Embracing failure

failure |ˈfālyər|
noun
1 lack of success : an economic policy that is doomed to failure | the failures of his policies.
¢ an unsuccessful person, enterprise, or thing : bad weather had resulted in crop failures.
¢ lack of success in passing an examination or test : exam failure.
¢ a grade that is not high enough to pass an examination or test.
2 the omission of expected or required action : their failure to comply with the basic rules.
¢ a lack or deficiency of a desirable quality : a failure of imagination.
3 the action or state of not functioning : symptoms of heart failure | an engine failure.
¢ a sudden cessation of power.
¢ the collapse of a business.
ORIGIN mid 17th cent. (originally as failer, in the senses [nonoccurrence] and [cessation of supply] ): from Anglo-Norman French failer for Old French faillir (see fail ).

Quite a few folks talk about failure as part of the process of learning, especially when it comes to expanding creativity   The videos I posted from Ira Glass talk about it being part of the process – an actual requirement.  One of the bottom lines I took away from those videos . you are going to produce some crap – so get over it.

The word has such negative connotations to it, proven by the definition above   It is beaten into us throughout our lives, we are brought up with the equation;.  failure = bad. . .  Avoid it!. .  Grades in school, jobs, relationships,.  and in photographs.  It is difficult to embrace something that has such negative associations or to not let it get you down. .  Just imagine a critique of an image where someone states “This picture is a failure.”. .  We have all said it to ourselves on occasion.  It is such a powerful word.

WA8841.jpgFailure can sometimes be a somewhat ambiguous term as well. .  As Brooks Jensen describes in his podcast LW0378 – it is up to the individual to define what is or isn’t failure in relation to what they are doing.  What exactly is supposed to differentiate success from failure?.  For many, simply getting out and experiencing something counts for a lot.

Scott Kelby posted a nice article by Moose Peterson on the acceptance of coming home empty handed. .  Aside from judging an individual image, it is another measurable we place upon ourselves   I can’t tell you how many times I have been up a couple of hours before dawn to drive to a spot, spend all morning poking around, to come home with essentially nothing. .  You are inevitably faced with the question from someone – “Get any good pictures today?“. .  An innocent question, but it is amazing how the pressures to succeed can be embedded in it – especially when the answer is “Not a one..”

It can suck away your motivation.  You are faced with times where you try to convince yourself that staying in bed is better than getting out there at all.  Paul Lester wrote a wonderful post about this internal argument we can all relate to. . .  Failure to try is yet another kind. .  Opportunities missed because of laziness or discouragement only create a snowball effect. .  Not having a camera with you, or missing something when you are not prepared – “if I only would have..” and on and on.

FL8850.jpgIt is a difficult monster to face – this failure thing   It is an ugly, powerful word.  It is difficult to accept it as being necessary. .  But perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that you are not alone in experiencing it.    You just don’t hear about it enough.  Even the most well known photographers have their moments.  The tendency is to try to bury it, acknowlege but hide it – like a kid trying to hide the “F” on their report card   You hear it all the time – only show your best stuff. .  Great advice for marketing, but certainly not much others can learn from.

That’s why I found it particularly enjoyable watching Tony Sweet talk about some of his earlier images in his DVD Visual Literacy   He is a photographer I greatly admire for his style and someone I am inspired by because I think we see in similar ways   He didn’t use the term “failure” in particular, but he did talk about some of the shortcomings of some of his earlier work and how he would do it much differently today. .  In many ways, it changes the term ‘failure’ into just another meaning for ‘periods of growth’ – which I find much more palatable. :-)

It does make you think though – are some of what I consider my successes today going to be considered failures in the future?   It’s all a lot to wrap your noggin around   Ultimately, you will never know by just sitting around fretting about it.

Just create, and let the judgments fall where they may..

11 Comments

  1. If I had a dime for every time that I was asked: “So, are you getting any good pictures today?”, well, I’d have a sack full of dimes! That’s for sure. :-)

    It is rather difficult to embrace failure or setbacks because, as you said, we have been taught that it is bad. The interesting thing, in my Tao readings, were you to judge something as ‘good’, it can only be measured against something that is judged to be ‘bad’. The whole Yin/Yang thing. They balance each other. Were we to only succeed, there would be no glory in it.

