Try and Fail

Experimental Image

No, I’m not saying try “to” fail. If you have been there trying to do creative work, you know that you will create a lot of failures along the way to some good work. In creative work we often do not clearly know where we are going. That leads to a lot of failed experiments and dead ends. When we try and fail, is that bad?

Attitude

Our attitude about failure will have a lot to do with our results. A reality for many of us is that, if we are not failing, we are not stretching ourselves and developing new skills or vision. As creatives we cannot play it safe. We have to be risk takers.

I love a quote from a blog by Benjamin Hardy. He was talking about Molly Bloom and said “The moment you realize you can try and fail — and that everything will be okay — then you are free to create.

This is a liberating event in our creative journey. Failure isn’t final. Failure leads to growth. When you fail, no one comes and takes away your camera or your brushes. No one even laughs at us. Realizing we can fail and go on with no consequences frees us to try without worrying much about failing.

Learn by doing

We don’t upgrade our skills and exercise our creativity just by thinking about it. We have to take action. But just taking random action will usually lead to random, unwanted results. We need a way to follow a path that will take us to desired results.

You are probably familiar with the “do it, try it, fix it” loop. It goes by different names, but the concept is pretty much the same. This is an excellent process for improving things.

The basic idea is you try something new. Then you evaluate the results, Was it a success or an improvement? Decide what, if anything, you want to keep of this experiment to incorporate into your tool set. Then, based on the evaluation, plan what to try next. That becomes the basis of the next experiment. It is important to realize this is a cycle, meaning it continually loops and repeats.

Evaluate

At the evaluation stage many experiments may be tossed out. They did not take us in the direction we want to go. It was a failure, but that does not mean we failed. We just tried something that we decided didn’t work for us.

This is part of a process. It is a deliberate plan to systematically push the limits. To do that, we will try a lot of things that don’t work out satisfactorily. The failures are expected, planned even. Not something to be ashamed of. We should be happy to know we tried. Now we are free to do another experiment in a different direction.

Freedom

Freedom is at the core of the process. We are not just trying random things and mostly being disappointed with the results and insecure with our creativity. Instead, we are following a deliberate process of improving our self and our art. And knowing we can try anything with no fear of failure is extremely liberating.

It is easy to get discouraged and think of our self as the failure. We have probably all felt like a fraud who has no right considering themself an artist. Remind yourself that we have to change and grow creatively, and to do that requires a lot of risk taking and failed experiments. Following a process like outlined above makes it a methodical plan. It help us keep in mind that the failure is not a personal failing but a necessary and expected outcome of the growth process. It can be exciting. We can risk more when the fails are not catastrophic.

The image with this article is an experiment. It is probably not what it appears to be. I will leave it to you to decide if it was a failure. I have my own evaluation.

Failing

Walking in the rain

Most of us fear failing. We often avoid taking a risk because we don’t want to fail and feel bad about ourselves. This is a deep seated behavior that is hard for most of us to overcome. Fear of failing can paralyze us.

But I feel that, if you are an artist, you do not have the luxury of always playing it so safe you can never fail.

Fear failure?

Most of us fear failure in most things. Maybe almost as much as we fear public speaking.

Are you a perfectionist? Are your expectations so high that you cannot try new things for fear that you might not do a good job? Does even thinking about the possibility of failing give you rapid heart rate, chest tightness, trembling, dizziness, lightheadedness, sweating?

Or, sorry I’m getting very personal with myself now, are you afraid you are a fake? That you are not good enough or able to do what you profess to do?

Do not believe the labels other people want to put on you. They are quick to want to do it. Did you get rejected for that exhibit you applied for? It doesn’t mean you are a failure. Did a gallery reject you? They were just looking for something else. You can’t really be a failure unless you accept that you are.

Accept disappointment

Not getting the recognition or sales we are seeking hurts. Being rejected by the ones we seek approval from is painful and discouraging.

We have to have a core of confidence in our ability that will keep us going. Our belief in our self must be stronger that the negative messages we get from the outside. Otherwise we will either give up or we will believe that our art is not worthwhile the way we want to do it and we will change to try to become someone else’s idea of an artist. That is living a lie.

We must persist. There are very few true “overnight successes”. Here are some examples from authors. They seem to keep score more.

