How Do You Stay Creative in the Face of Failure?

Photo courtesy  Keir Mucklestone-Barnett on Flickr.
Photo courtesy Keir Mucklestone-Barnett on Flickr.

If you feel like living a creative life is just one long series of small disappointments (and sometimes huge blows to the ego), you’re not alone — plenty of other artists, thinkers, and makers have expressed the same sentiment. After all, everyone has been told to “just get back on” following a particularly crushing blow. But how do you really put that advice into practice? How do you stay creative, and keep thinking and making and doing, even after failure and defeat and disappointment seem to be telling you to turn back, abandon your craft, and go do something easier?

CreativeLive Honor Roll member Adrian Farr recently expressed his frustration with a creative slump following a negative experience. A recent disappointment, Adrian says, “stopped me from doing my best work. In fact any work. Even though I knew it was only one opportunity and I still had many more ahead of me…I still felt like all the creativity had been stripped away from me, after working so hard to get it there in the first place.”

During a conversation with CreativeLive CEO Chase Jarvis, author and speaker Brené Brown explained that disappointment is simply a part of creative life — because creative life is intrinsically emotional, vulnerable, and full of risk.

“If you’re going to live in the arena, you’re going to get your ass kicked. It’s what you sign up for when you decide to be brave.”

But even if you’re expecting to get kicked (sometimes hard), how do you bounce back?

See failure as a challenge:

First, it’s important to contextualize failure. Sociologist and educator Charles Horton Cooley famously noted that “an artist cannot fail; it is a success to be one,” which doesn’t necessarily always feel true, but the sentiment is an important one nonetheless. Looking at defeat and disappointment as an end, rather than one step, is difficult, but necessary. Take this Facebook post from  Sue Bryce, who is nothing if not candid about her own previous difficulties.

Sue Bryce on Failure
Rather than viewing failure as an end of the line, see it as one of many steps. This is easier said than done, but the further you go down the path of a creative life, the easier it gets.

See failure as a growth opportunity:

Failure and disappointment aren’t the mark that an artist is bad, or that they did a bad thing — it’s simply a reminder that there’s more to be done, and moving forward with it as a reminder to keep trying can help lessen the blow. Improvement is a lifelong pursuit. In her TED Talk, Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert explained one of her biggest failures — the widely-panned follow-up to her hugely successful book.

“I found [inspiration] in the most unlikely and unexpected place: I found it in lessons that I had learned earlier in life about how creativity can survive its own failure.”

Similarly, Brené says, using failure as a tool is critical. Because perfectionism can be just as detrimental to creativity, and getting a few slips and falls under your belt can help make future stumbles more palatable.

“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”

Failure can be a clean slate, so get back on:

It’s OK to mourn disappointment and failure. In fact, it’s normal. But eventually, it’s time to keep moving. When you’re ready, the best way to work through a slump is by, well, working. Look to new sources of inspiration, walk around outside, pick up a hobby, or just start writing down ideas. Here’s a video from motion graphic studio TO-FU to get you started:

Adrian says working through it — getting back on, so to speak — is helping him stay creative and motivated.

“I am currently working on a fashion project that taps into the struggles of being an artist and the conflicts we have within ourselves. How we search for our own identity in such a cut throat and noisy industry. I’m hoping it will get me out of the slump I fell into.”

Remember that we’re all going through this: 

It is a fact: Even those who seem to have perfect lives and amazing careers struggle with the drive to stay creative in the face of defeat. Again, we turn to Brené:

“Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.”

How have you dealt with defeat? How do you get back on? Tell us in the comments!

Hanna Brooks Olsen FOLLOW >

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.