A language teacher once told me that in order to learn a new word you have to forget it five times. What I love about this statement is the idea that forgetting is integral to learning, an inseparable part of the journey to acquire knowledge. This gives me permission to fail - in fact, it emphasizes failure as necessary. You might say that failure is an option in the same way that weather is a choice: you can choose where to live or you can stay indoors, but your best bet is to take advantage of whatever weather the day brings.
Failure ensures ownership. If I fail in a project, then make changes, persevere, and finally succeed, the success is mine. If I fail and seek the answers from someone else before attempting to find my own solutions, the result is diluted. When my children first tried to walk, they fell many times, and in falling, they learned to walk. They also learned to fall, and how to catch themselves before they fell. The importance of being allowed to fail was expressed by my eighteen-month old daughter, who said, "Do it myself! Me!" Working with apprentices, I have become more content with their failing than they perhaps like; however, the end result is more self-sufficient students who understand the processes more deeply.
1 failed in my applications to graduate school two years in a row. In the third year, I applied to three schools but was accepted only at one. Each failure allowed me to ask why and gave me the opportunity to call the professors who had turned me down to ask what my work lacked. The failed applications were important critiques. Failure is the courageous friend who trusts you enough to speak the unvarnished truth. I remember taking my work to an artist whose opinion I admired. I asked her if she thought my work was artistic. She said, "No; nice, creative, but not artistic." I was devastated.
I went off to be alone, to search deeply inside myself for what I valued and wanted. It became a pivotal moment in my life, in which I defined for myself what an artist is and does.
Then I figured out how to be that. My path is clearer because I failed. Success implies that the intent was met, but success rarely reveals new information. There can be a satisfying vindication in success, a knowledge that one's skill resulted in the anticipated conclusion. But failure shows us a different way; it opens new doors and pathways that success would never travel. A clay body I formulated for a rich iron-red color self-destructed after the firing, unable to withstand my long firing process. I changed the recipe, substituting a new source of iron, and found a new palette of colors. The new clay was meaty, leathery, heavy, and primal, and it led to new work.
Oscar Wilde once said, "Ugly can be beautiful. The pretty, never." Success is pretty: fun to watch, easy on the eye. It's hard to turn away from the ugliness of failure. The failure of others can be morbidly fascinating. While success glides through life, hardly making a ripple, the turbulence of failure speaks of risks taken. The waves make the voyage of life interesting, ever-changing. The change, the variability force us to be adaptive, responsive beings. The dialogue, the responsiveness, and our investment in the voyage are the seeds of true beauty Failure is the light, success the shadow. Failure defines the edges of success; it rounds it and gives it dimension. It is the peril of falling that makes tight-ropewalking a drama. The prospect of failure makes wood-firing interesting. The moment I unload a kiln and all my expectations are met, I will flounder. The continuation of my work depends on the ideas highlighted by unexpected results.
Don't get me wrong; I do not try to avoid success, nor do I discount my achievements. I just know that it is the healthy relationship I have developed with failure that has gotten me this far. I am thankful for my failures; they have been useful tools, and part of the artist I have become.