Learning from Mistakes & Failure
“Do not fear mistakes–there are none.” – Miles Davis (quoted in The Artist’s Way p.343)
“Success is not final. Failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill
“Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it well and serenely, and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson (quoted in Austin Kleon’s Keep Going)
Let’s talk about failure, yay! Myself, I have faced many situations that could be treated as failures in my life: jobs I wanted and didn’t get, unsuccessful business endeavors, and two divorces! There have definitely been discouraging times and big obstacles, mistakes and accidents. Just the other week I fell in ballet class (thankfully this time, it didn’t hurt at all)!
Of course, I’ve had lots of successes, brilliant triumphs, and have experienced tons of love and support and abundance in my life, too, but that’s not what we’re talking about today.
No, here I want to get into how to deal with making mistakes, facing failure, embarrassment, and discouragement, then finding the courage to keep on with our dancing, learning and growing, creative practice, professional dreams, and quest for a happy, fulfilled life!
What follows in this blog post and in Episode 67 of the Podcast can’t possibly be exhaustive, but comprises some of the best resources I know to help with frustration at our all-too-human mistakes and imperfections:
Mistakes and dancing
Learning to dance and performing live are both absolutely loaded with opportunities for mistakes, failures, and rejection. We can’t learn to dance without first being bad at dancing and working hard to learn how to control our bodies and develop technique through tons of practice, study, and training.
As ballet dancers, we are striving for an impossible “perfect” ideal technique and artistry, so there are always opportunities for further failures and learning.
We are going to fall, forget, yes even fail! But from the very first lesson, it’s important to learn to jump back up, brush ourselves off, assess for damage, try to identify what went wrong, then start again!
I’ve read a couple articles from Pointe Magazine lately on the topic, one from Pro Dancers on recovering from onstage fails which normalizes our performing catastrophies saying, “As live theater returns, we’re reminded again that anything can happen onstage. Be it falling, puking or losing your costume mid-performance, mishaps are a reality of the industry. It’s what you do with the disaster that matters.” Another article deals with How to Let Go of Past Mistakes and Focus on the Future with great tips for dancers of all ages.
Learning to Fail, importance of mistakes to learning
Failure isn’t just built into learning dancing of course, it also applies to all learning! In fact, the research-based book on learning, Make it Stick, blew my mind a bit during my teacher credential program, especially finding out that the difficulty of recalling new information correctly correlates to the depth of the learning.
That means the more I struggle to remember German words, as long as I try hard, keep practicing, and get corrections when I can, the more permanent and retrievable that information will be in the future. Roedinger, McDaniel, and Brown are clear: “The harder it is for you to recall new learning from memory, the greater the benefit of doing so. Making errors will not set you back, so long as you check your answers and correct your mistakes.” (Make It Stick p.202)
This reminds me of a song that continues to echo through my mind, “At Home in the Dark” which includes the quote, “An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” I’ve seen this quote attributed to both Orlando A. Battista and JFK (wonder whose mistake was it to credit one in error? Ha.) The point is that the real “wrong” is continuing to be willfully ignorant closed to the truth, growth, and improvement.
So we need to embrace the difficulty we experience in learning, because “People who are taught that learning is a struggle that involves making errors will go on to exhibit greater propensity to tackle tough challenges and will tend to see mistakes not as failures but as lessons and turning points along the path to mastery.” (Make It Stick p.91)
I have had the opportunity to see this in action in various areas of learning in my life, but language learning has been a biggie for about the last three years especially. Tell you what, learning the German language as an adult has been every bit as maddening and hilarious and excruciating and rewarding and embarrassing as promised.
Make It Stick stresses that we hold the power to expand our intellect: “The elements that shape your intellectual abilities lie to a surprising extent within your own control. Understanding that this is so enables you to see failure as a badge of effort and a source of useful information–the need to dig deeper or try a different strategy. The need to understand that when learning is hard, you’re doing important work. To understand that striving and setbacks, as in any action video game or new BMX bike stunt, are essential if you are to surpass your current level of performance toward true expertise. Making mistakes and correcting them builds the bridges to advanced learning.” (p.7)
Mistakes, failure, and creativity
Mistakes are critical for learning, and they are also essential to any creative pursuit. Julia Cameron asserts: “All creative success requires creative failure.” (The Artist’s Way p.384) In the book Succulent Wild Woman, Sark explains how our resistance to this failure can inhibit creativity, and how to move forward:
“Creativity is filled with making ‘mistakes.’ Women are often preoccupied with perfection and miss out on the mistake-making process. We start with a vision in our imagination–then we try to translate it into paint, clay, crayon, pastel, dance or song. The paint leaps off the brush and a big dot appears on the paper. Is it a mistake? Or a messenger of color, sent to invite us to explore?” (p.137) Don’t miss out on this joyful process!
