The fine art of failing and failing better

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

When making art, it can be hard to not judge work as failures. Thoughts around it not being good enough or not looking the way you think it aught to–or the hundreds of other judgments that pop up–can stop you from making anything else for fear of repeating the failure. The feeling of failure stings and this is something the mind wants us to avoid experiencing and therefore explains why you may feel like giving up so soon. Pema Chödrön in Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better speaks of the ‘Fine art of failing’ and how succeeding has a lot of emphasis and hype placed on it. But if you consider the definition of success as it working out that way you hoped, “failing by that definition is that it didn’t work out the way you wanted it to.”

Chödrön talks about hearing a quote from James Jocye’s Ulysses that described how failure leads to discovered, but instead of using ‘failure’ Joyce used the word ‘mistake.’ “Mistakes are the portal to creativity, to learning something new, to having a fresh look on things.” Reframing a ‘failure’ to a ‘mistake’ may mean you give yourself more space (and self-compassion) to not get things ‘right’ all of the time.

Failing better means seeing failure as part of the journey,”to see it as your connection with other human beings and as part of your humanness.” The idea that we should get everything right all of the time is an unrealistically high bar for ourselves and leaves no space of the unexpected, delightfully imperfect and spontaneous results that being creative allow us access to. “Failing better means when these things happen in your life, they become a source of growth, a source of forward.” Growth and forward is a bi-product of failure and making lots of mistakes, and is to be embraced instead of feared, when making our art.

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Stop judging judgments and mindfulness

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

When making or reviewing your art, have you noticed the amount of negative self talk pops into your mind? Judgmental comments or thoughts about the art not being good enough? This judgmental voice or self critic can derail our enthusiasm, confidence and future practice if we believe it’s telling the truth.

Psychologists Barbara Markway and Greg Markway explain in this article the 3 functions the self critic serves:

  1. As motivation: “If it cracks a whip, it will motivate us to do a desired behavior… we cling to the believe that by berating ourselves, we can achieve more.”
  2. To feel in control: “When we criticize ourselves, we reinforce the illusion of control.”
  3. To keep us safe: “Self-criticism taps into the brain’s threat/defense response. The system is designed to protect us and keep us safe. It’s hard-wired into our brain and worked great when the threat was a lion running after us. But when the threat is to our self-concept, self-criticism does not work well”

So if you view you or your art as a problem, the ‘reptilian brain’ as Markway & Markway describe, attacks in the form of self-critical self-talk. Understanding your brain is wired this way to react to perceived ‘threats’ allows self-compassion for moments when you find yourself being self-judgmental.

Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn explains ‘Non-Judging:’ in this video: “My working definition of mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. And the non-judgmentally is the real challenge because when you start to pay attention to what’s on your mind, you very rapidly discover that we have ideas and opinions about everything… So when we speak of mindfulness as being non-judgmental awareness, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be judgments. It means you will be aware of how judgmental we actually are and then not judge the judging…. Our judging is very often black and white. It’s either this or that… good or bad… and we get imprisoned by that kind of view.”

Noticing is the first step. Our poor reptilian brains do like to jump to judgmental conclusions often and quickly and that’s okay. Allow the thoughts to surface and greet them with compassion. And then get back to making your art.

Settling into the muck of the mind

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Allowing yourself to spontaneously create art—without judging as you make—can be a challenge. Ignoring the inner critics, resistance or distracting negative thoughts takes bravery and a commitment to continue making art regardless. Why should you allow yourself to make “bad” or embarrassing art in the face of self-judgement? Lewis Hyde in The Gift quotes Allen Ginsberg, who speaks of spontaneous writing: “Spontaneous writing could be embarrassing… The cure for that is to write things down which you will not publish and which you won’t show people. To write secretly… so you can actually be free to say anything you want.”

Being able to create, without the art needing to be shown to anyone, or it needing to be “good” gives you freedom to explore more fully, perhaps in places you wouldn’t venture if you knew others were watching. Ginsberg again: “… settling down in the muck of your own mind… You really have to make a resolution just to write for yourself…, in the sense of not writing to impress yourself, but just writing what yourself is saying.” While Ginsberg talks of writing, this is relevant for any art medium. You have to make a resolution to make art for yourself so you can explore what wishes to be created within you. The letting go of seeking approval or validation from other people allows you to create for the sake of creating—to make art because you enjoy it.

The muck of your mind may surprise you with what it comes up with. Allow yourself time and space to be curious and go explore in the mud.

Low creative energy and blocks

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

If you’ve regularly been spending time making art and have made it a habit in your daily life, it can be frustrating when suddenly you don’t have the energy to make anything. It’s as if your creative energy lifeforce has been zapped out of you. This energy zap, or creative block, is a spanner in the works to your rhythm and creative flow. Being sick quickly can drain all energy, but sometimes it seems for no reason you feel drained. The block can creep up on you when you least expect it, especially if you’ve had a good run of being creative.

Is it okay to stop during these periods or should you press through making art regardless? There is no right answer because both options are okay. If you stop, be kind to yourself. Your self-judgment no doubt will rear up and tell you off for not being productive and pushing through. Sometimes though, in order to let the energy flow more easily in the future, we have to take a break to refuel and recharge. Given we are human beings and not robots, we cannot stay in doing-mode all of the time. Breaks are a necessary part of the process. And if you choose to continue making, set your bar of expectation for the art as low as possible. If you’re not feeling your best, your art may reflect that, or may be noticeably different than usual. It’s also important to you be kind to yourself here because self-judgement may have a field day with any art it deems not as good as usual. Let it be enough you made something. Making one tiny sketch/drawing/piece of art is your new bar of acceptable.

