On why success depends on glorious failure.
Whatever we do in life, it all starts with the blank page.
It might be imagining a work of sublime genius like a Beckett play. Or designing an advanced carbon graphite part for an F1 car. Or writing a scam email telling you you’ve won an obscure East African lottery.
How good it ends up being is down to how much you’re prepared to fail.
In most jobs, failure isn’t an option. Yet successful creativity needs failure built into the process. Because if you can’t see what doesn’t work, how do you know you’ve found the right answer?
Celebrate your failures. Learn from them, love their quirks and foibles. They may end up in the bin but when you do find the right solution you’ll be glad of all the wrong ones you met on the way.
So no-one wants to fail but it’s all part of the game. The trick is being able to spot the winners amongst the also-rans. Working with a creative team on a difficult brief a few years ago, I walked into their office which was a sea of paper. Paper on the walls, paper on the desks, paper on the floor. A lot of screwed-up paper overflowed from the bins.
They were at the tearing-your-hair-out-I-can’t-do-this point of the brief. I took a long time to look at everything, whether it was pinned hopefully on the wall or discarded on the floor. Lurking amongst the discarded ideas I saw two words of a headline, the rest hidden by another layout. (If you’ve read my previous piece on hunting for ideas, you’ll recognise this scenario.)
I scooped it up and smoothed out the wrinkles in the paper. They looked askance, after all it wasn’t just an idea that they’d dismissed, it was dead to them — a moment of madness that had not just been dismissed but trampled underfoot.
A small smile lit up my face.
“This is it.” Blank faces.
“No, really. This is it.”
Over the next few days, they developed the idea, sold it to the client and brought the idea to life. The result was a 3-D mail piece that drove people to a website to enter a competition. It pulled in 150% response (people loved it so much they passed it on) and a nomination at Cannes.
Don’t be afraid to fail. Just fail better. As Thomas Edison said:
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
I’ve kept a postcard of this lithograph by Tom Philips on my desk for years as a reminder to fail better. You can read the story behind it on his website and see his Beckett sketchbook here.