Rule 35: Fail Better


Just ask this guy about the other 574 that got away

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. — Samuel Beckett

I hope you’re not afraid of photography, or of failing at photography. Let’s be real about this for a minute. Think of all the things you can screw up in your life: dinners, relationships, work projects… we could, between us both, probably come up with a list that ran into the hundreds of items, and that’s just the things we’ve already screwed up, not to even mention that which we haven’t yet gotten our hands on and turned to shit. A good many of them, if not most or all of them, have consequences a lot more weighty than your picture of a swan having blown highlights. Why is it, then, when we often wouldn’t give up on those more important things, we’re willing to bag it all when we’re faced with something relatively trivial?

And it’s not like you’re going to screw up once and be done with it. Even — no, especially — if you say, “Well, I’m never going to do that again,” you’re going to. And you’re going to screw it up. Not even the same way. With our wonderful creativity comes a propensity for finding new, and ever more creative, ways to fuck up. Life’s like that, and photography isn’t exempt from it, either.

Be encouraged.

There’s an adage in public speaking, but I think it holds true elsewhere as well: your audience is rooting for you. They want you to succeed, and will be with you no matter how far short your efforts fall. People talk all the time, but it’s not the same as putting yourself out there publicly; for that reason, many people can’t imagine speaking in public. Similarly, people take photos all the time, but I don’t know that many of them do it as though it matters, or as if there’s anything at stake. Granted, it’s not something of earth-shaking importance if we’re going to be honest about it. But if it matters to you — matters enough that you want to do it well, matters enough that you want it to matter beyond just a simple image on a screen or a piece of paper — that fear of failure is always an ingredient in the process.

Taken by itself, there’s nothing wrong with that fear. Like anything else, it’s what you do with it that makes it a good or bad thing. If you let it paralyze you, then, yeah, it’s not a great thing to have around. If, on the other hand, you allow it to motivate you to do something more than you did the day before… well, now you’re onto something. That’s also when your art really begins to resonate with other people beyond the level of being something pretty that goes on your wall or in your stereo. We may not understand color theory, or the how and why of a chord change that turns your heart to jelly, but all of us, on some level, recognize what it is to try, and to fail… and to get back up again, to try and keep trying, ’til what’s left is still far short of perfection, but just as far from those earlier, worse failures.

The best part (even though it often doesn’t feel that way at the time) is that those failures are a good thing. The only way not to fail, after all, is to do nothing. To risk nothing, and therefore to gain nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. The upshot of all this failure, on the other hand, is that we keep getting closer — sometimes frustratingly so, with the goal just as frustratingly just out of reach — to what we wanted, needed, or just intended to do. What you see now as failure isn’t; it’s just part of the process, a point on your learning curve. Learn from it, grow in it, and see it as a beginning or a continuing rather than an end. Once you’ve stopped — stopped learning, doing, growning, trying — then, and only then, have you failed.

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