Success and Creativity Hinge on Normalizing Failure

Guest Correspondence

Photo courtesy Ringling College.

At Ringling College of Art and Design, we strive to position our students for success—professionally and financially as well as personally and emotionally. We have spent decades shattering the myth of the “starving artist” and aligning our students on a path that leads them to turn their passions into professions.

I have long been an advocate for implementing STEAM within our educational systems. This adds the “A” for the Arts, alongside Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Art classes are the only classes where students are permitted and encouraged to be creative. It is within these classes where creativity and innovation flourish; where there are many different solutions to a problem, not just one; and where failure is normalized and an inherent part of the learning process. 

Some people may not think it’s possible to fail in the creative realm because the outcomes are not as black and white. In the art world, we hear the cliché, “There is no right answer.” But art can fail, too. It can be unclear, disengaging, misleading, plagiarized or simply reveal an artist who was momentarily unable—or unwilling—to engage with their process, their audience or themselves.

But here is the simple truth: embracing failure as part of the practice/process/journey is vital to our students’ experiences and successes. In fact, failure is vital to all of us; it’s a fundamental part of the human experience. In an environment centered on creativity, innovation and independent thought as well as open collaboration, Ringling College’s mission must include accepting, normalizing and even celebrating failures, both large and small.

Rather than chastising or ostracizing failure, a healthy academic environment, especially one so focused on the creative process, should have failure built into it. Artistic creations are open to feedback and critique from faculty as well as peers, giving way to revisions or even starting over from scratch. Our first ideas and earliest attempts will rarely be our best. For most people, we won’t know what a flawed effort looks or feels like until we actually go through with it. We have to TRY in order to learn and grow. And trying, by its nature, doesn’t guarantee success.

Unfortunately, a nonstop, win-first mentality means failure can be paralyzing. Especially these days in the competitive landscape of higher education and with the limitless reach of social media, too many young people turn away from their passions before they even have a chance to begin. Unlike adults who had more time to adjust their perspectives, many high school and college-aged students will experience failure, internalize it and maybe expect it to be permanent. Or they deny their failures outright and become defensive and unwilling to embark upon other avenues. 

These attitudes are debilitating—not just for individual goals but for whole communities that would ultimately benefit from new viewpoints and fearless experimentation. A fear of failure stops progress in its tracks. And progress is nothing without creativity. The need for immediate success leads to mediocrity. If we’re only looking for what merely works, we will accept the old, outdated and unoriginal. But if we expand into realms where failure is possible—or even likely and dare I say, encouraged—we open up the potential for new modes of success. At the very least, we walk away from failure with a broader, better understanding of our circumstances and ourselves. 

As a society and as educators, how can we normalize failure? By allowing it, sharing in it as a community and talking openly about our own failures—past and current. Let’s revel in the things that don’t work. Let’s celebrate starting over. Let’s recognize that humans are messy, often-failing creatures. Let’s meet all of our challenges with enthusiasm and grace. 

Ringling College will continue to produce graduates at the forefront of creativity and innovation, embracing failure as part of the creative process, rather than hiding it or running from it. And regardless of our graduates’ career choices, we believe our students will be in the best possible position to be happy, healthy, resilient and successful going forward, in part because of their failures along the way. 

Dr. Larry R. Thompson is president of Ringling College of Art and Design.

Photo courtesy Ringling College.

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