At the start of this year I boldly made this quote by Neil Gaiman my Facebook cover photo. This, I decided, was the banner I was going to live under in 2015.
I know in my head the value of mistakes. I know, as they say, that “Success is 99% failure,” that every single person who has done something great in the world has encountered as many failures along the way as they have successes. I know that almost all success is built on the bedrock of failure.
And still I’d spent a lifetime being afraid; afraid of making mistakes.
Afraid of what? That I’d say the wrong thing; make a bad decision; not be able to do something “right;” not be able to do it as well as everybody else; not be able to do it in a way that would garner approval…
Afraid of the illusion of failure – a phantom created by my own mind – and the ghosts of other people’s opinions.
Afraid, always, that I wouldn’t be good enough.
Or, more to the point, that I wouldn’t be good enough for someone else.
The place that this had played out most recently was in my pottery. In previous years I’d found a personal style that I liked and had also been well received by others. Now I found myself divided between wanting to explore new things, step out into new artistic territory; and the fear that whatever I did next wouldn’t live up to what I’d already done; wouldn’t be good enough or as well received.
Afraid that I didn’t have what it takes.
Afraid, also, that cowardice in the face of my ego-driven doubts and distrust of self would petrify and fossilise my work , immobilising me and curtailing the growth of my artistic expression.
So this quote of Neil Gaiman’s I stumbled upon felt gloriously freedom-filled and full of space.
It was a declaration on my part to engage with my art and life boldly and with courage; to be open to the creative force of life and to let it flow through me unhindered, unleashing the fullness of its power in whichever way it chose.
Even when I – or at least the ego-driven self-criticising fault-finding part of me – wasn’t sure it was right.
Heck, especially when I wasn’t sure it was right.
In fact I decided, returning to my pottery, that when it came to artistic exploration there is no “right” or “wrong.”
There are standards, certainly – though even these are inevitably subjective – but if art is primarily about self-expression can it ever be “wrong?”
Bad? Yes. (In an individual’s or group of individuals’ – which may or may not include the artist’s – opinion).
But wrong? No, I don’t think so.
In particular artistic exploration – the initial stages of experimentation with the germ of a new idea, taking a creative concept and tentatively putting it into physical form – while essential to any artistic process can only take place when we give ourselves permission and licence to make mistakes.
The germ of a new idea is a seed of latent potential from which great art may, or may not, be born. But we will never know if we trample on it and stamp it underfoot before it’s had time to take root.
So with Neil’s words to bolster me I decided that I would no longer allow myself to buy into my ego’s stories about there being a “right way” and a “wrong way” to do art. Nor its nagging insistence that my way of doing it was – of course – remember this is the ego self we’re talking about – the “wrong way.”
Indeed I would forget about “art” – along with its exclusivity, its judgements and the notion that there’s a bar to reach – altogether; choosing instead to focus on creative self-expression and my desire to let the beauty that is born of my soul flow though me and give rise to work that embodies the purest essence of myself and reflects the life and the light within.
Discarding preconceived ideas of “rightness” I would do what felt right to me, focusing on creative exploration and enjoyment of the medium and process rather than on the finished piece and how I thought it would be received.
Having said all of this of course I still wanted to create good pots. Forget that, I wanted to create great pots – great pots that were both uniquely mine and serenaded my soul with their beauty. But the part of me that was itching to expand my creative vision realised that the only way I would be able to do that was if I allowed myself to make mistakes.
Any creative endeavour (whether in art or in life) needs this freedom. It is imperative to allow ourselves the space to make mistakes in order for our creativity to be unleashed.
Creativity is not supposed to be perfect, and when we put unrealistic expectations on it we hold ourselves back from the fullness of our creative expression for fear that we may “fail” – inadvertently crushing the seed and choking its growth, rendering the creative process barren.
The dictionary definition of creative is:
“Relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something.” (Emphasis mine).
To be creative means to explore something new, something that has never been seen in quite this form before and that, inherently, implies risk.
The risk of getting it “wrong.”
It is impossible for the act of creativity to take place in our “safe zones.” It has nothing to do with familiar territory and feeling comfortable and everything to do with courageously leaping over hurdles, fearlessly pushing back boundaries – our own as well as those of our art.
Great pots cannot be made without mistakes.
Great pots cannot be made without creativity, vision, courage, commitment, persistence, perseverance and a deep and abiding belief in oneself and the germ of an idea that has been given to you to bring forth into the world.
And just as art is a mirror for life…
great people, great moments and great lives cannot be made without mistakes.
(Only with life you don’t get that forgiving “test tile” stage).
