Permission to Fail

Here’s a handful of quotes to inspire you to fail and fail again because failure is an essential part of the creative process. It’s also a part of life.

If you’re not failing, maybe it’s because you’re not trying hard enough.

So go out there and fail better, fail faster. Rack up as many failures as you possibly can!

An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail. –Edwin Land

Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm. –Winston Churchill

The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything. –E. J. Phelps

It takes sixty-five thousand errors before you are qualified to make a rocket. –Werhner von Braun

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. –Ken Robinson

Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. –Leonard Cohen

I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot… and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s precisely why I succeed. –Michael Jordan

To develop working ideas efficiently, I try to fail as fast as I can. –Richard P. Feynman

Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure—or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember, that’s where you will find success. –Thomas J. Watson

Failure is a bruise, not a tattoo. –Jon Sinclair

An inventor is almost always failing. He tries and fails maybe a thousand times. If he succeeds once then he’s in. –Charles Kettering

I failed my way to success. –Thomas Edison

Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. –Samuel Beckettt

To be wrong is nothing unless you continue to remember it. –Confucius

Also:

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. –Linus Pauling

If I have a thousand ideas and only one turns out to be good, I am satisfied. –Alfred Nobel

I’m a perfectionist, which I think is a mistake. –Michelle Shocked

So try not to be too attached to any of the ideas you currently have or to take failure personally. Use the results—good or bad—as feedback not as evidence. And begin again.

Ready to Amp up Your Creativity?

An article in 99U offered its readers 10 “creative rituals” used by various creative professionals, including writers, entrepreneurs, and designers. Of course, you don’t have to be a creative “professional” to be creative. Creativity is an approach to being in the world.

And, as the article’s author Sean Blanda says:

Sustained creativity doesn’t come from a flash of brilliance or a single afternoon of inspiration. It comes from a consistent routine that serves as the bedrock for getting things done.

There’s a difference between rituals, routines, and habits. Jack Kerouac touching the ground nine times before writing is a ritual. Writing every day is a habit. “Brainstorming at the bar” (item 9 below) is a routine. There’s value to be had from all of these suggestions, but some are more valuable than others. (Hint: Don’t miss #7.)

#1 Take a Quarterly Vacation

Venture capitalist Brad Feld says that taking a week off every three months with his wife is the most impactful thing he’s done. He leaves his computer at home and turns his smart phone over to his wife for the duration. While away from home, Feld reads, relaxes, sleeps, and generally enjoys himself, returning home refreshed.

Maybe taking four weeks of vacation a year is feasible for you, but even if it isn’t, the recommendation to take time away from your regular work and routines is a good one. The amount of time you spend away isn’t as important as getting away—and really disconnecting when you do.

#2 Hold a “Retrospective” After Projects

Harper Reed (former Obama campaign CTO) said his team relied on meeting at the end of each project to ask what the experience was like, what went right, and what went wrong. They didn’t wait till the end of the campaign to do it; they conducted many such meetings along the way. That allowed them to pay attention to feedback and adjust course.

It may be easier to hold a retrospective meeting with a team, but even if you work solo you can incorporate a reflective activity into your workflow. It’s difficult to identify what’s working and what’s not working if you don’t stop, even briefly, to assess. Another way of using this process is to stretch your thinking by asking those questions near the start of a project or goal from the perspective of having completed it.

#3 Write Every Day

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, is a professional writer who also uses writing “as a tool for self-discovery” when she’s trying to work through something or make a tough decision. She believes that “writing forces you to locate your clarity.”

I’m a big fan of developing a writing practice, but I think writing only leads to clarity if you use it deliberately and intentionally. As I wrote in W Is for Writing, “in order to get the best results, you need to be clear from the outset about what you want from your writing.”

#4 Create an “Interesting People Fund”

Writer and entrepreneur Ben Casnocha invests in an “interesting people fund,” which he describes as a pre-commitment strategy. He pre-commits both time and money to meeting interesting people to make it more likely that he’ll actually do it. As he says, it takes time to develop any kind of relationship.

