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Why Failure Is the Best Friend of Creative Innovation

Nov 09, 2013 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

In her recent TEDTalk, Alexa Meade describes how she followed her creative instincts away from an office job and into an investigation of shadows, space and light in her parent's basement. This curiosity led her to enact a variety of absurd and unorthodox practices such as coating the surfaces of toast and greasy eggs with acrylic paint and submerging her friend in a tub of milk. Yet, as she trusted the weird and wonderful intelligence of her instincts, she eventually blossomed into an artist with a unique practice, which raises new issues about dimensionality, light and materiality within the daunting medium of painting. Any artist would be proud to stake their claim on such an achievement.

Meade's story is so compelling, in part, because it declares a fundamental truth about the artist's path: To be an artist involves an earnest commitment to those instincts that are largely considered absurd, forgotten and foolish. Such a focal point is one of the most courageous and sophisticated commitments one can make within a society eager to mask its vulnerability.

When I was a very young artist studying in London, the German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans admonished me with the following words: "You will only succeed if you fail!" At the time, his words perplexed me. I had risked everything in my young life to pursue the dream of creative excellence. Failure (at least as I knew it) was clearly not an option. Yet, as my journey as an artist has progressed, I've discovered that moments of failure are not merely awkward pauses in one's creative journey, they are most often the very nexus of creative innovation.

This moment of haphazardly scribbled light divulged a complex harmony of physical laws which roused my creative intuition from a deep sleep. That silly little moment marked the beginning of my creative life as I now know it. -- Lia Chavez

Moments of creative innovation often reveal themselves through outlandish circumstances. I'll offer my own personal story to the plethora of examples: In 2004, during a trip to a wintery Venice, I dropped a camera during mid-exposure into a dark, flooded San Marco Square. Freakishly, the camera was salvaged to reveal an image of light gracefully spilt like mercury across a plane of kaleidoscopic geometric space. This moment of haphazardly scribbled light divulged a complex harmony of physical laws which roused my creative intuition from a deep sleep. That silly little moment marked the beginning of my creative life as I now know it.

As my journey as an artist has progressed, I have come to appreciate the equal value of well-honed virtuosity and the strange wisdom of accidental and foolish things. I have trained like an impassioned athlete to make art, but I must share a confession: The works which I find most deeply satisfying to create are the ones which feel like gifts that I have received through some sort of bizarre or miraculous circumstance.

Innovation often functions through the uncanny mediums of the absurd, mistakes, inconvenience, physical and psychological discomfort, and yes, so-called failure. Those encounters with the fissures and limitations of the artist's medium (and self) mark the precise locations where creative transformation ignites. Agonizing feelings of anxiety, fear and depression are the very alarms which rouse the artist awake, indicating a dormant charge to create that is restless for attention. And then there are the moments when the artist simply fails -- it could be during a live performance in front of a large audience, in the middle of a strenuous painting or another work in which the initial premise of the work is clearly not working out and the artist has no choice other than to find another way forward. And so the necessary steps are taken, and a new process is born.

What I know now that my younger self didn't yet grasp is that failure can more precisely be described as rigorous process. As the pen of this mysterious reality would have it, it is through this reclamation of the broken and imprudent things that creative process thrives and wonder is etched into our work, our lives and our world.

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