One thing in common throughout all the myths and legends since the beginning of time is the story of a hero jumping into an unknown adventure, facing obstacles on the journey, failing, and eventually overcoming all odds which leads to a new perspective, this transformation.
This notion of “the hero’s journey” made famous by Joseph Campbell stretching from Ulysses and the Bible to the plot of many Netflix shows, seems to always include the element of failure. Perhaps because it is the most basic human struggle, a part of life and a necessity for growth and change. Easier said than felt, why do we struggle so much with the feeling of failure?
In Think Like An Artist, the author Will Gompertz who interviewed artists for years as BBC’s Arts Editor questions what it is that prominent creatives do that make them so great and ever-inspired and whether we can do the same by adopting their mindset.
Gompertz separates the concept of failure and the feeling of failure. The concept of failure he argues is ambiguous, subjective, temporary and meaningless.
History is abundant with these examples. Were Monet and Matisse failures when Salon of Paris rejected them or was the Salon a failure when these painters achieved immense success shortly after? Or neither?
Is every single version of a painting before it is finished a failure then? Or is every brushstroke another step on the path to the final masterpiece? Why can’t we see real-life events in the same light? Considering the failures as not the opposite of achievement, but merely a stepping stone on the way to progress.
Whether you are a writer or an investment banker, it is constructive to shift your perspective to view failure in the artist way: as an opportunity to make you better. Artists do not brush off failing simply due to arrogance or insensitivity, it is because of their total commitment to their craft. As Gompertz suggests “what sets artists apart is that they are still out there gnawing away, long after most of us would have given up and gone home”.
Who is not guilty of late-night Googling stories of famous successful people who have failed in the past? (Desperate times, desperate measures!) Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Oprah Winfrey, J.K. Rowling. The guy who started KFC at the age of 65, the international singer who came to New York with 15 dollars in her pocket. Thousands of films with the premise of someone overcoming adversity.
Everyone loves a despair-to-success tale because it makes us realize we are not alone in feeling like we have failed. And that there is yet hope which is harder to remember in times of difficulty, while we are still feeling the pain.
The most successful people in life are the ones who endured failures and simply refused to quit. Obstacles, big or small, are a reality of life and the sooner you learn to ride the waves as calmly as possible, making it a habit to take time to reflect and learn from them, the easier it gets.
Mistakes or setbacks don’t necessarily have to be the things that motivate you to hustle harder if you are not built that way. But they also don’t need to drag you down or get you off track no matter how pivotal they seem in the moment. Just go through the feeling of failure, without denying it, but knowing that it is not permanent and not a reflection of your entire being.
Failure will allow you to gain a new perspective whether on work, love or life. And if you gain a new perspective, it leads to new behaviors, habits, and attitudes. It is the door to improvement. View obstacles and failures as opportunities in your life’s plot to transform you. If you allow it, go through it, reflect upon it and learn from it, it will make you better. Let it enhance your life.
Next time you feel like you have failed, think of when you will look back, years from this moment. How much will this matter then only depends on what you choose to do in the aftermath? So choose to let it be the thing that made you who you are, and not what made you give up.