I don’t have to tell any of you that having a creative job is not just about having fun. Competition is harsh and winning is everything. Even just getting the client through the front door demands pulling out all the stops, let alone keeping them there. After all, to win a competition, you have to be the best. And if you’ve “won” a client, you naturally want to produce good work. But then again, you can only be sure it’s really “good” by winning prizes at one or other of the innumerable awards shows that litter the creative landscape. Winning, in other words, is the name of the game. And don’t get me wrong: winning can be fun. It’s one of the reasons why we love talking about it so much.
But what about losing? Is there room for failure in a commercial context? Or, in other words, does the importance of success exclude failure? Failure is often described as the opposite of success. But this is absolutely untrue. Failure is not the opposite of success. Mediocrity is the opposite of success. Failure and success are more frequent, albeit odd, bedfellows than you might think. They are both, for one, the result of taking risks. And they are both possible outcomes of long, hard work.
Far more dangerous than failure is the fear of failing. Which is why we often regard performance anxiety as synonymous with a “fear of failure”. And if you are honest, you will have caught yourself falling victim to this particular phobia more than once in your career. It is a paralysing sensation – if that is not a contradiction in terms – and it spells the death of creativity. Economic uncertainty and the fear of failure it fuels have pushed many advertisers not only to accept the surer footing of mediocrity but even to demand it. So even if the economic crisis is “all in our head”, the creative crisis is certainly real enough. Everything has to be “decent”. Which is another name for “risk-free”. This is a real problem. Because economic uncertainty has ensured that advertisers are no longer prepared to pay for the learning curve that every creative process must follow. Every presentation, on the contrary, has become the moment of truth. Everything has to be “good enough”. Young creatives, after a fashion, risk capitulating to mediocrity even from the moment they start work. And some of them don’t even dare take risks during their internships anymore.
The fear of failure is the difference between the possibility and impossibility of success. But how do you overcome that fear, I hear you ask? It is my humble opinion that three important insights can help formulate an answer:
- There’s no such thing as total failure or total success. Learn to relativise. The more success you book in one domain, the more you are failing in others. Accept it. You might, for example, be highly successful in your professional career while your family life is a mess. If that’s the case, can you still really call yourself successful? I don’t think so. Are you then a complete failure? No, not that either. The truth, as per usual, is somewhere in between.
- Avoid wanting to be successful. Try and see success not as your goal but as a welcome by-product. Passion should be your driver. If you’re passionate about something, then you really want to do it well. Success is then the result of a coincidence of talent, application and luck. But if your goal from the outset is to be successful, then failure is never going to be far away. And if your goal is not to fail, then success is impossible. Follow your passions and do so passionately.
- Link failure and success to projects, not yourself. People who link failure to themselves often end up depressed. People who link success to themselves are arrogant, and that’s even worse. Make sure your projects are successful rather than trying to be it yourself. That way, if something goes horribly wrong, it’s your project that failed. Not you.
And to answer my own question: no, the importance of success does not exclude failure. Success lies in the acceptance of the possibility of failure. Henry Ford was onto something when he said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Conclusion? Go for it. Stand up and go for it. NO FEAR.