I think that allocating resources (time and money) to cultivate relationships with interesting people can, over time, alter your mental model. You’ll be on the lookout for people who interest you and you’ll get into the habit of reaching out to them to make a connection on more than a superficial level. This may be more important in our high-speed, digitized lives than it has ever been!

#5 Keep “Tear Sheets” to Get Inspired

Designer Sarah Foelske gets stuck once in a while; that’s when she “visits her tear sheets.” (Tear sheets are pages clipped or torn from a newspaper or magazine that show a client’s ad.) She’s saved things she likes or that inspire her, including books, beautiful packaging, or pages from magazines. She finds that getting away from the project she’s working on and flipping through her tear sheets, even if for a few minutes, can spark new ideas.

This is really an inspiration file, so it could take almost any form, depending on what inspires you. There’s such an abundance of new brain and behavior information that my habit is to either bookmark or print copies of the articles that interest me to check out later. That may seem like research more than inspiration, but it’s really both. I often get new ideas from what I read and make new connections, which energizes me—and that, I think, is the point of an inspiration file.

#6 Nap Every Day

News anchor Pat Kiernan takes a nap. Every day. He says he’s “super protective” of his nap and keeps a hard line about it. “You have to learn how to say no.” He wants to be rested and healthy, so he has learned to resist the temptation to do everything he’s invited to do.

There’s a lot of research to support the benefit of daily napping, and I know several people who swear by it. But I confess that I’m not one of them. If a nap during the day recharges you, then take Kiernan’s advice to heart and treat nap time as you would any other important appointment on your calendar. If you’re intentional about making it a habit, you’ll find that much easier to do.

#7 Envision What You Will Be Remembered For

Rapha founder Simon Mottram writes “faux business pieces,” articles for Financial Times or Wall Street Journal as if the company had already accomplished their current goals. In one article, he described how Rapha had revolutionized the cycling market and was “leading more people to discover road racing as a lifestyle and a fundamental part of their lives.” He was very specific about what that looked like and how many customers the company had. Five years later, he says, the article pretty accurately described the company’s reality.

“Envision what you will be remembered for” doesn’t go far enough. This is an example of identifying and visualizing your desired outcome clearly and specifically enough to try it on for size—and to use as a benchmark to tell when you’ve gotten to where you wanted to go. The desired outcome is not the same thing as the goal. A good goal is S.M.A.R.T., but that’s not enough. You have to identify what’s going to be different afterward and what it’s going to feel like and look like—for you and for others. (Essentially, why do you want to achieve this goal or create this thing?) Taking the time to identify your desired outcome is a habit that pays spectacular dividends and one that you can incorporate into planning anything of any nature in any area of your life.

#8 Brainstorm at the Bar

Designer James Victore says he does his “think-work” at the bar and his “work-work” in his studio. He sketches on paper, usually in a bar or restaurant. His routine includes going to the park to write (longhand) for an hour or so in the morning and then taking his writing to the studio to work on. Afterward, he goes to a bar or restaurant, has a beer, and refines his idea or does some sketching. He uses his studio for “putting stuff together” rather than coming up with ideas.

I can relate to this one! I discovered that while I can do all kinds of work in my home office, one thing I cannot do there is any kind of long-range planning. I’d tried taking the planning to various coffee shops, but that wasn’t effective, partly because I don’t—and apparently don’t want to—equate coffee shops with work. But I discovered, almost by accident, that taking my planning materials to the nearby library allows me to get an amazing amount of work done in a relatively brief amount of time. So notice how your environments affect you and figure out which environment is the most effective for the task or process you’re working on. Develop a routine around what works rather than around what you think should work.