    In looking back at some of my pictures, I have moments of what I think are brilliance, and other moments where I seem absolutely clueless. I don’t dwell on those clueless moments, except to sometimes later realize a better way that I could have done something. As a software developer, I’m always learning new ways to do things and a frequently tempted to return to refactor code. I feel the same way about some of the images that I’ve taken. I like to go back and do them again and again, just to see if I can get the message across this time.

    I had a look at the Tony Sweet DVDs and may have to give them a listen, as they are very inexpensive.

    Great post, Mark. We all have these feelings. I’m glad that you brought it up.

  2. That last line may just be the best advice a person can give or receive. Kudos. ;)

  3. Are some of today’s successes going to be tomorrow’s failures? I can only hope so. To me, that would mean I’m make some progress and gotten better.

    True there is such a negative association with the word “fail”, but it would be better if we all just accepted it and embraced it as part of *trying*. One thing I loved about living in Silicon Valley is that failure is a badge of honor, because it meant you tried something difficult.

  4. Thanks for articulating “failure,” a subject that probably flashes through the back of my mind every time pick up a camera. It’s comforting to know that professionals of your caliber confront a similar (if not the same) demon. Ultimately, though, we work harder, and smarter, under the shadow of failure. It steels us and ultimately helps us define our successes.

    Here in Alaska, many of us looked up to the late Iditarod musher and South Pole explorer Col. Norman Vaughn, whose cheerful and often-repeated motto was “Dream big and dare to fail!”

    Thanks again, Mark, for a most provocative post.
    km

  5. @ Ken, thanks for the vote of confidence. Trust me, the demons are there for everyone. That was part of my point, we just don’t hear about them enough and how to deal with them.

    @ Dan – I have often wondered about that. Certainly I have images today that I am quite happy with. Am I to look forward to the day of discontent? :-)

    @ Lana – thanks!! I probably only needed the last line without all that rambling!

    @ Paul – very good points regarding the yin/yang. I suppose we have to screw up to have some type of contrast eh?

  6. Great post Mark it definitely hits close to home with me on a different level, with photography I am just happy to be where I am but at my day job it was a different story.

    Coaching High School Basketball in Indiana is all about success or failure and the thing we tried to instill into our kids was that you will never gain any amount of success without failing first.

    Very few walk in a star and the ones who did many time failed and were never taught how to deal with the emotion the goes with it, failure makes success that much more sweet and worth working for.

    Sorry for the long post about something other than photography related but the two do kinda intertwine so I thought I might leave my input.

  7. Bernie, I think it is very relevant, and more to the point about how difficult it can be for acceptance.

  8. Very timely post Mark, I just went thru this “is this a failure” discussion internally yesterday as I was working through some blurry Chicago Skyline photos. At first pass I filtered them out of the short list, then when I looked at them again I like the effect that was created. Goes back to that discussion we had a while back about letting time pass.

    A good friend of mine from the day job of technology always said that he “makes mistakes as fast as possible as it just means that he’s learning quickly from each mistake”. When it comes to the technical side of photography, this can be true. When it comes to the artistic/creative side of photography, quite often failure is in the eye of the beholder. I’m sure some people will look at the blurry Chicago photos as say yuck. While others may love them more than I do (especially now that they make me sea sick just look at them…).

    In the end, all we can do is create and release our creations into the wild…and try not to beat ourselves up too much for “failures” we may encounter along the way (in the many forms that they occur). It’s just part of the journey.

  9. Somebody once said to me that you should embrace failure – as it means that you dared to try. I try to keep that in my head. That avoiding failure means avoiding… well, the truly exiting, inspiring stuff.

  10. Good discourse! Especially about defining what failure is to you. Your teachers in school can label you ‘you are so lazy, you won’t go far in this life’… but their definition of success will most likely not be your definition. At least for me, failure is an action which the result comes short of our desired goal. So every miss brings us closer to a hit.

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