Failure: How Artists and Entrepreneurs Can Benefit from Failure
Gerald Slavet, executive producer of the series “From the Top” says:
“There is no such thing as failure in the creative world.”
With each “failure” is the opportunity to refocus, change directions and make adjustments so the final outcome is success. Those few words are extremely powerful IF you are willing to honestly take stock of your progress as you move along on your creative project.
In my title for this blog post I say “Artists and Entrepreneurs” because the process of developing an idea is very similar (or the same!) for entrepreneurs and artists. Both go through this process:
- You get an idea, a kernel of inspiration for a new work, or are assigned a new property to develop
- You visualize the possible areas to explore on that property, look at it from different angles or perspectives, a period of discovery to find how many different variations of the final product or create process you can come up with
- Create a plan to begin creating the property
- Execution phase: Now you actually have to work!
- Assessment, Evaluation and Valuation: Is everything going to plan? Does it need adjustment? What are the roadblocks to the final developed property and how do you overcome those? Is this project on a trajectory of success?
I’ve left off the final steps to final product because that will happen naturally after there is no more assessment to be made, in other words, it is finished and successful. Each step is important, but the step of Assessment and making changes to the plan is the one that can stop a project from being finished successfully. It’s the place where people give up, or “fail”. And in this case, “fail” simply means that the assessment phase has stopped. Too many roadblocks with not enough ways found to work around them.
BUT, and this totally changes the game, what if you look at the “failures” during product development as the opportunities to adjust the product toward success. When you begin the execution phase, breathe easy because there is usually NO WAY that could anticipate the changes that need to be made until you are in that phase. I used to think of failures in development as signs leading to failure and now I see them as golden opportunities to ensure that a product is moving toward success.
Here is the full quote from Gerald (Jerry) Slavet in context during an interview with Jonathan Feist:
“There’s no such thing as failure. I don’t know what that word means. Because as you go down the line, you try things, and you change them and you develop them. Most of the time they’ll work when you want to do them and sometimes they don’t work. Well, when they don’t work you say: ‘That was an interesting idea, but it was a stupid idea,’ and you move on. You’ve got to abandon the concept of failure. There is no such thing as failure in the creative world, because if you don’t experiment and try new things and if you’re not willing to take a leap…you’ll just do the same old same old.”
Without identifying those failures, you have no guideposts to improve your final product. Embrace the failure and yell at the top of your lungs: “Thank you for redirecting me to success!”
Let’s read this quote from Gerald Slavet again:
“There is no such thing as failure in the creative world.”
I’m going to add my own second half to that quote based on Gerald Slavet’s golden words of wisdom:
“There is no such thing as failure in the creative world, if you properly evaluate, adjust and improve.“
Determining success is another topic of it’s own. In my personal work, sometimes the bar of final success is financial and sometimes it is artistic. I am usually the one to decide that final outcome on my own projects, but sometimes it is given to me. In the last couple years I had a major project where the request was: “We desperately need to make money, please create something for us.” I did that and I’m happy to say it made a great return for that client. Then another project was: “We want high artistic value and we don’t care if it makes money.” I asked the client many times, “I can do this and it will have high artistic value, but I don’t think it will make money, are you sure that’s what you want?” The client was adamant, “yes”; so I created that and I’m happy to say that artistically it was of high calibre and the client was satisfied (although I admit it was a little sad to me to know all along that it would not make a generous profit. But I’m happy to say no money was lost, the product broke even).
In the Arts we have this luxury to sometimes pick artistic calibre vs financial gain. Maybe this applies to entrepreneurs in the case of non-profits or in works of compassion and global improvement. But in all these cases, the reassessment of failures during product development is essential toward success; whether that success is monitored by creative or financial markers.
For myself, I have a process now that works well for me with developing creative content. I work in many different creative positions and often as a “hired gun” on other people’s projects, and in that case I listen carefully to the requirements and requests, and then execute accordingly. But in my personal creative projects (“product development”) where I am the project manager overseeing a new creation, here is how I operate currently (and hopefully it’s helpful to you):
- Keep a list of future projects – I always keep a deep list of future project ideas to work on. Often these projects are already partially developed so they are ready to go. In my case I often have people say “create something” without giving me a specific, so this gives me a jump on things to pull from my idea bag)
- Get outside input on the property to develop – I will solicit input from friends I trust or from experts in the particular genre that I am thinking of working in. This is a wide net. For example, in the past six months I have paid one hundred dollars an hour to an expert in a certain genre to consult with them on a particularly large project concept, but I have also asked my mother for input on a particular set of projects. I am aggressive in soliciting input. Most people love it when you ask for their thoughts. *Important Note: I am careful to not discuss particulars of a potential project outside a very small core of about 3 people. For instance, if I am discussing new concepts for a musical I don’t tell the actual plot until I am pitching to a performance organization. Instead I will elude to the elements of what the product is. Until you are going public, don’t tip the details of your particulars!
