On Creativity: Seek Failure and Make Mistakes if You Want to Improve


Creativity. It’s something I’ve been toying with in my own mind for the last couple of years. The question of ‘how can I develop and grow my work/art?’ is a problem that I think plagues most creative people. With creativity, there aren’t essentially any simple answers.

I recently came across an interview with marketer Seth Godin and photographer Chase Jarvis on Creative Live (below). A few of the things Seth spoke with regards to creativity really resonated and helped me link a few concepts and ideas that have rattled around in my head for a while.

This post is an attempt to put those thoughts into something more coherent. It’s certainly not complete but hopefully, my thoughts and ideas may resonate with a few of you too.

Normally I am wary of any kind of self-help/business gurus; I just don’t believe the majority of what is written or taught is of any benefit to anyone other than the person in question.

I think a lot of people look for shortcuts in the hope of replicating someone else’s path to success. This hunt for a quick fix or bitesize success is a symptom of our society where we can simply Google most things and have an answer straight away. We have the most knowledge of any generation to have lived, but also the least desire to seek our own answers.

Rather than assessing our own practices, we look to the practices of others and search for tips and tricks. We all do it, I’ve certainly done it and still find myself doing it today. And for many aspects of our lifestyle, this is perfectly fine: if you want to know how to make Tom Yum soup you can find a recipe on the Internet, you no longer have to travel half way around the world to find simple factual information. If you want to learn how to adjust the settings on your camera, perfect, just Google it, it’s all at our fingertips.

We no longer have to search for answers, and so we’ve got lazy. But for the creative, this mindset can be damaging.

The Fear of Failure

For the creative, doing the right thing all the time can be wrong. Does that sound strange?

I think to stand out and say something with our work, we have to seek uniqueness—but uniqueness is not something that’s unachievable or only for those gifted with it. Every one of us has the opportunity to be unique by simply photographing the world through our own lens, using our own experience of life.

That’s not to say it’s easy to be unique and create great work… if it were, we’d all be shooting for Magnum and NatGeo. In the video, Seth touches on this when he says, “It’s really easily to be the guy who wears plaid to a funeral, it’s really easy to do that thing that people notice that isn’t remarkable.”

There’s a reason why being the guy wearing plaid to a funeral is different from Tommie Smith and his famous black power salute at the ’68 Olympics—they both did something that was noticeable, but only one of them had something to say to go along with it.

Intent. For your work to be great it needs intention. It needs to be intentional. You need to intend it to say something and intend it to be different, and the intention to be different can have two outcomes: success and failure.

This is why many of us, at certain points in our careers, have found it’s much more comfortable to replicate rather than differentiate; to produce work that is the same or similar to great work we’ve seen online and in magazines. Sadly, without the intention to be different, we can never achieve truly great work.

Replication is easier because it has a defined outcome. When you replicate a great image, you know you’ll probably get something halfway-decent. The problem is that you never grow as a photographer, as a creative.

Which brings me back to the video and the concept of the first pillar of creativity. The first pillar of creativity is not to ask for a guarantee. Creativity isn’t something that’s guaranteed, it’s messy and often ugly but occasionally brilliant. I’d agree.

We live in an age where artists, photographers, and thought-leaders present an image of perfection through social media. You take a look a look at most Instagram accounts and you’ll see a carefully curated selection of images. Hardly anyone shares their experimentations anymore—the failures alongside the successes—myself included.

All images seem to fall along a center line of the status quo, VSCO style retro filters, faded blacks and hip subject matter. We’re all scared of failing, of trying to be different.

In Pursuit of Failure

I’ll put my neck on the line and say that failure is essential. Pixar co-founder Edwin Catmull says of failure:

If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: you are being driven by the desire to avoid it.

He goes on to clarify this, saying, “But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).”

So how do we fail? And how do we make the most of those failures? The key is finding a group of critics. People who can be honest with you and help you develop.

I strongly believe that the point in your photography development when you improve most rapidly are the months after you’ve mastered the basics of exposure. When you’re still willing to fail, and are always trying to improve. When you have mastered the technicalities, but not necessarily the more subjective side of photography.

But give it a few months, and we stop growing at the same rate. It happens around the same time we stop sharing our failures. We reach a point where we feel accomplished enough that to fail is bad, and we stop seeking advice and guidance on how to improve.

It’s important not to hide from failure and it’s equally important to seek critique from the right people. You need to find people who are willing to be both honest and constructive, and preferably people with a developed visual eye—people who understand what you are trying to achieve. It’s easy to seek feedback from your family, but rarely beneficial. It’s easy to get feedback online, but in most cases you’ll receive either trolling or empty platitudes.

The key is finding people who can help you develop and will push you to be a better photographer. Not everyone will agree with your style or your visual taste, but those people who make great mentors are the ones who will offer solutions as well as criticism.

It’s also important to avoid complacency and find people who will push and challenge you, people who will make you push yourself to step outside your comfort zone. Success breeds complacency, and complacency only leads to stagnation. Learn to fail, and put yourself into situations where you might fail.

I’ve spent the last few months pursuing some ideas I have with VR. It’s still nowhere near usable for anything other than testing, but I’ve learnt a lot along the way. If it works, I honestly think it could be very interesting and potentially great, but if it fails I’ve still pushed myself, developed and learned a lot. You can fail gracefully if you accept failure before you start.

Concluding Thoughts

Now, I don’t propose to hold the answers to creative growth—I don’t think anyone can, and I’m still certainly experimenting myself. But it’s important to remember that we live in a world where the barrier to experimentation is lower than ever. The hurdles that the early masters of photography had to scale make any barrier we face pale in significance.

With a camera and a couple of SD cards, we have an almost unlimited canvas upon which to experiment, to try something different, to throw a curveball rather than a straight throw. If we start with the mindset that we will fail and seek guidance and critique on what we do create, when we do eventually fail, we can accept the failure and try to build on it.

This is the only way we can truly improve as photographers and push ourselves (and each other) to be as creative as possible when telling the stories we seek to tell.

About the author: Jacob James is a UK-based internationally published travel and cultural documentary photographer. All of the opinions in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Jacob’s work on his website or following him on Facebook. This post was also published here.

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