Sark relates her own person experience with this struggle against judgement: “So often, I scribble or color and then judge the result too quickly. I decide it is inferior, or a mistake, or not worthy in some way. Yet the process is a glory if I can detach from the result.” (Succulent Wild Woman p.137)
While doing the Artist’s Way in 2020, I came across a refreshing approach to supposed creative failures, as Julia Cameron reassures artists: “Because the Artist’s Way focuses on process rather than product, you will learn to value your ‘mistakes’ as part of your learning.” (The Artist’s Way p.367)
Sark relates experiencing negative judgment when creating art and writing books, but has come up with a clever visualization to help: “Sometimes while writing a book, I imagine an audience of critics looking scornfully at what I am writing. I call in my creative and spiritual mentors to ‘scatter the crowd’ and restore some balance.” (Succulent Wild Woman p.137)
Unwaveringly emphatic about the need for mistake-making, Sark cheers: “We need to make more mistakes! As women, and people, and especially creatively. Start more projects! Start more than you can ever finish. Fill yourself overly full so that your imagination spills out. Watch children. So much of what they do is a ‘mistake’ by our narrow adult standards. Women can step boldly forward as working creative people–not just hobbyists, dabblers, and only dreamers.” (Succulent Wild Woman p.137)
Fear of mistakes and failure
It breaks my heart when students of mine come to class already saying that they “can’t.” Of course they can’t yet, they haven’t studied or practiced or anything! It takes a TON of failure to be a ballet dancer and it starts on day one and continues for the rest of your life!
Make It Stick drives home how debilitating this fear can be: “A fear of failure can poison learning by creating aversions to the kinds of experimentation and risk taking that characterize striving, or by diminishing performance under pressure, as in a test setting. In the latter instance, students who have a high fear of making errors when taking tests may actually do worse on the test because of their anxiety.” (p.91)
This is tragic because many highly-intelligent individuals who study hard may perform poorly in examinations due to this paralyzing fear of making mistakes or getting answers wrong. In the book There is Nothing Wrong With You, Buddhist teacher Cheri Huber concurs: “If you are afraid of making a mistake, you’ve already made it. You’re already in as bad a place as you can be. Everything after that is getting out.” (p.162)
One of the historical personalities I found cited again and again for his persistence in the face of apparent failure is Thomas Edison, and Make It Stick points out that the inventor actually “called failure the source of inspiration, and is said to have remarked, ‘I’ve not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.’ He argued that perseverance in the face of failure is the key to success.” (p.93)
Letting go of judgement
How can we deal on a practical level when a fear of mistakes and failure stops us or others we love from pursuing what they dream of?
We must find a way to let go of negative judgements of our attempts. As Judith Lasater distinguishes in the book Living Your Yoga, “To view yourself as bad or a failure because you did not accomplish what you set out to do is judgement. To state clearly and simply that you did not accomplish your plan is taking responsibility.” (Living Your Yoga p.24)
This has been a big part of my work as a life coach, helping clients differentiate between disempowering judgements and inspiring/empowering interpretations of the facts of their situation. It’s funny when I bump up against the notion that coaches (or teachers, for that matter) have it all figured out or somehow don’t face failure. Quite the contrary, they are experts at navigating mistakes, challenges, failures due to their intimate experiences with all of these!
If we get stuck in the quagmire of failure and self-loathing, we can miss the opportunity to be responsible for our actions, learn from our experiences, strategize, and stay in action toward what we want to create with our lives. This skill in re-framing failure also gets stronger with practice.
Facing mistakes with compassion
A classic reminder of the importance of determining where we can learn and improve and what we can let go of, The Serenity Prayer states,
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
Dealing with mistakes and failures requires acceptance, courage, and wise discernment, not harsh judgment, beating ourselves up, or despair.
My research on resources for cultivating compassion to help us move past our failures included some mindful advice from the Harvard Business Review in the article Recover from Failure with Self-Compassion: “What does it take to rescue yourself and begin to address the situation effectively? You need to treat yourself with the same kindness and support that you’d provide for a friend.”
