How to Succeed at Failing

Open any business magazine and you’ll find an article about embracing failure.  Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”  I won’t rehash this article or this article or this article. As a society, we seem to have established that failure is important to learning, growth and development.

Then why is it so hard to accept failure?  Why is failure still a dirty word?  Why is there guilt, frustration, embarrassment and heartache when we don’t succeed on our first try?  It is easy to accept on a theoretical level that failure has value.  It is much more difficult to develop a growth mindset.

What is a growth mindset?

Growth mindset is a concept that entered the literature more than a decade ago, introduced in part by Carol S. Dweck’s book Mindset.  The book proposes that there are two types of mindsets, a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.   Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that abilities are fixed and a individuals with a growth mindset believe that their abilities can be developed.

When a person with a fixed mindset tries and fails, he or she takes that failure to heart and is less likely to try again.  On the other hand, a person with a growth mindset examines his or her failure, figures out why the failure happened, and takes steps to learn from the mistakes so that the next attempt will be better.

How does one use a growth mindset?

Truthfully, I believe we’re never just one or the other.  With some areas of our lives, we are more fixed and and some areas we’re more flexible.  The key is to bring awareness of your thoughts and emotions to your art.

Before you start a project, ask yourself what your expected outcome is.  You don’t need to write it down or develop a thesis.  If you’re making a scarf, your expected outcome is that you’ll have a scarf, right?  When something goes awry, how do you respond.  What emotions do you feel?

In the heat of the moment, acknowledge your frustration, fear, guilt or embarrassment and then set it to the side.

  1. Identify your mistake. Where did you go wrong?
  2. Explore your successes. What parts are salvageable?
  3. Think about ways to improve the process. What can  you do or change to get closer to accomplishing your goals?
  4. Find humor in the situation.  Humor diffuses negative emotions.
  5. Look toward the future. How will you use your newfound knowledge?

Mistakes aren’t bad.  They are part of the artistic and scientific processes.  Own them.  Celebrate them.  Share them.  You aren’t weak if you have a failure.  Failure does not negate your value or your existing knowledge-base.  It simply means that there is more to learn.

How does a growth mindset affect you as a fiber artist?

I’ll use myself as an example.  I planned to dye some cocoons live on stream.  My expected outcome was to have colorful cocoons that I could use in an art yarn or another project other project.

Well, I accidentally soaked my cocoons for a week and they fermented in the jar.  When I opened the jar, the most disgusting, carbonated sewage spewed all over my desk and clothes.  It is probably one of the grossest results I’ve had with a fiber preparation.

I powered through, dyed ,the cocoons cleaned everything in the studio, and set the cocoons outside to dry in the hope that the fermentation bacteria would die off.  The next morning, squirrels were burying my cocoons throughout the yard.  I call this a failure.

  1. I identified my mistake; I soaked the cocoons for too long.
  2. I explored my successes.  The cocoons still took dye nicely and would still be usable by the end of the process.
  3.  I thought about how to improve the process.  I know I need to pay closer attention to how long I soak silk fibers.  Even though I was trying to save the silk for a live stream, I should have processed them when they were ready to be dyed.  I also shouldn’t leave them where wild animals might find them.
  4.  I found humor in my situation.  Come on, that clip of opening the jar is hilarious!
  5. I looked toward the future. This accident informed my future silk dyeing as well as how long I soak other fibers.  I am now aware of the raw potential of silk worm larvae.  Maybe someday I’ll try to make silk worm beer.  Don’t hold your breath.

Mistakes, risks, failure are glorious.  Don’t eschew them.  True growth and learning don’t come from the mistakes themselves.  It comes from the ability to reflect on those mistakes and change strategies.


1 comment on “How to Succeed at Failing”

  1. Suzanne Reply

    The word “failure” has so many negative connotations that I hate to use it in almost every context. It’s easy to label something (or someone!) a failure and then just write it off and be done. All too often, feeling as though I have failed at something makes it very easy to go down a dark rabbit hole lined with every other instance where I didn’t live up to my own expectations. Being able to flip your mindset and think of it as a learning opportunity instead of failure is a much better way of thinking!

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