A little while ago, in the midst of a particularly difficult project, a friend sent me an essay based on Samuel Beckett’s oft repeated quote. Of creativity Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, but reading the essay gave me heart palpitations.
People love to write and talk about failure. “Fail,” they say, “fail often. Failure is the road to success.” But few people and fewer institutions make space for actual failure. In acting school we were told constantly that there’s no right and no wrong in creative life. There is simply risk and the lack of risk. But then we were measured against each other, against a template in the teacher’s head of what good acting was. On the one hand our voice teacher said in his caramel baritone, “there isn’t any right or wrong, just experimentation”. But then he spent our entire time together saying, I shit you not, “no, that’s not quite right.”
We’d experiment. Get told that was wrong. And then have to guess what he really wanted. Because he refused to accept that, in truth, there was a right and wrong. It was crazy making. What he refused to accept, and what many teachers and managers of creativity refuse to accept, is that failure is really gross. It hurts not just our sense of self, but the perception that others have of us. It also costs money.
Real failure is dangerous. So when I read that quote I got anxious. “It’s not enough that I fail,” I thought, “now there are conditions on my failure.” Getting OK with crashing and burning is hard enough without a little voice on your shoulder telling you that even your failure has to have a growth trajectory. And it’s a sentiment that is echoed in many places where creativity is stock-in-trade. And I want to say this and I want all the CCOs and CDs to listen.
Fail better can get absolutely f****d.
Failure is a professional hazard of any creative, but it’s OK that it sucks. It’s OK that, sometimes, there isn’t an upside. And organisations have to make space for it. You can’t, on the one hand, tell your young creatives that they should risk failure and bring bold ideas but then, on the other hand, punish them when the client hates the bold ideas.
Every agency has had the experience of a client brief calling for “outside the box” ideas and “innovative uses of new technologies” only for the client to reject any ideas that got anywhere near the boundaries of the box. In our own agency, we had a business come to us with a brief that equated to nothing short of redefining their place in the market. It was thrilling and the brand manager and our team dug deep to deliver exactly what we thought they wanted.
Except we didn’t nail it. In fact, we’d gone too far. We pushed beyond what the business was ready for and they got scared and decided to deliver the project in house after all. We often wonder what would have happened if the client had accepted that initial failure, and let’s be honest that’s what it was, as par for the course.
Because another client, a medium sized telco, builds revision rounds into our shared processes. That is, they want us to push too far with our concepts and they make sure there is room in the process to absorb the time and resources spent getting it wrong before we get it right.
If you really want to lionise failure, then put money behind. Create a line in your budget titled “bold ideas that turned out to be a bit shit”. Set a failure quota for your creatives and get them to push their ideas so far that some of them will for sure fall down. Otherwise, you need to get real about whether you really invite failure. And your creatives will thank you for it.
It’s also really important to put famous quotes in context. Beckett wasn’t talking about a pitch meeting or a corporate brainstorming session. He was talking about the unforgiving grind of dramatic writing. He was talking about the fact that he was never really happy with his work, that they always felt like failures.
So when he said “fail better” he meant fail to meet the expectations that you set yourself. Fail a little less spectacularly each time you try. And always remember that you will never be able to kick the feeling that you’ve fundamentally failed.
About the author
Xavier is a copywriter and account manager at Eight Clients. He is also a theatre maker and writer. At 15 he found his first acting agent in a phone book and embarked upon a career as Australia’s least successful child actor. He then had a marginally-less-unsuccessful career as an adult actor. He has produced award-winning site responsive theatre for Gold Satino, and been published in VICE, Reading Victoria and Archer.
Xavier is also a graduate student at Deakin Business School in the Arts and Cultural Management stream. His research interests include diversity in arts governance and managing creativity.