#9 Get Out of the Building

Garrison Keillor credits getting out into the “observable world”—as opposed to sitting and looking at a blank page—as providing him with “the start of something.” He recommends walking around with scrap paper and pen to take notes on what you see in the world. These observations and notes are valuable even if they don’t make it into your final work because “everything—everything—starts with the observable world.”

Your brain usually determines what you pay attention to, so you attend to things selectively. We all do. Check out The Invisible Gorilla video on YouTube for verification. Creating a practice of not just noticing what you notice (the usual suspects), but consciously directing your attention can definitely change your perspective. Tell your brain what kinds of things to look for and it will find them. It will also make connections and see patterns that might otherwise have been invisible.

#10 Engage in “Morphological Synthesis”—or Not

Artist and filmmaker Ze Frank uses morphological synthesis to segment his thinking process into parts. He says, “You take 4-5 adjectives or characteristics and then brainstorm in that direction.” He then “flips back and forth between extremes until something interesting comes out of it” and then repeats the process. He likes it because it “forces you to explore the outside boundaries of things.”

OK, that’s interesting, but what Frank also said in the same interview is that he makes something every single day. He said it’s the only design habit he has. “No matter what, I make something.” Developing the habit of making something every day is awesome. It doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t have to be “successful.” It doesn’t have to be totally original. Just make something. If you’re a writer, write something. If you’re a cook or a chef, cook something. The result doesn’t need to be a tangible object, however. This is about creativity, after all. Create an idea or a concept. Make a new connection between ideas, objects, or people. Have some kind of impact.

I think this is a wonderful agenda to take on: what did I make today?

Look for Limitations

When Phil Hansen was in art school, he developed a shake in his hand that prevented him from drawing a straight line. He was interested in pointillism at the time, but the technique exacerbated the problem to the extent that eventually he gave up art. The shake in his hand didn’t go away. The neurologist who told him he had permanent nerve damage suggested he “embrace the shake.” So he did.

Embracing the shake meant embracing limitation, which is what led him to discover that working on a larger scale with bigger materials was easier on his hand.

This was the first time I encountered the idea that embracing limitation could actually drive creativity.

In the video below of his TEDx talk in Kansas City, Hansen says:

I realized that if I ever wanted my creativity back I had to stop trying so hard to think outside of the box and get back into it.

He set out to impose all kinds of constraints on the art he created. The image at the top of this post was the result of his intention to create something for under a dollar. (When he asked someone at Starbucks for 50 empty cups, he got them.)

You become more creative by actually looking for limitations.

He’s written a book about creating art aimed at “kids” from 8 to 70 titled Tattoo a Banana: And Other Ways to Turn Anything and Everything Into Art.

Looking at limitations as the source of creativity changed my life.

It’s impossible to create anything, do anything, or just be (alive) without experiencing limitations. The trick is not only to look for limitations, but also to embrace them.

Demystifying Creativity

demystifying creativityEach day, we create thoughts, ideas, meals, impressions, relationships, goals, deals, situations, and objects of all types, shapes, and sizes. We create sadness, happiness, love, peace, violence, and everything in between. We create order out of chaos and chaos out of order. Our creations run the gamut from tiny to monumental, practical to completely frivolous, transitory to long-lasting, and helpful to harmful. I had fun writing about some of the things I created when I was in elementary school.

To a great extent, we also create ourselves.

Yet, the many myths and mysteries surrounding creativity get in the way of our ability to unleash our full creative potential. So let’s do a little myth-busting and demystifying.

What is creativity?

There are many different definitions of creativity, some of which are quite complex. I think simpler is better. Creativity is the ability to see what already exists in a new light, to think of new ideas, and to make new things.

Is there a difference between actually creating something and just thinking creatively?

Some creativity “experts” make this distinction and suggest that unless the creative form (the new idea or object) is widely accepted (valued) in the field within which it was generated, it isn’t entirely legitimate. But that seems like a very high bar and one most people would fail.

