Hanif Kureishi. “The Art of Distraction”. New York Times. 19 February, 2012.
I came across an art product for kids today that says that it lets you do “mistake-free painting,” so that you can be “really proud of yourself.”
Wow, it starts early, doesn’t it? The pressure that mistakes are something to avoid, or be ashamed of. And in painting!
I’ve been thinking about this idea of mistakes a lot recently. It comes up a lot in conversations about creativity, art, creative problem solving and innovative thinking. A school in the UK recently introduced “failure week” to encourage students to take risks and be willing to get things wrong. I applaud their attempts to counter “perfectionism” but am also a little stunned that it has to be a special week. But perhaps in a world where young kids are taught that “mistake-free painting” is supposed to be a good thing, I shouldn’t be surprised.
Aren’t mistakes and “failures” a daily part of life? When we come up with 50 ideas, and only implement one or two of them, are the others mistakes? When we suggest a creative concept and our production team vetoes it for some reason, is that a failure? If we send out 20 emails and get replies to only 4 of them, should we have only sent 4 in the first place?
We think of five books we’d like to write, but only write one of them; have a million ideas for what we could do with our weekend but only actually do a handful; or write 3000 words to find the 500 that we want to keep. Of course, sometimes it’s painful - we grit our teeth as we let go of a good concept, or grieve the loss of a favourite idea.But if this is failure, it’s also just a normal day.
What’s that Edison quote? “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Possibly I have too much of a cavalier approach towards creativity. On the one hand, I value ideas enormously. On the other, I (mostly) don’t mind throwing them away - there’s always more where they came from.
So, if given the choice, would you live “mistake-free”? If your creative work had no mistakes in it, would you be more proud of it, or less?
Recommended book: “Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions” by Eric Maisel and Ann Maisel.
You might have come across Eric Maisel before. He’s the author of such books as “Creativity for Life,” “Coaching the Artist Within” and “The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path Through Depression.”
There are two things in particular that I like about “Brainstorm”.
Firstly, it argues that many obsessions are not the negative things that they are often seen as being, but can be productive, fun and meaningful, and are an important part of being human.
Secondly, it breaks down artificial dichotomies between different kinds of creativity. It includes traditional “artistic” creativity (such as painting, sculpture, writing or whatever) but also sees the same principles as applying to a range of other “obsessions,” including establishing a charitable foundation, working towards social change, figuring out string theory, academic research, or pursuing any other “big idea that lasts a long time.”
Anyone who enjoys devoting themselves to their obsession probably knows intuitively that obsessions can be productive; this book backs that up.
A little bird (i.e. my analytics) tells me that I have recent new readers in the UK, Canada, the US, Lebanon, France, Germany, Thailand, Australia, Sweden, Bulgaria and India. Welcome!
Feel free to get in touch and introduce yourself; I’d love to hear what you’re interested in.
Glad to have you on board.
author and cartoonist Ashleigh Brilliant
This is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but I’m curious: where do you stand on this in terms of your creative work? Do you work with a “target” in mind? Do you do your best work when you have a clear goal and figure out how to get there, or do you “shoot first” and see where you end up? How important is it to be able to change the target along the way?