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected by 12 publishers.

John Grisham’s A Time to Kill was rejected by 16 publishers before he decided to get an agent. The agent eventually rejected him as well.

Chicken Soup for the Soul, by Jack Canfeld and Mark Victor Hansen, was rejected 140 times.

Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times.

These are just anecdotes, data points. Your mileage will vary. But isn’t it great that these people persisted despite what must have seemed like overwhelming failure?

Redefine

Perhaps your expectations are wrong. Maybe you won’t be the next Joe McNally. There are very few of them.

It could be time to change your metrics. Are you defining success as huge sales? Is success for you to be rock star-famous or published in National Geographic? Try looking at it in terms of the satisfaction you get from what you create. Whether you get fame or rejection, the inner evaluation of your art is your own.

Maybe the failures are a necessary part of our growth and maturing. They can reinforce our will to succeed and our belief in our self. It is part of growing up as an artist.

Seek failure

I’m kidding, right? Who in their right mind would seek failure?

Well, when we put ourself out there, that is giving the world an opportunity to reject us. To consider us a failure. We have to do it, to persist, to accept that the rejection will come because we need to have our art seen.

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” – Sylvia Plath

We should embrace the rejections and failures as steps along the way. It is never fun or easy, but we need to get used to it. Keeping on trying even after rejections helps us overcome fear of failure. If we retreat into our shell and refuse to try anymore we will consider ourselves failures. We will believe that self-talk.

Plus, we learn from the experience.

Learn from failure

Whenever we are learning something challenging there is a time of testing ourselves to see if we are getting it. If we are studying math, we solve problems and take tests. If we are learning Karate we spar and go through testing to measure our proficiency. When we are learning music we are asked to do recitals to demonstrate our capability. The exercises develop our skill and the tests not only prove our ability, they develop our mental toughness.

If we never confront our fears we will never know what we are and what we are capable of. This is easier for some of us than others. It is pretty hard for me. I don’t like it. But I force myself to keep on. I may grumble and be in a bad mood for a while after getting a rejection, but I know I have to keep on.

Perhaps the real thing we are learning is how much we believe in our self. Do we consider our art worthwhile and worth the pain?

Terrible Images

Blowing grass by old shack

This is a follow up to my previous post “Kill Your Darlings“. It is too big a subject to let go that easily. There is a time and place for making terrible images. Even to seek to do it. Terrible images can be a springboard to new insight and growth.

One of my heroes I quote often, Jay Maisel, said

“I used to tell my classes when they raved about my work and compared it to theirs, ‘Believe me, I’ve taken more terrible images than all of you put together.’ The trick is not to show them to people.”

Experiment

I believe that experimentation is one of the most common and valid reasons for making terrible images. Many of us photographic artists spend a long time trying to discover our style. But once we have done that, I believe it is a mistake to settle down and only shoot to that style for the rest of our career. We need to push ourselves is different directions. View the works of other artists. Do things to make ourselves uncomfortable.

I am always reading articles and looking at videos to get new ideas. Making myself get out and try some of these ideas I pick up is necessary to see if they work for me. Sometimes they do, but sometimes I just make terrible images.

I have determined for my own values that if I am not growing in my concepts and techniques there is no reason to keep going. Keeping an uncomfortable edge to my work keeps me asking questions. It keeps me fresh. I do not want to keep shooting the same picture over and over.

Shoot a lot

As Jay Maisel hints in the quote at the start, shooting a lot of images is one of the keys to having good ones. The reality is that for even the best of us, the percentage is depressingly low.

No, just walking around and pressing the shutter every few seconds will not lead to some gems. It might make a mildly interesting time-lapse video.

Doing good work in any field takes practice. The infamous 10,000 hour rule is not a truth, but it is generally true. Any discipline takes uncounted hours of practice in addition to formal training. I believe it is certainly true for photography.

It is important to get out every day and practice. Practice seeing, discovering subjects, planning shots, framing compositions, executing good images. Sometimes you should even use a camera. ☺. The point being that you don’t always need to be actually taking pictures. You can practice while walking to the coffee shop or driving down the street. It is a mental discipline.

