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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 “crack the code” on what it means to actually understand and develop creative consciousness. To harness human creativity not only to make art, but also to wield it as a force for regeneration in business, in change leadership, and restoring nature.

This article will explore on of the primary keys to understanding and developing creative ability. Some people call it “failure” — but it isn’t. Failure is learning something very specific. 

Artists don’t, contrary to popular belief, simply imagine something then BOOM, create it, like a slide projector. In reality, they imagine something, then “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 creative people know that there is simply no such thing as a straight line from their initial idea to a successful outcome. It cannot happen that way.

Why? Because to discover something, you have to discover it in practice, and not just in your head. OK, every once in a while, someone comes up with a great idea and bam, realizes it on the first try. Sure — with small things. Maybe even with big things. But when that happens, that is the “prepared mind.” It means you’ve either got the chops for genius by dint of nature or you’ve been practicing and working at something a long time, so that when inspiration strikes, you can go straight there. But please understand this: it’s not how creativity works.

Take any great artist or creative person and you will find many more failures than successes. They just bury their failures; the compost them; they paint over them. For them, a failure is simply another step towards an outcome. It’s not a failure; it’s a step.

Granted, it’s hard to look at the big failures as “steps.” But the reframe from “failure” to “hunt” helps you understand that in the complexity of life, finding a real solution to a thorny issue, whether that’s succeeding in business or love or art or anything else, requires you to hunt for it.

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. “Double Guardian,” by Jeff Barnum, oil on canvas, 2013–2017.

 

The main requirement for the hunt is that you keep trying.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. Understanding the archetypes at play in all creative work means you know how to create. Anything — not just art. This know-how gives you a foolproof approach that you can apply to any creative 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. Creative consciousness.

Every creative effort involves, by definition, uncertainty. Why uncertainty? Because if you’re not uncertain, you’re certain — and if you’re certain, you’re repeating yourself. You’re doing what you already know how to do, not creating anything new. Creativity implies uncertainty. Get used to it.

The problem is, uncertainty can be hell. Or it can grow you. You get to choose.

Part of developing creative ability is the aptitude for “negative capability,” a term coined by the poet John Keats. Negative capability is the ability to endure an indefinite period of uncertainty without crisis. 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. Would you like Bacon or Rembrandt with that serving of uncertainty?

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

What’s true in art also applies in companies, organizations, and even societies. High stakes and frightening situations trigger a spectrum of reactions, from excessive submissiveness to aggression, dominance, and other behaviors. These and many other destructive reactions and patterns win the day when leaders don’t have the personal and leadership capacity to endure uncertainty gracefully and productively. Resisting these reactions and surviving the tensions that come with uncertainty is part of “negative capability.”

We’ve seen great teams, businesses, and whole 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. They are at heart destructive reactions to the inherent uncertainty in living.

If you want to do something big, challenging, and meaningful in this world, buckle up. Grow yourself inwardly. The path is littered with people who repeat themselves or simply crack when they face the next level of not knowing.

3 Comments

  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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