Paying Hell for Creativity: Why “Failure” is Actually Good

“When you’re down, when you’ve been kicked down in the street and then kicked a few more times until you’re bleeding and your teeth are out, then you only have up to go. You get reborn again, and expectations aren’t so great because they’ve taken you away. It’s beautiful to be down there. It’s so beautiful!” — David Lynch.


At Magenta Studios, our goal is to “break the creativity code” — to understand creativity, to teach it, and to use it not only to make art, but also as a force for healing and regeneration in the world.

One of the many keys to creativity is that artists don’t, contrary to popular belief, simply imagine something then BOOM, create it, like a slide projector. Instead, they imagine something; then they have to “fail forward” until they discover, through trying and failing, what will work.

In other words, creativity involves a hunt.

To the uninitiated, that hunt can look like either failure, a whole lot of unnecessary work, chaos, or all of the above.

But experienced artists know that there is no such thing as a straight line from their plan to a successful implementation.

The reframe from “failure” to “hunt” helps you understand that in the complexity of life, finding a solution to a problem requires you to hunt for it. The main requirement for the hunt is that you keep trying.


The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.

— Stephen McCranie




When making art, there’s no way to know exactly where you’ll end up. You keep going until the final picture emerges. The hunt is part of the game; it’s part of creating. This painting represents the light and dark sides of the personality. By Jeff Barnum, oil on canvas, 2013–2017


“The hunt” is one of many keys or archetypes to understand when doing any kind of creative work.


Here’s why you need to pay attention to archetypes.


Knowing the archetypes in all creative work means you know how to create things. Any kind of things, not just art things. It means you have a foolproof method that you can apply to any challenge.


We call this creativity competency.


Of course, the creative method looks different outside the art studio and in life. It looks different for individuals, teams, organizations, alliances, etc. But it all follows the same archetypal process.


The second piece of the puzzle: what goes on inside.


Between initial momentum and the created outcome is a long stretch. We call it the gap. That gap is defined by uncertainty.


Why uncertainty?


Because every creative effort involves uncertainty. If you’re not uncertain, you’re certain — and if you’re certain, you’re not creating anything new. You’re repeating yourself. You’re doing what you already know how to do.


That’s fine if you’re doing more of what works. But if you’re trying to find a new way, a new product, a new idea, or a new solution — then you’re gonna cross the gap.


And that can be hell. Or it can grow you. You get to choose.


The second crucial piece we call creative capability. It’s the inner piece.


Let me explain. I don’t mean a skill set, like learning code for example. I mean an inner skill, a set of inner abilities.


An excellent example of a creativity capability is “negative capability,” a term coined by the poet John Keats. It means, essentially, the ability to endure an indefinite period of uncertainty and still be creative and productive.


If you’ve ever made art, you’ll get this. And you’ll know, it can inspire fear — or it can be where you strive and make sense of your life. Will it be Bacon or Rembrandt?

Two very different ways to face uncertainty: Francis Bacon (left) and Rembrandt (right).


What’s true in art also applies in organizations and societies.


We’ve seen great projects run aground because a key leader feared to take a risk or couldn’t see past his ego. Fear and ego are habitual reactions to uncertainty — completely understandable, but also destructive.


Destructive reactions and patterns win the day when leaders don’t have the personal and leadership capabilities to endure uncertainty gracefully and productively. Resisting these reactions is part of “negative capability.”


The same principle applies also at larger scales, in teams, organizations, and even across whole societies. High stakes and frightening situations trigger a spectrum of reactions, from excessive submissiveness to aggression, dominance, and other behaviors. Such behaviors are indicators that a fundamental rootedness, depth, centeredness, and openness are lacking, and that uncreative, habitual reactions have taken hold.


Check out this video from Naomi Klein. She’s basically saying, if you’re on the side of peace, you need negative capability. We’re gonna need to endure the “shock doctrine” (her meme) and instead, create the future we want.



Inner capabilities such as  John Keats’ “negative capability” enable you to structure and thrive in uncertainty — and to have courage for the ongoing hunt for the solutions the world desperately needs.


Creating something new is very demanding work because there usually are no precedents for what you are trying to create. Without knowledge of the archetypes that play out when trying to create anything, you are swimming in perilous waters.


The path behind and before you is littered with efforts that gave up because they didn’t understand what was happening and how to get through to the other side of complexity.


Our solution for you is: understand that creativity — creative competency and creative capability — is what you need in your work, no matter how ambitious or humble. You don’t have to be an artist, you don’t have to identify as a “creative;” you don’t even have to see yourself as creative.


Creativity is already in you, as a gift of being human. It’s just a matter of learning how to activate and practice it.



  1. nancy jewel poer on June 15, 2017 at 9:21 pm

    Very thought provoking – and the video by Naomi is spot on! There is ‘knowledgable courage and creativity’ to face our times!

  2. Paula Sullivan on June 18, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    Thank you, Jeff and Louisa. This is wonderful and wise and astoundingly challenging!

  3. Sue Barnum on June 29, 2017 at 8:00 pm

    This is beautiful, J&L…spot on!!

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