But it is a physical discipline, too. And it is very helpful to use your camera every day. Just having it in your hands helps sharpen your senses. Carry it everywhere. Actually using the tool builds muscle memory. And coming back and having to edit what you have done closes the loop. It makes me evaluate my work and really think about how I have done.

Edit ruthlessly

Ah, editing. The point of my previous post on killing our darlings. I believe this is probably the second hardest part of photography (the hardest being marketing).

Shooting a lot of images means having a lot to edit. This can get to be a real time sink. And it can be depressing. I’m trying to look at it, not as making lots of terrible images, but as having lots of failed experiments.

If you go out every day and make yourself shoot and try new things, most are going to fail. That is OK. A few will succeed. That is one of the things that keeps me going. A few succeed.

The failures should be learned from and then trashed. There is little reason to keep a bad image, unless it helps you remember what your were going for and why it failed.

Even if you are constantly experimenting and expecting large number of failures, there is no excuse for letting down your standards in the editing. Be ruthless. If I get even one “keeper” out of a day’s shoot, I am happy for it. Having no keepers is not a failure for a personal day.

Another insight from Jay Maisel is “It’s my obligation to take out all the ‘wrong’ pictures.

Be honest with yourself

I like to experiment. I like to put myself in new situations and try out new ideas and techniques. But I have to be honest with myself and admit that most of them do not work well. Sometimes there is a glimmer of hope that might lead me to experiment further with an idea, but a glimmer of hope does not mean an image that should be shown to someone.

I have to accept the fact that the vast majority of the images I make are bad. That is, bad by my standards, which is all I can go by.

Most of them should be deleted. Even of the ones I keep, that may have some personal significance to me, very few should be shown to people. I am starting to understand and accept this.

One of the lessons that has been hardest for me is that a tack sharp, well exposed and focused image may well be worthless. It probably is. If it does not have something useful to say it does not matter how technically perfect it is. I owe it to you, the viewer of my images to only show you one worth looking at and considering.

Don’t fall in love with them

So I know I am going to throw away the vast majority of the images I take. I know I will throw away piles of technically perfect images. I know I will throw away away most of the experiments I make.

Because I know that, I have to keep from falling in love with them all. That’s hard. I made them. But the digital ecosystem is littered with useless bits. I have to do my part by cleaning up as much as I can.

I said in the previous blog about this that I go through many rounds of edits and culls. I really try hard to delay falling in love with any of my images until they have survived several rounds and seem to be contenders. I am not always successful. There are times when I just love an image. I try to not let that bias the objectivity I need in my edits, but of course, love wins sometimes.

Not falling in love with them is more a goal than a hard rule. But the hard reality in photography is that most of what I produce is not really good and is destined to be deleted or buried deep in my filing system never to be seen by anyone other than me.

But if it hurts and they are going to be thrown away, why shoot lots of terrible images? I don’t know of any way to improve beyond where I am or to expand my vision without experimenting and then ruthlessly editing. Terrible images are necessary.

I Don’t See Anything Interesting Here

Is it interesting?

I had just parked at a trail by a river near my house. It was a crisp late fall day. As I was getting my equipment out of the car a woman passed me coming back from the trail. She asked if I was going to take pictures. (Seemed obvious to me, but people are funny) She then gave the pronouncement “I don’t see anything interesting here.” I was stunned and probably said something non-committal like “I’ll take a look anyway”.

That has stuck with me. I’m still trying to figure it out. Sometimes it seems deep; sometimes it seems just silly. But it intrigues me.

I must confess that I have the same problem at times. Sometimes I set out with the idea that I am looking for a certain “thing”. I don’t advocate that and I have written against it, but I fall into the trap sometimes. Our marvelous, adaptive brains do amazing things to “help” us achieve our goals.

A funny thing happens when you go looking for something. It seems that that’s all you find. It is just human nature and it can hardly be avoided. If you go out looking to take a picture of a monkey then all you will see are monkeys or non-monkeys. Your focus and perception are tuned to reject anything that is not a monkey. You are often throwing away wonderful scenes because of your mental blinders.

But to take it a step deeper, it raises some interesting questions that I have to ask myself. Things like, is everything interesting? What does it take to be worthwhile to take a picture? How much of a picture’s interest is based on our perception at the instant? Is it a failed outing if I don’t get a good picture? Who says if an image is interesting?

