Fear of Failure Is Killing Your Creativity. Here's How to Overcome It

Fear of Failure Is Killing Your Creativity. Here's How to Overcome It

This is a guest post from Tyler Jones, the marketing director and editorial adviser for Filmmaker's Process. He's not a filmmaker himself, but he knows a thing or two about creativity, craftsmanship, and pushing ourselves to do our best work.

Fear of failure is killing your creativity. Slowly, surely, and silently. It's stopping you from growing as an artist, from achieving your dreams. But it doesn't have to be that way.

In the past year, I've come to understand that the single greatest barrier to outputting creative work is the fear of failure. It's a constant battle in our brain. Why even start a project if it’s just going to fall short of our expectations? Why create something that no one will ever see? Why waste the time?

This self-defeating mindset stops us in our tracks before we even take our first steps down the road of a new project. In fact, I think it's safe to say that fear has been the quick and silent demise of more creative work than perhaps any other single thing. 

We’ve all had those thoughts: I’d like to learn how to play guitar, but… I don’t know where to start, and I won’t be very good anyway. I have a great idea for a new business, but… I don’t know shit about running a business. I should really write that content about why we need to fail, but… I’m already so busy with everything else. 

Those are all thoughts that have gone through my head today alone, by the way. 

You’ll probably notice none of them have to do with filmmaking, but I’m sure you know the feeling. Maybe you’ve already written up a script for a story you’re really excited about, but you’re not sure you can find a cast and crew to help you bring it to life, or you feel like some of the shots are just too complicated for you to pull off with your limited resources.

So you put it on the corner of your desk, telling yourself you’ll come back to it later. Then a month goes by, and then another, and the most you’ve done with the script now is use it as a coaster. There are now half-circles of dried coffee blotting out the dialogue you couldn’t get on the page fast enough just a few weeks earlier. 

There may be some very good reasons why you haven’t gotten around to it yet. Maybe you really are that busy, I certainly feel like I am. But I want to tell you something, and I’m including myself in the audience for this too:

Stop with the bullshit. 

Stop with the excuses. Stop filling your time with meaningless busy work and then saying you’re too busy when presented with the opportunity to work on something important. Stop telling yourself you can’t because you don’t know how, or where to start. 

In the end, it doesn’t matter how good it is, just try.

There are maybe a handful of natural prodigies in the world who really can do things better than the rest of us just through some freak occurrence in nature, but they’re an anomaly. 

Most people who master a skill, whether it’s filmmaking or basket weaving, spent thousands, if not tens of thousands of hours practicing their craft before people even thought twice about what they were making. And then they spent thousands more hours to reach the point were people really started to care. In truth, many of those hours were spent failing, frustrated, and feeling as if they weren't good enough. But they kept at it.

You will fail. Embrace that fact now. How you choose to view that failure is what will set you apart, keep you motivated, and help you define yourself and your style. 

Realize that failure comes in all shapes and sizes, and not all of them are catastrophic, or even significant

Part of the problem is that the discussion around failure assumes that it only comes in one size; big, scary, and likely to beat you to a bloody pulp if you come across it.

People are afraid to try new things because they think a whole laundry-list of terrible things await them if they can’t nail it perfectly the first time. "It won’t turn out the way I picture it in my head. People will criticize me. No one will ever want to work with me in the future. I’ll lose my shirt if this doesn’t work. "

The truth, though, is that failures come in limitless shapes and sizes, and most of them aren't particularly scary.

Stepping on a Lego is a failure in putting things in their place, or noticing what’s underfoot. It’s an unpleasant experience, but you’ll probably forget all about it in five minutes, and no one will ever know if you choose not to tell them. 

Finding out in post that a noticeable boom shadow exists in half your shots is a failure in paying attention on set. It's a mistake you likely won't make again, especially not during your reshoots.

There are, of course, real failures, too. Dams breaking, tsunamis flooding nuclear reactors, financial systems that hide growing and systemic issues. These all have devastating and far reaching consequences. I encourage you to remember that most failure does not present this kind of trauma, either to you or anyone else. 

Will your project turn out perfectly? Probably not, especially if you’re trying something for the first time. What’s important to remember though, is that’s sort of the point. 

Why failure is the unsung hero of the creative process

Every time you fail, you gain a valuable piece of information. What doesn’t work is sometimes even more important than what does, and mastering skills only happens through a process of trial and error. 

Art and artists grow over time, and failure is the engine that drives that process forward. In nature, it happens over thousands of years, and we call it evolution. In athletics, music, and some other disciplines, we call it practice.

