How Punishing Failure Hurts Artists

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
— Theodore Roosevelt

Almost from the beginning of our elementary school careers we learn the academic difference between the right answer and the wrong answer. Giving the right answer results in a better grade and respect from our teachers, peers, and parents; giving the wrong answer results in a bad grade and criticism from our parents and teachers, asking us where we went wrong. We learn quickly that it is better to be right than wrong, and we do everything in our power to avoid being wrong.

This process of stigmatizing wrong was adopted by modern companies. Employees that are right get rewarded, and employees that are wrong or make mistakes get punished.

Although this has become the norm for schools and companies, there is an issue with this approach. Being wrong is part of the creative process, and with the fear of being wrong looming overhead, many of us are afraid to even try something that could lead to a wrong outcome. And so we don’t even try to be creative; we simply do what our managers, teachers, etc. tell us to do in the exact way they tell us to do it. That way, if there is an issue, we can blame it on their guidance.

The fear of being wrong is normal, but to let it stop us from trying out new things is horrible! Human nature is to do what’s safe and known. This goes back to the days we spent living in caves; venturing too far out of our comfort zones could have resulted in actual death. Today, we rarely face challenges where this is still true, but because human evolution happened at an unprecedented rate over the last 70,000 years, our bodies haven’t caught up and are still wired to believe a deadly lion is waiting for us outside of our comfort zone.

The fear of being wrong keeps us from experimenting with art. It keeps people who love to sing when no one is listening from getting up in front of his friends at karaoke; it keeps someone with a hidden passion for writing from publishing that long-overdue novel; it keeps closeted poets from blogging about their works, and all because they are afraid that someone will laugh.

That’s the same fear that I felt when, in December 2017, I started this blog to explore my interest in writing. Having already established this website for my magic business, I created a small page on the site and promoted my blogs over Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. In my early days of college I discovered that I had a small passion for writing. It was no surprise since I’ve been an avid reader my whole life, but to constantly get A’s on my English papers in college gave me the idea that I could actually write works to be read by others. Creating this blog page was my way of finally exploring my idea. It paid off very well, as I have gotten great reactions from my social media followers and haven’t lost the urge to write!

Like anyone, I’ve written blog articles that were embarrassing in hindsight. They’ve been deleted, but who’s to say I’m not working on another dumb article right now? Who’s to say this book isn’t a waste of my time? That it won’t be an embarrassment? I have no idea, and for a long time that fear has kept me from writing this. But the baby steps I took with my blog have allowed me to cultivate the courage necessary to actually sit down and write something I hope will someday be published.

In school, if I presented one of my early blogs to my professor for grading, I would have been lucky to bet a C+ on it. The low grade might have discouraged me from ever writing another blog article. And if it didn’t, then the next article surly would have. I would have said “this writing game isn’t for me” and I would have hidden the rest of my ideas in the back of my mind, trying to forget about them. I would have been academically punished for writing something bad, and that fear would have followed me to my next blog.

This is how the educational system is set up in the United States. Failure is punished. What that doesn’t account for is that any kind of creative endeavor involves a lot of failure in the beginning. How do companies expect to have creative employees when their culture—and the culture of most American schools and universities—punish all of this initial failure and rarely encourage creatives to explore further?

I don’t have the answer to this question. Maybe that will be for another post. But I do think that we are a long way away from completely reforming our educational system to be more tolerant of failure and artistic challenges. Instead, the change must come at the individual level; from students and employees seeking to become better learners and workers. These individuals will be the ones to pursue creativity and implement it into their schools and corporations. Maybe some will even start corporations of their own. As I mentioned earlier, there is only a slight difference between artists and entrepreneurs. And the word needs both.

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