Whichever path you take when creative energy is low, it’s okay to feel stuck. Low energy and creative blocks don’t last forever so have faith that there will be a point in the future where your energy will start to tip in the other direction. In the meantime, let yourself and your judgment rest.

Black-and-white thinking is a growth block

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Negative black-and-white thinking about your art can be harmful to your confidence and future art-making practice. While you may think labelling the art as “rubbish” or “bad” is stating the obvious, it could be blinding you to all the positive aspects of your art. Whatever your brain focuses on expands therefore looking at only “negative” aspects of your art, they will appear bigger, especially with similar repeated thoughts over time.

Kevin Gyoerkoe and Pamela Wiegartz talk about this extreme viewpoint in 10 Simple Solutions to Worry: “All or nothing thinking, or black-and-white thinking means viewing things in extreme categories. For example, you might describe a presentation you gave as “perfect” or “horrible.” Instead of a more balanced, reasoned view, you overlook the shades of gray, the subtleties of life, and force experiences into either-or categories (ie. describing yourself as “irresponsible” if you overlook a task or calling yourself a “failure” if you don’t meet an important personal goal.”

If by giving yourself constructive feedback you feel encourage to continue practicing then that’s great. But if you feel disheartened by your own feedback—especially if it’s black and white thinking—look for the more neutral “grey areas” instead. If you’re unable to find any small areas of the art you like, can you find one positive aspect? One specific line or dot? You can’t notice what you don’t look for. And “perfect” art is overrated. If we could do it perfectly instantly, we’d get bored very quickly. There’d be nothing new to learn and no joy from each step of growth accomplished over time. Look for the grey and let go of the pressure for your art to “be better” than it is right this moment.

Self critique to reflect and gain insight

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Self-critiquing allows reflection on current progress but it is also is a tool for your future self. Looking at thoughts about past art allows you to spot development over time. While visually the art may have improved or changed, it’s the insight into how you felt at the time—your inner world—that can provide valuable feedback. If when making some of the first drawing attempts, you wrote how unconfident you felt, today you may have forgotten how nervous you were back then. Comparing against the past self, you recognised today you don’t feel as nervous and so your inner world has changed. Many small steps of progress that can’t be measured visually can be overlooked or ignored, but they add up in big ways over time. It could be argued that this inner development is more important than the visual improvement of the art: when inner confidence is grown, effects other areas of life in a positive way.

Get into the practice of regularly writing a small critique for some of the art your make. If you’re drawing in a journal, consider writing a note next the the art, or if on paper, write it on the back. Otherwise write on a post-it note and stick that on the work. Or use a seperate journal/notebook but make sure to date art as you make it so it’s easy refer back to specific pieces when writing about them in your notebook. Dean Nimmer in Art From Intuition suggests “Your sketchbook can also be a good place to write down notes to yourself about any topics that relate to your art, or to your creative process. For example, writing down self-critiques about what you think of your own work.”

Self-critiquing: While every ‘mistake’ in an artwork can be glaring obvious, feedback only why something is ‘bad’ isn’t as useful (or kind) as constructive feedback. If a friend asks for feedback on a drawing, you wouldn’t list all things wrong with it. You’d want to encourage them by focusing on the positive aspects of the art. You should offer the same encouragment for yourself. A helpful comment might look like: “It was tricky deciding on the colours. I like the blue corner best because its bright and I enjoying making it. The red area looks messy. I felt better using colours but want to work on drawing smaller details. I enjoyed the sensation of drawing the curves.” Or a shorter version: “Fun to make, love the squiggles, enjoyed making while listing to x music. Want to do more like this.”

However you choose to critique yourself, remember to be kind and compassionate. Making art takes a great deal of courage as an adult so there’s no need for harsh judgements. We are all doing our creative best and that’s good enough.

Simple answers to most creative problems

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Most answers to most of your creative problems are so simple, you may not believe them. Making art as an adult can be challenging if you’re out of practice. Why then, if children make their art with so much freedom, do adults find it difficult to create with that same freedom? Dan Roam in Draw to Win suggests that we find drawing difficult because of our own beliefs about our drawing abilities and the answer is “you mostly just need to get out of your own way.”

He identifies a list of things that make drawing hard: Impatience, wondering what to draw, worrying about what’s next, editing as you go, a blank sheet and “art.” Then he suggest things that make drawing easy (which are also all solutions to the above issues): Curiosity, starting with a circle, letting your hand go, drawing now and editing later, making marks on the page and “just do it.”

Do you think the suggestions for what makes drawing easy are too simple to be true?For example, if you feel paralysed by blank paper you should make marks? But the mind is your biggest obstacle and it will try to resist at every turn (via the inner critic). “Make marks?” It scoffs. “What’s the point in that if it’s not “‘proper’ drawing? This is a waste of time!” But making marks warms up your hard and starts the creative process. It puts you in a different frame of mind, one where negative chatter can falls away so you can get on with the fun of being creative.