On Doing Things Badly

Creativity, Writing

A lot of people talk about “failing well,” and I do love the concept. But, maybe this is just a linguistic quirk of mine, the word failure does not resonate with me a whole lot when it comes to creativity.

I see failure as a binary possibility – pass/fail, success/failure. You fail a test, fail a class. It’s a kind of non-doing. You did not meet the criteria or measurement of success. You failed.

What happens in the creative process seems less black and white, and definitely involves doing. Doing it badly perhaps. When you write a poem that just isn’t working, make a painting that doesn’t feel right, when your rhythm is off, when the solution isn’t coming to you, this may feel like failure. But it’s actually part of the creative process. It’s discouraging and frustrating, sure, but those clunky bits still have value.

Going back to the Facebook conversation I had with my friends and family and again back to my brother’s advice – he said that he believes the more you fail, the more you learn, though it may not feel that way at the time. He used the phrase “hidden knowledge,” which I love, to describe the learning that may go on beneath the surface when you are doing something badly or feel like you are failing. My brother Ryan is younger than me but I look up to him as an artist. I don’t know anyone more hardworking and creative when it comes to following their passion (you should check out his solo work as well as the duo Kodacrome).

Doing things badly is, in fact, an essential and inescapable part of the creative process. As much as I wish it were, it is not possible to be excellent the first or second or tenth time you try something. It’s a cliche, because it’s true, but think of a child learning to walk and how many times they fall as they learn. Most people are able to do some invisible work – mental problem solving, visualization, imagining – to help develop their skills, but there is always going to be some hands-on practice, and you know what they say about practice. That it makes perfect means you will spend a lot of time being imperfect first.

You absolutely have to be willing to do it badly for a while if you want to do something well, or do it at all really. It’s the doing that must be your focus, not your skill level or successes. In November, I set about writing a novel for NaNoWriMo knowing that it would not be good – why? I had never written a novel before. Hell, I’d only written a handful of short stories, back in college! I had almost no practice writing fiction so there was no reason I should expect to magically be great at it. I told myself I surely had at least one bad novel in me that I’d have to get out in order to find a good one. So that’s how I moved forward.

That doesn’t mean you don’t push yourself to do your best, but if you aren’t willing to make mistakes, you won’t even be able to begin. Failures will paralyze you. The pressure will stunt your growth.

I’ve not read any Malcolm Gladwell yet but I know that he is famous for writing that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any skill. This intuitively sounds right, though I don’t think we should be TOO literal about the numbers.

I do think of two problems with this theory. What are the two things that first come to mind, free association style, when you hear that 10,000 hours concept? Mine are Tiger Woods and piano. One problem with the 10,000 hours idea is that it makes us – or at least me – think primarily of technical skills. I don’t think of writing or drawing or singing or acting – things that, I suspect, we tend to think people are either born “good” at, or not. But in fact everyone needs to practice their skill to achieve mastery (or anything close to mastery).

The other problem is that the number 10,000 is overwhelming. If you do something one hour a day, it will take you 27 years to get to 10,000. I’m not so great at math, but I think that means that if you manage to practice your skill for four hours a day, you’re still looking at almost 7 years of practice. If you are, let’s say, a busy mom unschooling two kids and working at home and just beginning to work on your passion, you might think, EGADS, I have decades ahead of me to actually become good at this!

Here’s an antidote to that toxic thought spiral, from The Artist’s Way:

Do you know how old I’ll be time the time I learn to ______ ?
The same age you will be if you don’t.

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