“All of us fail, and – because they are bold and ambitious – creators fail the most frequently and, often, the most dramatically. Only a person who is willing to pick herself up and “try and try again” is likely to forge creative achievements. And even when an achievement has been endorsed by the field, the prototypical creator rarely rests on her laurels; instead, she proceeds along a new, untested path, fully ready to risk failure time and again in return for the opportunity to make another, different, mark.” – Howard Gardner from 5 Minds for the Future
As artists, we often believe our work is inherently precious and valuable and meaningful because…well… it is to us. Well, it’s not. And, thinking so is a trap and counter to the idea of the creative process.
The most important lesson I learned as a developing artist was accidental, and if I hadn’t been forced into it, I would have almost certainly continued to hang on to my every “masterpiece.”
I had never built anything. Anything. I had never worked in a woodshop. I don’t measure things very well and don’t pay that much attention to detail. So, building things was not exactly in my artistic wheelhouse. So, of course, when I decided to build something in my first sculpture class, I went big. I built a large cube that looked like a kid’s A-B-C block, but you could get inside. I’ll spare you the details of my early efforts at conceptual art, but the piece did make it into the student show! People got in. People liked it.
Enter ego: Yes, I am Artist. Brilliance. Can you feel that!?
I went home for the summer while the Student Show wrapped up and when I came back, there was my masterpiece, sitting in the hallway. As I stood looking at it, one of my teachers approached and said: “You have to get that out of here.”
Apparently, everyone didn’t feel it should be a permanent installation in the studio hallways. And, apparently, it didn’t fit through any doorways I could reasonably get to. Hmm…what to do!?
The answer was back in the sculpture studio, where it all began… and it was a saws-all. After the initial horror of the thought of destroying my piece, I plugged in the saw and gingerly started to cut. Within moments, I must have looked like the artist version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I ripped that thing to pieces…sawing…splintering…crashing…cutting…and almost certainly bleeding.
And, in the final act of destruction, I dragged my masterpiece piece-by-piece outside and slung it over the side of the dumpster. Holy crap that felt good. It was humbling…and then completely liberating!
I have created art more freely since that day. And, when I teach art, I actually require my students to destroy a piece. I want them to become artists, not just to make pieces of art.
Fast forward fifteen years or so, and I was helping found my first technology startup focused on mobile communication in education. (It’s not lost on me, by the way, that the first sculpture I built and destroyed was also about improving education.) While we were still struggling to get distribution in a number of large school districts, we were presented with a new opportunity:
“We need this kind of app in hospitals.”
We were failing slowly in education and had to be humble enough to acknowledge it. We also had to have the courage to try something else, to keep iterating. Long story short, we seized the opportunity and, having invested countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars with a vision for helping high school students, we took the proverbial saws-all to the education app.
Humility is not about accepting loss or defeat. Humility is about owning the process of exploration and finding the strength and energy to keep doing it. It’s about putting failure in its proper place in our art and in our lives – right at the heart of what we are creating.