definition of failure is “an instance of proving unsuccessful, not doing or getting something required, or some lack in quality or quantity.” So yes, I do FAIL on occasion. In fact, I fail A LOT! We all do.

The difference is how we deal with it, not in the literal definition. I don’t fail as a final stop. My attempts either succeed to some degree or I learn something when they don’t.

“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” -Nelson Mandela

Our path to success is full of setbacks. I could list dozens and dozens of quotes on this topic and have many of them posted in my studio. Here’s another favorite:

“The secret of life is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.” -Paulo Coelho

Think like you would in the future.

I only recently came upon a way of seeing this that hadn’t occurred to me before. It’s from author Dr. Benjamin Hardy, who will be releasing a book soon called “Be Your Future Self Now.” I hadn’t really considered my “future” self. I know what I want to accomplish, but that’s a “what” not a “who.”

I can’t wait for the book to be released even though it sounds like it’s going to be a bit deep, and intellectually heavy. I had a little difficulty getting my head wrapped around the introduction but now I think it has promise. Here’s the basic premise as I understand it, applied to our creative practice:

If you think back ten years, are there things you wish you would have done or started so you’d be further along in your craft now? You know, like “if I had spent just 10 minutes every day drawing over the last ten years, I’d be SO GOOD by now!” That kinda thing!

Dr. Hardy suggests that you think like your “future self” would now – right now – today! In your mind, go out ten years (or five or three) and be that person, good at whatever it is. Now look back at what got you there-a consistent practice, turning off the distractions, taking a class, whatever it “was.”

Now, here’s the tricky part – in your mind, come back to today and “live today as your future self would.” As you start doing those things, he says “fail as your future self” today. He says “complete imperfect work” today so that your future self will eventually come into existence. And do it consistently.

Failure is an event, not an identity.

How can failure help?

In Michael Jordan’s “Driven from Within,” he kinda hints at the same thing:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again. That is why I succeed.” -Michael Jordan

Wow! After all that, we still think of him as an incredibly successful person. Why? Because he never let the failures stop him from moving on. He never stopped “failing” as his future self.

Failure is an event, not an identity.

Creative Failure

As an artist and creative we want to be good at our craft but sometimes we let some pretty crazy beliefs creep in – “I’m not good enough yet, why bother, someone else does it better, I can’t, I’ll never be that good “– you know the drill. These are stories we tell ourselves, and the result is that we take a temporary problem and turn it into a permanent identity. We take our current failure and make it our identity.

So, here’s what I want you to tell yourself. Note the difference – I fail, but I am NOT a failure.

As you can tell, I love reading. And one of the most amazing things about my reading obsession is that I find all these ideas, and lo and behold, they are all very similar but stated in a very different way! I love finding the common nugget of wisdom!

In the last several weeks I’ve heard or seen some form of the thought “Failure is an event, not an identity” said in many different ways. It is the last of insights I wanted to share from my conference a while back. It speaks to those voices in our heads about who we are and what we expect of ourselves. It speaks to those beliefs, opinions, or thoughts.

You aren’t a failure. You can’t be!

You aren’t a failure. You can’t be. You exist! You are living, breathing, and creating so you can’t be a failure. You are human “being” a human. You can fail to reach a certain goal with a given attempt – but that describes the attempt, not you. Failure was the event. Not your identity as a human creator.

So, leave a comment on how you have approached your “not so successful” tries before. What will you change? How will you remind yourself that a failure is simply a learning opportunity and how will you move past it?

Join me LIVE on my Facebook page, Virginia Leigh Studio, at 3:00 pm Central every Wednesday to ask questions and talk creativity.

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1 thought on “Failure is an Event…”

  1. Thank you! I am a visual person. Love a good pic! LOL Most of them come from either Canva or Unsplash. I am very happy to recommend both! There are a few (a very few) that I have taken myself.

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