It took Thomas Edison 10,000 attempts before he invented a commercially viable lightbulb.  Did he regard them as failures?  Nope.  ‘I have not failed 10,000 times’, he said. ‘I have not failed once.  I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work.  When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work’.

So this blog is about failure and its importance.  It’s borrowed like the last one from Will Gompertz’s great little book ‘Think like an artist’.  Gompertz makes the vital point that, when he writes about failure, he’s absolutely not saying that it’s good to fail.  Instead, he’s talking about the kind of failure that’s embarrassing, crushing and deeply unpleasant.  It’s about when you’re left sitting amid the debris of a failed project trying to see if there’s anything salvageable.  ‘It’s about the notion of failure in the context of creativity’.

Failure the temptress

But although failure’s horrible, it’s also unavoidable because it’s an integral part of the process of making something.  It’s certainly not a reason for giving up.  When everything has come crashing down, however, it’s tempting to feel that this is the moment when we’ve failed rather thinking that this is one of the less enjoyable bits of the creative process.  But artists, Gompertz writes, don’t succumb to that temptation.  Monet, Manet and Cézanne all had their paintings rejected for years by the official Salon in Paris but they didn’t become accountants instead.  They kept going because they believed in what they were doing.  ‘Artists appear glamorous … but in reality they are tenacious grafters’.

Plan B

Now, there’s also something else going on with successful artists – a common trait they tend to have.  When the Rolling Stones began their journey, they were an R&B covers band until Mick Jagger and Keith Richards started writing their own songs.  When Shakespeare began earning his livelihood it was as an actor until he became a playwright.  When Leonardo da Vinci set out, he was marketing himself as an armaments designer before he became an inventor, artist, sculptor, architect, scientist, musician, mathematician, writer, anatomist, geologist, astronomer, botanist, historian and cartographer.  As one does.

The common thread here is that what all these people started out doing changed into something different.  Their success – and that of many individuals who make it – was ‘down to a Plan B’.  Finding your own plan B involves an element of chance – often in the form of an external prompt.  The Stones, for instance, were told by their manager that the way to make money and gain creative control was to write their own music.  A completely different example would be the American artist, Roy Lichtenstein, previously engaged in abstract expressionism, being challenged by his young son to see who could paint the best Mickey Mouse.  And a leading Pop Artist was born.  Whaam!


Although there’s a bit of luck in these external pushes, Gompertz says there’s something about being open to using them creatively.  Quoting the old sports adage, ‘You’ve got to be in it to win it’, he says that ‘as long as you stick at what you are doing, constantly going through the cycle of experimentation, assessment and correction, the chances are you will reach the moment when everything falls into place’.

Fear of finding

Perhaps the biggest threat to our success comes from the fact that too many of us give up too soon or (worse) that we’re too scared to even try.   And yet it we don’t try because the chances of success are small then they become zero.  Creativity (whatever form it takes – from building a company through painting a picture to developing a vaccine) is an imperative in all of us so, I would argue, we’re stifling something essential if we don’t give it a go.  I like Will Gompertz’s stress on finding our own artistic voice because, as he says, it is indeed a question of finding something which is already there in us.  Waiting to be discovered.

I wonder what there might be in you that has yet to be fully unearthed.  And whether you’re going to do something about it.

By the way, it might be worth bearing in mind that psychotherapy can be about removing blocks to creativity and fulfilment!