Embracing Failure

by Mark Graf | July 25, 2008

© Mark GrafEditor’s note: This article appeared originally in Mark Graf’s blog. Our thanks to Mark for agreeing to republish it here. Mark opens: “Quite a few folks talk about failure as part of the process of learning, especially when it comes to expanding creativity. [It is] part of the process—an actual requirement. You are going to produce some crap—so get over it.”

failure |ˈfālyər|


1 lack of success : an economic policy that is doomed to failure | the failures of his policies.

• an unsuccessful person, enterprise, or thing : bad weather had resulted in crop failures.

• lack of success in passing an examination or test : exam failure.

• a grade that is not high enough to pass an examination or test.

2 the omission of expected or required action : their failure to comply with the basic rules.

• a lack or deficiency of a desirable quality : a failure of imagination.

3 the action or state of not functioning : symptoms of heart failure | an engine failure.

• a sudden cessation of power.

• the collapse of a business.

ORIGIN mid 17th cent. (originally as failer, in the senses [nonoccurrence] and [cessation of supply] ): from Anglo-Norman French failer for Old French faillir (see fail ).

Quite a few folks talk about failure as part of the process of learning, especially when it comes to expanding creativity. The videos I posted from Ira Glass talk about it being part of the process – an actual requirement. One of the bottom lines I took away from those videos … you are going to produce some crap – so get over it.

The word has such negative connotations to it, proven by the definition above. It is beaten into us throughout our lives, we are brought up with the equation, failure = bad. Avoid it! Grades in school, jobs, relationships, and in photographs. It is difficult to embrace something that has such negative associations or to not let it get you down. Just imagine a critique of an image where someone states, “This picture is a failure.” We have all said it to ourselves on occasion. It is such a powerful word.

Water reflection photography © Mark Graf

I am often attracted to water reflections, but never quite sure if they succeed as complete images…

Failure can sometimes be a somewhat ambiguous term as well. As Brooks Jensen describes in his podcast LW0378, it is up to the individual to define what is or isn’t failure in relation to what they are doing. What exactly is supposed to differentiate success from failure? For many, simply getting out and experiencing something counts for a lot.

Scott Kelby posted a nice article by Moose Peterson on the acceptance of coming home empty handed. Aside from judging an individual image, it is another measure we place upon ourselves. I can’t tell you how many times I have been up a couple of hours before dawn to drive to a spot, spend all morning poking around, to come home with essentially nothing. You are inevitably faced with the question from someone – “Get any good pictures today?” An innocent question, but it is amazing how the pressures to succeed can be embedded in it – especially when the answer is “Not a one…”

It can suck away your motivation. You are faced with times where you try to convince yourself that staying in bed is better than getting out there at all. Paul Lester wrote a wonderful post about this internal argument we can all relate to. Failure to try is yet another kind. Opportunities missed because of laziness or discouragement only create a snowball effect. Not having a camera with you, or missing something when you are not prepared – “if I only would have….” and on and on.

Simple flower portrait © Mark Graf

I find myself less satisfied with capturing simple flower portraits lately…

It is a difficult monster to face – this failure thing. It is an ugly, powerful word. It is difficult to accept it as being necessary. But perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that you are not alone in experiencing it. You just don’t hear about it enough. Even the most well known photographers have their moments. The tendency is to try to bury it, acknowledge but hide it – like a kid trying to hide the “F” on their report card. You hear it all the time – only show your best stuff. Great advice for marketing, but certainly not much others can learn from.

That’s why I found it particularly enjoyable watching watching Tony Sweet talk about some of his earlier images in his DVD, Visual Literacy. He is a photographer I greatly admire for his style and someone I am inspired by because I think we see in similar ways. He didn’t use the term “failure” in particular, but he did talk about some of the shortcomings of some of his earlier work and how he would do it much differently today. In many ways, it changes the term “failure” into just another meaning for “periods of growth” which I find much more palatable.

It does make you think though – are some of what I consider my successes today going to be considered failures in the future? It’s all a lot to wrap your noggin around. Ultimately, you will never know by just sitting around fretting about it.

Just create, and let the judgments fall where they may…

About the Author

Mark Graf is a photographer from Detroit who is fascinated by the details of nature. Growing up around a variety of artist influences, the affinity towards the artistic side of photography seemed to be a destiny.

Mark has been published internationally, and offers his images as fine art prints and stock from his website, www.grafphoto.com. Many hospitals and medical facilities have used his work as health care fine art work for creating calming and tranquil environments.

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