My story, or how I came to terms with and then embraced my own failure

My creative background is mostly in music. I grew up playing the saxophone, and not the little alto or tenor saxophones you see jazz musicians holding on album covers; I played the baritone sax, the big bastard that comes up just below most people’s chest. 

Artists grow over time, and failure is the engine that drives that process forward. In nature, it happens over thousands of years, and we call it evolution. In athletics, music, and some other disciplines, we call it practice.

Playing baritone sax is fun for a lot of reasons. I particularly liked the way it felt vibrating in my hands on low notes. In a big band setting though, bari typically plays its own part, separate from the rest of the horns, and it has to play it loud. Basically, the idea was play at the volume of a chainsaw, but in tune. 

I’m explaining this because I want you to understand the scope of my own failures. 

I never was, and certainly am not now, the best sax player who ever lived. But I played it loud, just like I was supposed to do. I routinely made mistakes, and there was no way to hide it. Everyone heard them. The band, the audience. Everyone.

You’re going to take failure more personally than anyone else because it belongs to you

Something funny happened over time though. I stopped caring so much that people heard when I screwed up, and I started using those little failures as signs of what I needed to work on. I stop spending as much time on the things I could do flawlessly, and I started hammering away at the passages and changes that always tripped me up. 

I began to see that no one cared as much about my little failures as I did, and I used that both to fuel my desire to improve, and to focus my efforts. 

This realization was especially clear anytime I got off stage after a performance. Whether I felt I really bombed my improv section, or I hit the wrong note loud enough to hear it in the next building over, I always came away after a show running through the things in my head that I did wrong. I would ask people what they thought though, and most times they never noticed. And if they did, they didn’t care. 

You spend a lot of time immersed in your own creative work, and because of that, you become much better acquainted with all the subtleties. Your audience may never notice something you feel is a glaring mistake, because to them, it’s supposed to be there. 

Many people don’t have the same level of understanding for what you do as you do. They want to enjoy it, not look for the little inconsistencies or mistakes. 

Find the good critics

And those that do see the art with the same depth as you almost certainly don’t take it as personally as you do. If they do see the mistakes, they won’t be as turned off by it as you likely think they will be. If they’re really good peers, they’ll even help you improve the things you struggle with so you can learn and move past the obstacle. 

If they decide to use it to tear you down, they’re being assholes, and I suggest you find better peers. 

Criticism is part of the creative process, though. More than that, it's an integral part that many people ignore because they don't like how it makes them feel. 

Not everyone is going to share your taste. But the really good critics will be the ones that offer solutions in addition to critiques. Don’t hide from failure because you’re afraid of the criticism that accompanies it.

Look for people who can teach you how to do things better, and ask them to critique you honestly and offer paths toward improvement so you can grow. 

Practice deliberately & fail religiously

By the way, the guy who is the very best saxophonist I ever played with, I can tell you that the reason he is so good is because he fails religiously. No one I know in any creative pursuit spends more time practicing (read: failing in perpetuity) than the lead sax player I used to jam with growing up. 

Creative work is a truly beautiful undertaking. Every project is an act of creation and we’re able to bring something into the world that we hope other people will find as meaningful as we do. And on a more personal level, it gives us outlets to explore our ideas and feelings. Every new medium you pick up is a new lens to see the world through. 

But the same principles apply to learning a creative discipline as did when you learned to run; first you crawl, then you walk, then you learn how to do it at full speed. 

Those failures that used to send chills down your spine are really just mile markers along the road to becoming a master in your discipline. Every screw-up is a flag that lets you know that you have something to work on, and with each successive marker behind you, you’ll become a more adept filmmaker.

Filmmaking is a tedious and complex process, and you’re going to stumble more than once when you're just starting out. You'll make some hilariously bad mistakes, getting films made that should probably never see the light of day. But as you continue to make new projects, you’ll learn from what worked and what didn’t, and over time you will improve and develop a style all your own. 

In time, you’ll see that those failures that used to send chills down your spine are really just mile markers along the road to becoming a master in your discipline. Every screw-up is a flag that lets you know that you have something to work on, and with each successive marker behind you, you’ll become a more adept filmmaker. 

So I encourage you to embrace your failures. They will teach you what works and what doesn’t. They will teach you who you are and how you overcome obstacles. Failure will be the chopping block for all your half-formed ideas, and the springboard for all your greatest work.

First you have to try though. Then you have to fail and try again, and fail, and fail, and fail, and learn.

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