It is my position that many things are interesting in the right conditions. I believe this to be generally true. I don’t agree with some post-modernists who seek out intentionally bland and uninteresting subjects, but I believe many things can be interesting. But on this day, in this light, in this weather it may not be interesting. So don’t force it.

What makes it worthwhile to press the shutter? When I’m in doubt I usually ask myself “is this actually an interesting picture? Will I actually use this?”. If I can answer that it is or might be, I press the shutter. I also need to follow up and ask if this is the best time, location, atmosphere, lighting, etc.

Ah, but how much of the interest is based on our perception at the time? A lot of it, I think. I trust my perception, my instinct, when it is calling to me. But I tend to err on the side of taking too many images. Sometimes when I’m editing later I ask myself “what I was thinking?” as I delete blocks of images. But sometimes there is a rewarding payoff. Those happy times when I discover my intuition was really on to something and I have a gem there. Of course, since I only had a vague idea of the worth at the time I might only have a sketch that I need to go back and work in more detail. But still, my subconscious is sometimes more perceptive than my conscious mind. Some say perception is reality. I don’t know, but perception certainly guides our view of reality.

And one of the painful questions, is it a failed outing if I don’t come back with a good picture? I have come to the conclusion that there are seldom failed shooting outings. They are all useful, if only for practice. Being out, with your senses sharp and searching, getting to take pictures – how can this be bad? You don’t hit a home run every time at bat.

Then there is the existential question of who gets to say if it is interesting? My answer is, the audience I am trying to please. In my case, that is me. Of course, I hope some other people will like it, even occasionally buy it. I will be the judge, though, of worth or success of an image. I may be wrong and I may change my mind over time, but it’s my call.

So how about that day. After she “challenged” me about no interesting pictures I was determined to prove her wrong. That is the wrong attitude. I regret it. Following my normal process would have helped. I allowed her to throw me off. So I don’t like much of what I got that day. But it wasn’t a total waste. I hope you like the image at the top of this article.

I’m Not Good Enough

This is the message you will hear from the world around you when you do something, especially if it is something new. You’re not good enough; you don’t have the credentials; you don’t have enough years of experience; other people are better; give it up.

You can choose to listen to them and do nothing or you can listen to that voice inside of you that is whispering “I don’t care what you say, you’re wrong; I can do it.”

My friend Cole Thompson’s recent newsletter had this quote from Georgia O’Keeffe: “I decided to accept as true my own thinking. I have already settled it for myself, so flattery and criticism go down the same drain, and I am quite free.”

Brave, Georgia! I wish I could claim to really behave that way. But criticism still hurts. Rejection still hurts. Being looked down on by the “elite” still hurts.

Ed Morris’ newsletter recently had a link to a commencement speech Denzel Washington gave at the Univ. of Pennsylvania. He talked about pushing on through failure. It was inspiring. I especially liked the part about when he won a Tony award on the same stage he was rejected from 30 years before.

I’m finding that rejection is something you learn to expect and deal with. OK, I was rejected. I didn’t die. None of my loved ones died. The “authorities” did not come confiscate my camera and files. As a matter of fact, nothing bad happened, except for the rejection. I can live with that. Like exercising a muscle, you get better at it over time even though it is painful in the process.

The real challenge is for me to decide if I am a failure or not. No. I’m not willing to accept the label and slink away. I believe in my capabilities. I believe my artistic vision is unique and is worthwhile to show to other people. I want the world to see through my eyes, see my view of our surroundings. The old quote “those who can, do; those who can’t become critics” is becoming much more meaningful to me. If someone is critical of my work I try to examine to see if there is validity in what they say, but my first reaction is to think, yeah, show me your work that is so much better. OK, I’m flawed. But everyone has their own biases and preferences. Being critical of art usually means it does not fit that person’s preferences.

I am coming to accept that putting yourself forward in any way invites rejection and criticism. Brene Brown says ““Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’” That is what I am trying to do with my art. I don’t like disclosing a lot about myself, but that’s what my art does. There is nothing I can do to prevent people from rejecting it or being critical. This is what is in me and I have to speak out. I have no choice.