Cultivating the Courage to Create
In The Artist’s Way Julia Cameron explains how we can cultivate the courage to create: “Let our gardening hands be gentle ones. Let us not root up one another’s ideas before they have time to bloom. Let us bear with the process of growth, dormancy, cyclicality, fruition, and reseeding. Let us never be hasty to judge, reckless in our urgency to force unnatural growth. Let there be, always, a place for the artist toddler to try, to falter, to fail, to try again. Let us remember that in nature’s world every loss has meaning. The same is true for us. Turned to good use, a creative failure may be compost that nourishes next season’s creative success. Remember, we are in this for the long haul, the ripening and harvest, not the quick fix.” (p.378)
Cheri Huber underscores the value of mindfulness to our learning in There is Nothing Wrong With You: “Whatever it is I’m doing, if I pay attention to it, I’m going to benefit. I’m going to learn something.” (p.160)
Responding to a student who struggled to accept their failures, Huber advises, “Look at your son, Evan, learning to walk. At what point should he have considered himself a failure and given up? All of the times he pitched over on his head or fell back on his bottom? Those were not successful from the definition of walking, yet they were not unsuccessful, either. They were just part of the process of learning to walk.” (There is Nothing Wrong With You p.160)
Huber explains that mindfulness and acceptance are key: “If you were to see clearly all your conditioned beliefs about getting what you want, control, wrong, blame, should, and trying, you would have a level of clarity that would make your life simple and enjoyable in a way that you cannot now even imagine. You would have a level of freedom available to you that you would never find if everything went the way you want it to for the rest of your life.” (There is Nothing Wrong With You p.161)
It’s funny to imagine that our outcomes can turn out even better when things don’t go as we hoped and planned for than if they did, but looking at my life, I can see evidence of this as well. Sure, we want what we want and should go for it, but need to face our results with equanimity.
Yoga to Practice Compassion
Judith Lasater suggests the following Compassion Practice to help us develop understanding and acceptance of our selves and others. If you are struggling to find compassion for others, Lasater recommends: “To increase your ability to extend compassion to others, begin by allowing compassion for yourself to grow.”(Living Your Yoga p.54)
The first step of the Compassion Practice is to start in a comfortable position such as savasana, spend a few minutes to close your eyes, relax, and breathe. Then Lasater directs:
“When you are ready, recall a past experience in which you wish that you had acted differently or in which your actions were not freely chosen. As you recall your experience, first pay attention to your bodily sensations. What do you notice? Perhaps you feel a tightness in your throat, or a heaviness in your belly, or a restriction in your breathing. Whatever you feel, be present, with kindness.
Next, imagining that your experience is on a video-cassette, rewind and rerun it from the beginning. This time, see yourself through the perspective of time and compassion. Acknowledge that the choices you made were the best that you could do at that time. Allow your actions to be understood from your new perspective.
Then slowly begin to bring your concentration back to the here and now. Breathe quietly for a few minutes. Slowly roll over onto your side, open your eyes, and use your arms to help you get up.” (Living Your Yoga p.54-5)
Importance of Support
It is very difficult to face these challenges and failures on our own. Whether that support takes the form of friends, family members, creative community, or trusted professionals, go get it! Julia Cameron has seen many examples: “I have had ample opportunity to experience firsthand what it means to lack creative support and what it means to find it. Often, it is the difference between success and failure, between hope and despair.” (The Artist’s Way p.379)
Daily Artistic Practice
Austin Kleon describes how artists and people can succeed through designing supportive artistic practices in his book Keep Going:
“Even after you have achieved greatness,” writes musician Ian Svenonius, “the infinitesimal cadre who even noticed will ask, ‘What next?’” In response, Kleon shares: “The truly prolific artists I know always have that question answered, because they have figured out a daily practice—a repeatable way of working that insulates them from success, failure, and the chaos of the outside world. They have all identified what they want to spend their time on, and they work at it every day, no matter what.” (Location: 59-62)
Structures to overcome fear of failure and mistakes:
- Writing & Reflective Practices
- Take a class
- Learn a language
- Make art
Looking for more from me on related topics? Listen to Podcasts 009: Resilience and 008: Persistence or the following blogs:
- Goal-Setting for Dancers
- Powerful Portfolios to Catalyze Action
- Healthy Habit-Building
- Meditation Practice Challenge
- Seeking Sweet Sleep
Questions for Reflection
What mistakes do you regret? What is there to learn from them?
How have you failed lately?
What failure do you fear?
What resources and structures do you need to call upon to face your fear?
What do you want to create?
I hope you’ve gotten value from this exploration of overcoming mistakes and failures to keep going with dancing, learning, and creative practices! Let me know how you fuel your creativity and what practices keep your dancing and artistry alive!
Blythe C. Stephens, MFA
she/her or they/them
A Blythe Coach: Dance Education & Coaching
move through life with balance, grace, & power