Earlier this year, I decided to take on VEDA – Video Every Day in April. I failed almost instantly, and that was the best thing to happen to me. I’ve made a video about it – given that YouTube was the intended platform for VEDA – which you can see below. But here, I want to more fully discuss the concept of failing better.
The advice has been repeated to me time and again, in two iterations: fail quickly, and fail better. I’d argue they’re the same thing. Today, I’m going to explore the notion of failure, and I’m going to start with the classic notion of failure.
Failure is not an option.
I’m a qualified teacher. Failure is a big part of my life. Specifically, the task of a teacher is to prevent the failure of students. If a student fails, the teacher fails. If a student fails, they are punished. It’s the same in sport, in the arts, in romance; if you fail, that’s it. You can never come back from it. Failure is not an option.
Except when it is.
Letting Yourself Fail
No one will tell you to fail on purpose. That’s a silly idea. However, there’s a difference between intentional failure, and permission to fail. Permission implies that you’re still trying not to fail, which, if the circumstances are right, is a good thing. You should definitely not just abandon something because it’s hard.
The question remains: what if you’re failing because you’re doing something wrong?
We focus so much on results, particularly in education, that we sometimes ignore the process. A student fails a test, and his parents are angry. They see the grade, but they don’t see the work. They ignore the elements of the failure. Quite often, a student’s failure in class is a result of (a) an unsuitable teacher or teaching method, (b) an inattentive student, (c) a learning difficulty, (d) complicated material, or (e) a combination of the above.
Students are not allowed to fail, but say they were. Say we allowed students to fail an exam, without punishment, but they had to fail early on – rather than struggling to keep up – and had to come up with a good explanation as to why they failed. What would happen?
Let’s examine my own grades in school. I failed the Design Communications Graphics mock exam in sixth year. (In fact, the whole class did.) Of options a-d above, we can ignore (b) and (c). I tried in that class, and I do not have a diagnosed learning difficulty. So (d), the material. That was definitely an issue – it was the first year of a new curriculum, one so over-laden with material that the class struggled to keep pace. (Hence, whole-class failure.) The other issue was (a). Not the teacher himself, but the method. And the method was influenced by the behaviour of other students, and the old curriculum. My failure wasn’t the teacher’s fault of course, but I was certainly unprepared for that exam.
How could I have passed it? Simple: take an unofficial exam sooner. I would fail that one, sure, but then the issue of failure could begin to be dissected. We needed to be taught in a different manner, because we couldn’t change the material.
Applying this notion of early failure to creative or business endeavours, we have different stakes at hand. The class’s failure had implications on our Leaving Cert exams. A business’s failure can lead to financial loss. Early failure of a product for a business – letting the product fail, rather than struggling to keep it alive – can save a business a lot of money. Early failure of a creative project can save time and energy, and when you’re an artist, they can be your only resources.
Let’s flash forward from my failure in sixth year to my failure this month: VEDA. I managed two videos, and fell ill. I lost my voice, almost entirely, and had my graduation to attend. I could have struggled on, but I would have produced something poor. So, I failed quickly. I dropped out of the VEDA video race after only two videos, and didn’t get to make another video for a couple of weeks.
The issue I had with VEDA was my inability to complete it in a way that would have made me proud of my work. Not the actual making of the videos – I could have managed with no voice – but the end result. I probably could have produced 30 videos, but I definitely wouldn’t have been happy with them. The factors determining my failure or success were more than how many videos I made, but how good those videos would have been. Without a voice, terrible. At least 15 failed videos, going by how long it took for my voice to fully return.
My recognising the parameters of my failure early on, I was able to make a shift in what was important to produce in April. I ditched VEDA – one creative project – to make book covers – a different creative project altogether, and one that I was not physically hindered in following through on. I made two covers, and met my tight deadline to have them printed. Then, I got two videos out of that – the one featured in this post, and one I made revealing the covers of the books. I also got two blog posts out of it, to correspond with those videos.
I could reattempt VEDA – or at least, a video every day project – any month I choose, because I know I can produce the content. But I couldn’t this month, so I reassigned my creative energies into another project. We have limited resources, and if we’re going to fail at some point, we might as well make the best use of those resources, rather than throwing them at a project destined for the rubbish bin.
When Failure is Not an Option
The important caveat to all of this, of course, is that sometimes failure is not an option. Those reasons have less to do with process, and more to do with reasoning. I didn’t abandon VEDA because I was bored with it, but because I would have been sinking my resources into making something I would have been deeply unhappy with. However, I have abandoned books. I stopped writing one book because it wasn’t going anywhere, and another because I was unmotivated. These are two types of failure. One is a failure of the project, when the book wasn’t written or planned well enough to reach a conclusion. Failing to finish it meant I could do something else, instead.
The other book represents a failure of character. Lacking motivation is a poor reason to quit. This does come down to personal circumstance, of course, but simply being bored is not a good reason to abandon a creative project entirely. That’s not making an option. That’s making failure the only option, and that path leads only to dead ends. When I stopped writing that book, I stopped writing anything else out of guilt.
How could I have failed better? By not simply quitting. I don’t mean that I should have forced myself to write. Rather, I should have pursued other avenues.
The book I was working on is The Blood of Leap. It’s the sequel to The Hounds of Hell, one of the two books I’ve just gotten printed. When I started work on the book again recently, do you know what I did? I examined what I’d already written, replanned the book using that content, and readied myself for another attempt. That’s how I should have failed to begin with: figuring out what was wrong, and fixing it.
I’m failing quickly, and I’m failing better. I encourage you to do the same.