Learning from Failure in the Arts


Failing in the Arts and Cultural Industries

Samuel Fry explains why the creative and cultural industries should embrace failure as a learning point.

I’ve met some real failures in my lifetime.

People who have been fired from jobs, been dropped from sports teams or failed university. Others have been royally humiliated in front of all their friends. Some have been dumped by the loves of their lives. A few have even lost sight of everything that they had ever dreamed of.

I once read about a guy who ran a business so badly that he,ruined his reputation and was left broke five times over. Which must have been terrible. Although, luckily for him, he went on to run the Ford Motor Company and change the future of the automotive industry. Pretty lucky I guess.

Another lady, named J.K. Rowling was living off welfare as a single mother before she went on to become the first billionaire author with the Harry Potter series. A young Steven Spielberg was rejected on a number of occasions by the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Art before going on to become possibly the most successful movie director of all time. Even Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor as he “lacked imagination”. Several more of his businesses failed before his movie “Snow White” made him a success.

Actually, those failures that I mention at the beginning are just the same. They have all failed, but used that experience to better themselves – driving them forward and helped them improve themselves.

Perhaps it’s not all luck then.

I’ve had a number of failures in my own life. Yet, I would like to think that I have learned from all of them. I didn’t originally get into the University I wanted to, but I studied hard, topped my year and did a Masters at my original first choice instead. My first business was a failure too. In retrospect, it was hardly a business at all but I’m certainly doing better with my current one. I even had a direct sales job once that I found tiring, intrusive and unrewarding. I guess the only thing I learned on that occasion was that I didn’t like cold calling.

The truth is, failure hurts. It can be painful, embarrassing and disappointing. So, if you don’t learn from the experience then, not only are you going through an experience with no upside, you won’t avoid it next time.

I read a great article called “The F Word” by Mark Robinson, who heads up the arts consultancy Thinking Practice. The article is about the creative and cultural industries and Robinson explains that “we need to move on from failure as taboo”. Specifically, Robinson praises those involved in the pilot phase of the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts. The programme encourages its funded projects to openly share and reflect on their experiences so that other organisations and cultural leaders can learn from them. This is just the kind of openness to failure that will help the arts as a whole.

He also quotes Carolyn Royston, former Head of Digital Media at the Imperial War Museum, whose Social Interpretation project specifically avoided “the demand for perfection”. Royston explains that failing well means asking the right questions from the start. She says that “understanding the landscape is key to understanding the real risks”. I couldn’t agree more.

Betty Lui claimed in her article for The Huffington Post that it is actually all about learning to “fail well”. To quote Graham Weston’s book, The Unstoppables, people should spend about 20 percent of their time pondering and thinking and 80 percent of their time actually reacting and moving in the right direction. Fail, learn and try again. Each step is part of a journey towards bettering yourself.

When I am not working, I compete internationally at kayaking. Sometimes I feel that businesses need to take the attitude of top athletes. If you don’t enter the race you can’t win. Equally, if you don’t train hard, learn from the top athletes and test yourself then it is impossible to be the very best in your discipline. Like him or loath him, I think that Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a great point on this subject, “Just like in bodybuilding, failure is also a necessary experience for growth in our own lives, for if we’re never tested to our limits, how will we know how strong we really are? How will we ever grow?” As individuals and as companies, we need to be open to the risk of failing. We should push our muscles to the limits time and time again. Only that way will they, and we, continue to get stronger.

I’m not afraid of failure. Perhaps this is partly due to my age. I am currently in my mid-twenties. I know that there is a lot to learn and that I have a long time to develop. I would like to think that it is the same for people in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and beyond; yet, I suspect that their is a tendency to become more risk adverse the further into your career you go. I just hope that I can keep hold of my current openness to failure.

I’m not afraid of failure as I know that it can be a positive force, not just a negative one.


Written By

Samuel Fry

Sam is currently the Editor of Create Hub. He is also the Development and Events Manager at Cockpit Arts. In the past, Sam has been the South West Regional Ambassador at Virgin Media Pioneers and part of the Creative Economy team at Nesta. Prior to this, Sam was the Enterprise Consultant at University of Bristol where he managed his team to win a series of national awards.

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