Fail Up: On Creative Resilience

JordanA Writer's Guide to Persistence, Business of Writing

I don’t know too many people who stand up proudly and shout “yay” when they experience a failure, whether you’ve been accused of doing something wrong, or poorly, or a creative experiment if didn’t go the way you hoped (or a thousand other examples). The more people who are aware of your “failure,” the more you may want to burrow away into a dimly lit cave until all memory of it has passed.

But what if I told you that you should celebrate and share your failures? That failures are signs of experimentation and creativity, of stretching and pushing yourself bravely toward the unknown? Whether you’re a writer, or a teacher, a manager of your department, or a parent.

Failure in the way I’m talking about it is the result of attempting something new, creative or challenging that doesn’t go as you planned (I’m not talking about when you just don’t make an effort; that’s something else altogether). And with all creative acts, attempts are required, and “failures” are thus inevitable.

Stop trying to hide your failures.

Fail publicly, and Often
When I teach a writing class I always ask my students to share their struggles in the public forum, even if they’re embarrassed at “not knowing” something. What’s hard for one person often strikes the chord of another. What’s more, in talking about it new experiences are created—that it’s okay to be seen as imperfect or inexpert, and often an outside the box answer that the students bring to each other, more than I alone could give them.

There’s a vulnerability in admitting to your imperfections, your gaps in knowledge, that brings others come closer. Think of those times you saw a stoic parent collapse into tears, or the moment someone you love opens to reveal painful wounds you didn’t know were bleeding behind the scenes.

I did an internship at a bodywork institute in my twenties when I was pursuing massage therapy as a temporary career. Our teacher, who rarely sat down as he lectured, often repeated a variation on, “I highly recommend you fail in public as often as possible.” What he meant was: as long as your individual ego is attached to “I’m bad and wrong,” growth and change are limited. But the moment you stand before others, laid bare and uncertain, the story changes. Others often express compassion and empathy, and solutions that you couldn’t have dreamed up alone come in.

Take What Worked and Fail “Up”
Failure seems a patently American quality—we of the entrepreneurial mindset, of the bootstraps that must be pulled up alone, of the rugged individual. The overarching message is: if you don’t do it yourself, alone, and perfectly, the first time, how will you succeed?

You’ll succeed the way that artists and other people have for centuries, by learning from your “failures.” You will begin, in essence, to “fail up”—a concept defined by New York University psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, as he studied what made some people resilient in the face of failure. To fail up means to see what doesn’t work as a lesson to learn from, not a reason to whip yourself into a shame corner. It means you understand that there is both great wisdom and necessary humility in letting others see you learning.

More importantly, when you admit to and face your failures you discover several key things: that they are more universal than you thought; that others have compassion for your errors; that there is room for improvement that will lead to something larger than the sum of your efforts and in the process you’ll open yourself to more honest connection with others.

JordanFail Up: On Creative Resilience