- Create, do your thing and do not listen to anybody – Notice in the last step I was soliciting input from everyone (sometimes I even pretend to “pitch ideas” to my dog, I know, that’s a sad sign). But now I listen to absolutely no one. That’s because now I’m in the creative process and this is my own unique creative path. If it’s someone else’s path, then it’s not my creative project. If I’m the creator, then I need to create on my own terms with my own vision. If it’s my project, then I’m the one who’s going to take the hit (financial or creative) if it fails. The project execution may be out of my hands in the case of a large group performance, but the creation is totally under my control and responsibility. Listen to your own voice, the still small voice within, go into your creative cave, be a hermit, live in your new world. It’s normal during this phase that I keep my schedule open; or if I’m performing in one show while doing creation on a new one, then people don’t see me much. You are all alone, it’s you and your work. The talk part is over. You are wrestling with artistic dragons that only you can fight. You are creating a world that only you can see. No one else can comment on this world until it’s finished. In simple terms for writers, the end of this phase would be your “first draft.” If you are working in a group, say a group of software programmers, this is the stage where your group isolates itself and works on it’s first implementation, also a “first draft” of product development.
- Find failure points, assess weaknesses, improve them from outside input – This step is what this blog post is really about. You emerge from your creative cave and present the first draft, or your team comes out of isolation and presents it’s first pro type (or detailed explanation of the prototype). Here is your golden opportunity to get feedback on the weak or missing elements of your product. If you are writing a play, this would be feedback from your first reading. If you are a software development team, this might be the first time you present your user interface for feedback. If you are responsible to a board or project manager, this might be the first time you present the current state of your alpha prototype. If there is no such thing as failure in the creative arts, and entrepreneurs listen up because as a visionary you are also part of the creative arts, then you do not emerge from this stage until you are assured of success. In the case of a playwright, you had better re-write and re-write and be on deadline for production so your script is as strong as it can be. For software developers, you need to have time for your end user research and user interface tests so you can make your adjustments also on deadline. Failure can come if you don’t make all the necessary adjustments within your timeline. Making ALL the necessary adjustments means being aggressive with finding those failure points. Script writers, did someone tell you a character’s arc did not make sense and you’ve ignored looking in detail at that. Software developers, did a user have problems navigating the software and you discounted that user as “not tech savvy” without looking into detail whether other users have the same experience. In managing a large and long term project, are you carefully evaluating the sign posts to see where the project needs a nudge in a new direction. In the development of creative works, I often think of a spaceship on earth aimed at a star. In the early stages of creative development, if that spaceship is just a little bit off, over time it could miss that star by millions of miles. Deeper into production or development you can make small little adjustments; think of little spaceship booster nudges. But early in on a project, you need to keep aimed directly at that star. If you are the creator, then you need to know exactly which star you are aiming at and all elements need to support that. Wrong star? You need to identify that early on and redirect. How long does this process take? That’s up to you. For me, I always have a timeline deadline and try to exhaust all failure points within that timeline. The amount of weaknesses you can identify and correct will directly affect the chances of success for your project.
- Product release and evaluate – Was it a success? Did it match your barometer of success? Did you set out for a financial success marker, but end up reverse engineering that and saying, “Well, it was an artistic success.” That’s a cop out. Don’t settle. If you set out for financial success and ended up accepting an artistic success, you should carefully evaluate that to make sure you’re not fooling yourself just because you are afraid of being “unsuccessful.” Your next project’s trajectory to success might be directly dependent on what you learn from your last project. If you accept the moniker of success no matter what the outcome (and I know many people that do this, actually most people seem to do this), then all you’ve done is reset your finishing line after the race is over. Your choice, but how can you expect to excel and truly succeed in the next venture if that’s your mode of operation. Do not reverse engineer the barometer of your success after completion. Learn, evaluate and move on.
For most of my entrepreneur friends, this is not the stuff that keeps them awake at night, it’s the stuff that makes them leap out of bed in the morning and excited to start working. It’s the journey of the refinement process. It’s feeling that there is an entire open vista just waiting for you to navigate through it on your path to success. It’s invigorating and exciting. There is absolutely nothing passive about it. It is life and it is full and beautiful and productive.