Certainly creative thinking is a prerequisite for being able to create something new. But being a creative thinker has many rewards apart from the products of creativity. For example, compared to a non-creative thinker, a creative thinker is less likely to be bored, is more likely to have greater problem-solving abilities, and is very likely to get more general enjoyment out of life.

Is creativity something you’re born with or can you train yourself to be creative?

Based on their orientation to tradition, authority, and conformity, some personality types may have a greater or lesser tendency to think creatively. But everyone has the ability to be creative, and people who are already creative can become more creative.

Is being creative the same as being artistic?

Absolutely not. This is one of the biggest myths about creativity. Creativity is extremely useful, even necessary, in mathematics, science, computer technology, education, medicine, business, and many other “non-creative” fields. It may be even more important to note that being artistic is not the same as being creative.

Do you have to be “right-brained” in order to be creative?

The myth of people being either “right-brained” or “left-brained” has contributed to the stereotype of the free-spirited creative person who is high on imagination and low on logic and practicality. Although the two sides of the brain do have different functions, they are in constant communication with each other and both are essential to creative thinking.

Are creative people more eccentric than other people (maybe even a bit mad)?

Well, in the case of highly creative people, the answer seems to be…maybe yes; maybe no. For more on the link between creativity and mental illness, you can read this post with links to some of the research. But learning how to think more creatively is unlikely to lead you down the slippery slope to eccentricity or madness if you weren’t already traveling along that path.

Is brainstorming an effective technique for increasing creativity?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes and no. Beginning with a group brainstorming session is not the best approach to creative problem solving. But research shows that if the members of the group first consider possible solutions on their own before participating with the group, group brainstorming produces more numerous and better quality ideas.

How practical is creativity in the real world?

As counterintuitive as it may sound, creativity may be the best hope we have for solving most, if not all, of the real-world problems that now exist. As Einstein is quoted as having said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

T Is for Thinking

What exactly is thinking? It turns out this is an area where you can’t trust dictionaries to provide meaningful definitions. If you consider the various definitions of the word—or the process—you’re likely to either be confused or to grab one that fits your existing concept so you (and your not-necessarily-thinking brain) can move on.

I don’t want to get philosophical about it, but I think there’s value in acknowledging the confusion. Being able to think clearly and effectively is essential for anyone who wants to lead a satisfying and meaningful life. It’s the difference between using your brain and letting your brain use you.

Warning! Metacognition* Ahead.

One definition equates thinking and opinion. But that source also equates opinion and judgment, so my opinion is that their thinking is sloppy and can’t be trusted. Are they referring to opinions and judgments rendered as a result of careful deliberation or are they referring to off-the-cuff (and often off-the-wall) moment-to-moment opinions and judgments that result from jumping to conclusions based on little or no evidence?

Another source says thinking is the action of using one’s mind to produce thoughts. This sounds reasonable, but I’m not sure what they mean by “using one’s mind.” Based on the way the two parts of the brain work, we know that the majority of thoughts we have are suggestions from System 1 (the unconscious) rather than the result of conscious deliberation.

Yet another definition equates thinking with having a conscious mind. But there’s a difference between consciousness and both the contents of consciousness (what you’re aware of—see above) and conscious processes. You’re conscious of all kinds of things you’ve never given any particular thought to.

For example, I’m aware that I dislike the color pink and rainy climates. I’m also aware that I’m suspicious of people who prefer rainy climates. But I’m not under the impression that any actual thinking was involved in the development of those so-called “thoughts.”

How Do I Think?
Let Me Count the Ways.

Some of the confusion undoubtedly results from the fact that, as with memory, there are so many different types of thinking that the term needs adjectives to clarify and differentiate them. Variations on the theme of thinking include:

  • Critical thinking
  • Associative thinking
  • Ruminative thinking
  • Creative thinking
  • Default-mode thinking
  • Counterfactual thinking
  • Overthinking
  • Positive thinking

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly, rationally, and objectively and to understand the logical connection between ideas. It’s an active rather than a passive process. Because it requires System 2 (conscious) attention, it doesn’t come naturally and isn’t easy. In order to make an important decision or solve a significant problem, you need well-developed critical thinking skills so you can effectively evaluate both the information at hand and the “intuitive” suggestions spontaneously arising from System 1.

