When It’s Alright To Fail

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Allowing Failure In Your Life

When I was young — not Paleolithic young, but close — I was in college to train to become an art historian.  I wasn’t certain where that path would take me but it did land me in a pottery class with a very well-respected and talented teacher.

I learned after a short time that while I did have some ability it wasn’t enough.  Not enough to keep me in the class, anyway (thanks to me and my big mouth for telling off the Dean, who promptly had my teachers fail me so I would leave the school, I kid you not).

I was really upset about the whole thing.  How dare that man belittle my work!  Why, I was every bit as good as the rest of the class and in fact, better than some.  It felt to me like a death-knell to any artistic endeavors I might have in the future.

The very worst effect of this criticism was that I believed him.  I took the idea that ‘I had no talent’ to heart.  I gave up any kind of art with the exception of playing music, at which I am somewhat adept, but I let go any hope of being a painter, a potter, a photographer.

I allowed that man the power to make myself feel like a failure.

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It was my first public experience with failure.  Public, you ask?  Yes, indeed.  He chastised me in front of the entire class, and to very good effect.  He ridiculed me and for nearly ever after I felt uncertain and withdrawn when it came to taking chances.

That’s what art, music, dance, any kind of public performing is: you’re taking a chance, putting yourself out there for criticism, seeking approval.  For many people that’s not something they wish for nor is it a chance they’ll take on.  But when you’re made like me — expressive, emotional, a little smarts and a lot of drive — then being told you have no talent is the worst, especially when told by a person who teaches others to expand their talents.

But did I fail?  Yes, for quite some time I certainly felt I had.  I continued playing bass and piano in a band, which was quite safe for me, creatively speaking.  There was little chance of withering criticism in that venue because, well, playing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird to a barroom full of serious drunks is no big thing (and I never want to hear that song again, thank you).  Other than music and songwriting, my longing and desire for artistic expression went completely down the tubes.

And then one day I asked a friend if he had any watercolors with which to paint.

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Movin’ On Up

On tenterhooks I began to experiment with watercolor and quickly found that (of course) watercolor is perhaps the hardest of all painting media to control.  Basically I made mud pies on paper.  They were some of the most hopelessly ugly things I had ever made.

So I changed to acrylic media, expanded to large canvases and said ‘What the hell, if you’re going to fail, fail big’ and after nine months of consistent hard work I had my first art show in a very nice gallery.  To my complete amazement sold every single piece.

Now I know that it was perfectly alright to fail.  At the time I took one look at what I was doing and knew for sure that those hideously muddy watercolors must never, ever see the light of day.  Eventually I came to realize that the my longing to be creative led to making multiple artistic failures, which (after a great deal time and work) led to the creation of some halfway-decent paintings.  Had I not had the sense to ignore that man’s mean criticism I would have never learned, explored or gone on to happily create worthwhile acrylic artistic endeavor.

This isn’t a boast and not to toot my own horn, but I then went on to produce well over two hundred works that are out there in the world and hopefully giving pleasure to those that thought enough of my work to bring it into their homes and into their lives.  That work was certainly a pleasure for me to produce.  And the money they spent on my work allowed me to continue to paint.  I am very humbled and overwhelmingly grateful to be included in some good collections and to have my work in some wonderful and interesting people’s homes.

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You Go, Einstein!

Einstein is so right but then again he just about always was.  You can’t solve a problem without changing the way you think about that problem.  Why go back to failed thinking?  You don’t repeat failure, you learn from it and move on.

I had learned a different way of thinking in order to overcome the mean things my old instructor said of me.  I learned to push myself past the repetitive failure to come to a point of cohesive thinking, to learn how to make (dare I say) beauty.  I pushed myself really hard to overcome my own limitations and fears.

But it took time.  It took my not listening to that mean teacher in my head saying No You Can’t, and it took patience with myself to overcome that thinking.  It was rather painful to me.  It took a long time to relearn how to properly think.  Not only that — it was a lesson that I’ve needed to learn over and over again because as frail humans we sometimes forget what we have learned and need to repeat valuable lessons.

When my life began to fall apart as a result of bipolar disorder I was very depressed, manic, completely unreachable. I could see no beauty in anything at all.  I stopped painting, stopped playing music, stopped writing due to depression and when I was manic, that mania was about the depression.  When I was manic, I wasn’t sleeping.  I was careless.  I was completely disordered.

That same negative, nagging, evil voice from the past was rolling in my brain saying that I would never find a way out, that failure was my only option and that I would never be happy and productive again.  I was listening to the same old fears, same reproof, same shame.  That man’s critical and misplaced opinion was running rampant in my head again and added to my own negativity and then magnified by my distorted thinking.  And it is only recently that because I have committed to therapy and to healing that my interest has returned.

I do not believe that I am myself a failure.  I fail at many things that I attempt, of course, but I am not personally a failure.  It is through therapy (which is my paint), hard work on my recovery (which is my art) and working toward realistic thinking (which is to say, toward a better life) that I began to see that I could overcome my mistakenly perceived failure and go on to make something important, something beautiful.  It’s now in the works.

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Beauty Is Universal

Bottom line: it was alright to fail as long as I got up and tried again.  I failed, and failed again.  But then I would find some small win and see my failure as a step toward learning how to win.  So it was alright to fail.

We can all create our own wins.  We can all find ‘universal beauty’ in our lives.  I am convinced it is not only possible but with the right tools it is inevitable.  We all can shut off the flow of negativity if we practice and keep going.  It’s a price worth paying, and the price is work and determination.  It takes quite a bit of courage to maintain the fight against negativity and find a healthy attitude.

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I know that I will fail again and that doesn’t matter as long as I learn about that failure and move forward in the game.  When you have a mental illness it can certainly seem that you’re surrounded by failure but I tell you, you are not.  If I am capable of moving forward with life in spite of my bipolar disorder, then anyone can do it.  Like Sly Stone says, You can make it if you try.

For every failure you make you can find something within yourself that will help to get you to the next goal.  After all, you can’t get the basketball in the hoop every time.  You can’t make a masterpiece if you don’t know how to carve your marble.  You don’t have to like failure, you just have to move beyond it toward your goal.

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I don’t know about you but I plan on making plenty of failure before I’m done.  I know now that I was reaching for perfection which is completely unattainable (and ridiculous to boot) and when failure struck I believed I was a failure and not a human work in progress.

I don’t want to be the best, I want to be the best I can be.  I don’t want to be perfect, I want to be human, and to be human is to recognize failure as well as triumph.  It’s all learning.

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Give yourself a little room to fail.  Everything doesn’t have to be critical in nature and certainly self-criticism can feel as if it is  truly  impossible to overcome.  I know I certainly feel overwhelmed sometimes when I fail and I have to admit that.  I hate failing but when I do, I learn things about myself that I never expected, some good, some bad; and to move forward, I have to accept that at times I will fall flat on my face if that’s what it takes.  I want to make a life of beauty not for others to approve or enjoy, I want beauty and happiness for myself.  I have to create that vision.  I have to take responsibility.

That means working toward that beautiful painting rather than creating mud pies on wildly expensive watercolor paper.  And it means letting go of my fear and allowing myself to take a chance. and yes, that’s a little frightening.  It means being open to the possibility of failure but keeping up the search for the win, however humble that win might be.

It may take me forever but working toward this goal is not going to stop.

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