Jed Birmingham wrote a great article a couple years ago, Black Mountain Review: Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker, about William S. Burroughs and his appearance in The Black Mountain Review in the late 1950s. The Review was the art and literary journal of Black Mountain College, the experimental liberal arts college that existed in North Carolina from 1933–1957.
This is a great video talk by veteran designer Milton Glaser from 2011, created by students from Stockholm’s Berghs School of Communication. The theme of the talk is “Fear of failure,” its causes and consequences.
Fear of failure. It’s a phrase that requires a little thought. I also have a sense that unless you analyze both the nature of fear and the nature of failure, you won’t come to any agreement about the consequences of fear. When I talk to students, about the distinction between professionalism and personal development, I very often put it this way: In professional life, you must discover a kind of identity for yourself, that becomes a sort of trademark, a way of working that is distinctive that people can recognize. The reason for this is that the path to financial success and notoriety is by having something that no-one else has. It’s kind of like a brand, one of my most despised words.
This is funny. I get where Glaser is coming from, and share the skepticism of branding that many people have, which of course is based on bad branding. Marty Neumeier has a good article on the AIGA website, Who’s Afraid of the Big Brand Wolf?, which analyzes several “irrational fears” of branding and brands and offers up the thought experiment of replacing branding with a new world, existing or made-up, and the futility of such an attempt. But let’s get back to our Milton.
So what you do in life in order to be professional is you develop your brand, your way of working, your attitude, that is understandable to others. In most cases, it turns out to be something fairly narrow, like ‘this person really knows how to draw cocker spaniels,’ or ‘this person is very good with typography directed in a more feminine way,” or whatever the particular attribute is, and then you discover you have something to offer that is better than other people have or at least more distinctive. And what you do with that is you become a specialist, and people call you to get more of what you have become adept at doing. So if you do anything and become celebrated for it, people will send you more of that. And for the rest of your life, quite possibly, you will have that characteristic, people will continue to ask you for what you have already done and succeeded at. This is the way to professional accomplishment–you have to demonstrate that you know something unique that you can repeat over and over and over until ultimately you lose interest in it. The consequence of specialization and success is that it hurts you. It hurts you because it basically doesn’t aid in your development.
This is a profound insight, and bears repeating: specialization and success hurts you in the long run because it hinders your further development, as an artist, writer, thinker, or namer. Success leads you to coast, coasting leads to stasis and predictability, predictability leads to boredom and, ultimately, the loss of the audience that came with the initial success. Yes, we all crave success, but the only way to keep developing, and thus insure continued success over the long haul, is to be willing to to take great risks at all times, even when the result lead to…you guessed it…failure:
The truth of the matter is that understanding development comes from failure. People begin to get better when they fail, they move towards failure, they discover something as a result of failing, they fail again, they discover something else, they fail again, they discover something else. So the model for personal development is antithetical to the model for professional success. As a result of that, I believe that Picasso as a model is the most useful model you can have in terms of your artistic interests, because whenever Picasso learned how to do something he abandoned it, and as a result of that, in terms of his development as an artist, the results were extraordinary. It is the opposite of what happens in the typecasting for professional accomplishment.
But moving on from that particular idea to the idea of fear of failure, which is an inhibiting characteristic. One question is, What are you afraid of? Is it the condemnation of others? If you do something and it is inadequate is the criticism of critics and other experts and even your friends and relatives, that embarrasses you, that makes you unwilling to go forward? Of course there’s also in professional life, the fear is, that you won’t get any more work, because visible failure is a detriment, people think–and perhaps correctly–that you don’t know what you’re doing. So, there is that inhibiting factor. Another one that may be more profound, and more interesting, is our own self-criticism.
A characteristic of artistic education is for people to tell you that you’re a genius. And that you’re an artistic genius, and that you’re a creative genius, and so everybody gets this idea, if they go to art school, that they’re really a genius. Sadly, it isn’t true. Genius occurs very rarely. So the real embarrassing issue about failure is your own acknowledgement that you’re not a genius, that you’re not as good as you thought you were. And doing a project that is truly complex and difficult tests your real ability, and since we all have a sensitive ego, alas, within our confident facade, the thing that we most fear in regard to failure, is our own self-acknowledgment that we really don’t exactly know what we’re doing.
There’s only one solution, and it relates to what I was saying earlier: You must embrace failure. You must admit what is. You must find out what you’re capable of doing, and what you’re not capable of doing. That is the only way to deal with the issue of success and failure because otherwise you simply will never subject yourself to the possibility that you’re not as good as you want to be, hope to be, or as others think you are. But that is, of course, delusional.
So my advice finally about fear of failure, which is a kind of romantic idea, there’s only one way out: embrace the failure.
This is very astute, and a great analysis of how mediocrity, conformity and predictability prevail in most creative endeavors. Fear of failure, in its myriad forms, leads to a repetition of what you (and others) know you are good at, in order to avoid failure. Professional success reinforces the tendency to do what you are good at and not to risk failure, and gradually anything that may have been interesting in the initial work, idea or dream has been squeezed out. Glaser is right: you have to embrace failure, make it a part of your process, use it to learn from and grow. Don’t focus on the outside pressures, real and powerful though they may be–focus instead on the internal need to try, fail, learn and grow. That’s the only way to develop, in art, in science, or in naming.
Buckminster Fuller said it well: “Whatever humans have learned had to be learned as a consequence of trial and error experience. Humans have learned only through mistakes.”
[ Source: Berghs’ Exhibition 11 videos ]