Associative thinking is the process System 1 (the unconscious) uses to link one thing (thought, idea, experience, etc.) to another. Associative thinking is much faster than logical, linear thinking, and there are times and places when quick, non-reflective responses are required. But there are some built-in problems with associative thinking. It sacrifices accuracy for speed, so the patterns it sees and the connections it makes don’t always lead to useful conclusions. It doesn’t discriminate very well, preferring clear-cut distinctions rather than shades of gray. And it takes numerous cognitive shortcuts known as cognitive biases.

Ruminative thinking is the tendency to passively think about the meaning, origins, and consequences of negative emotions (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). One negative incident or thought leads to another, and the escalating intensity of negative thoughts can result in depression, aggression, or even an increase in physical pain. You can ruminate about situations, other people, or about yourself (self-rumination). Rumination can feel like problem-solving, but all it does is keep you focused on the problem. The danger is that it can become a habit—and habits are notoriously difficult to change.

Creative thinking (or creativity) is the ability to see what already exists in a new light, to think of new ideas, and to make new things. This is less a talent or gift than an approach to life, and it provides many rewards apart from the products of creativity. Creative thinkers are less likely to be bored, more likely to have greater problem-solving abilities, and are very likely to get more general enjoyment out of life. The key to creative thinking is to know when to use logical, linear (System 2) thinking and when to use associative (System 1) thinking.

Counterfactual thinking is thinking that runs counter to the facts. It consists of imagining outcomes other than the ones that occurred: the way things could have been—or should have been—different from the way they turned out.  Being able to imagine different outcomes is an enormous evolutionary and practical advantage. It’s integral to being creative or inventive and in not continuing to make the same mistakes over and over again. Counterfactual thinking can be either functional (helps you figure out what to do next time) or nonfunctional (leads to blame, stress, anxiety, etc.). And it can be either upward (how could things have gone better?) or downward (how could things have gone worse?).

Default-mode thinking is the opposite of mindfulness. Although you can sometimes direct your mind to focus on what you want it to focus on, at other times it just wanders along a winding path on a trajectory of its own. That’s because whenever you’re not focused on an external task—and even sometimes when you are—the network of brain structures referred to as the Default Mode Network (DMN) is active. Mind wandering isn’t the same as being distracted. In fact, default mode thinking is essential for consolidating memory and maintaining your sense of self (who you are).

Overthinking is often the result of believing you can fully determine—or even guarantee—an outcome based on the amount of thinking you do about it. It often consists of making multiple lists of pros and cons, running through if/then scenarios, trying to gather as much information as possible, or attempting to approach an issue from every conceivable angle. This is not an effective approach to planning or decision making because thinking more or thinking harder doesn’t lead to clarity, only to confusion and possibly a headache. Too much logical, linear thinking can be as bad as too little.

Positive thinking is usually defined as a mental attitude that accentuates the positive and eliminates the negative. Supposedly, positive thinking can help you succeed and better deal with life’s upsets and challenges. However, a considerable amount of research has come to a different conclusion, which is that positive thinking may be more of a hindrance to success than a help. Positive thinking isn’t the same as optimism, which is a character trait. Positivity and optimism are desirable, but not to the point where your glasses become so rose-colored you’re unable to see through them.

*Metacognition means thinking about thinking as opposed to reacting to it or being at the effect of it. The part of the brain that runs you most of the time (the unconscious) initiates both thoughts and actions that serve to maintain your personal status quo. So if you want to change the status quo, you need to determine what kind of thinking you’re doing—or what kind of thinking is “doing” you.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.