It goes without saying that great people/moments/lives… great anything can only be made with creativity, vision, courage, commitment, persistence, perseverance and a deep and abiding belief in oneself and the germ of the idea that has been given to you to bring forth into the world.
So I’ll choose to focus, instead, on the bit about mistakes – though it’s far less glamorous than the rest; far less appealing to our egos; far more liable to kindle our resistance…
But greatness in “art, or love, or work or family or life” cannot be either aspired to or attained without a generous helping of mistakes along the way.
We need to make mistakes if we want to actualise our potential and expand into more of our own unique magnificence. Because if we’re not making mistakes it means, quite simply, that we’re not trying anything new. The hands of time might be turning but we remain static, locked in position, doing and being more of the same.
A mistake turned around in the kaleidoscope of our minds, seen from a new frame of perspective, is an affirmation. One that says:
“I’m in motion. I’m giving expression to the life force that flows through me. I’m getting out there and doing my thing.”
Or, to use Neil Gaiman’s words again:
“(I’m) making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing (my)self, changing (my)self, changing (my) world. (I’m) doing things (I)’ve never done before, and more importantly, (I’m) Doing Something.”
That “Doing Something” counts for a lot, never mind the rest. We all deserve to be recognised for whatever our “something” is. And who do we need this recognition from the most? Our self.
I cannot emphasise enough the importance of knowing that we are on our own side; that we believe in who we are so much that it doesn’t matter whether anybody else does or not. Not in an arrogant “know it all” kind of way; but in a “knowing-that-you’re-not-perfect-and-will-make-mistakes-and-yet-still-having-the-faith-that-you-can-and-will-come-through-on-your-commitments-to-yourself” kind of way.
So next time you make a mistake instead of criticising yourself and calling yourself something unflattering and/or unkind, why don’t you congratulate yourself – celebrate your awesomeness, your courage, your dauntlessness? Your boldness in showing up, living, learning, expanding; your willingness to get out there and do your thing.
Celebrate your mistake and everything that brought you to this place for it is nothing less than proof that you are in motion; that you are taking the challenge that life throws down in front of us each and every day; that you are getting out there and doing something.
And it is only in doing something that we open up the possibility of doing something great.
Coming full circle back to the subject of my pottery, did my new championing of mistakes and boldness of approach produce “great pots?”
Well, both yes and no, (another subjective opinion of course).
My experimentations with form towards the end of the year yielded a uniquely shaped bowl reminiscent of Ancient Rome or Greece that spoke to me so much of beauty that I kept it for myself.
My experimentations with surface didn’t immediately yield quite the same degree of success. A design of circles and arches that looked great on the flat and one-dimensional test piece didn’t translate so well when transferred to three-dimensional pots. It isn’t “bad” as such but it doesn’t quite speak to my soul, fill my heart with joy.
Another experiment with surface does, I think, contain that elusive spark of freshness and a big dash of daring that – if they harmonise in just the right way – could grow into an exhilarating new way for me to interact with the surfaces of pots. But it still needs a lot of work: the combination of slips and glazes was excessive, marring the attractiveness of the surface with extensive pinholing.
I’m sure that there’s a seed of great potential there, but I’ve had to reconcile myself to the fact that it’s still in its embryonic stage. It will be up to me next year to create the right conditions for the seed to grow; a process of continuous tweaking through repeated experiments until, with luck, I get the balance just right.
And this is another thing that my year of embracing mistakes has taught me; an important part of the whole process has been learning what to do with all the mistakes I’ve made. (And the ones I’ve mentioned barely begin to scrape the surface of mistakes made practicing pottery, never mind the mistakes I’ve made in life at large).
Instead of lamenting what has gone “wrong,” creating a field of negativity around the mistake and blowing it up so big in my mind it obscures everything else – including all those things I’ve been getting “right” and could/should be celebrating; I’ve become much better at accepting the mistake for what it is, seeing it as just another experience – neither good nor bad, recognising it as a source of valuable information, absorbing the lesson it has for me, moving on.
I’m finally starting to comprehend that my “mistakes” are as important as my “successes.” That, in fact, it’s all a success; every last bit of it. What enables me to say this? The kaleidoscope of my mind has shifted allowing me to see how both my mistakes and my successes add unimaginable value to my life. The “successes” build my confidence, motivate and inspire me to be the best me I can. The “failures/mistakes” give me invaluable insights about where I am in relation to where I want to be and, more often than not, also help to ground a deeper and more complete understanding of whatever it is I’m currently working on. It all comes together in one messy but unified whole to propel me forward in the direction I want to go. And with success being defined as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose,” what can be more “successful” than that?
When we fully integrate the stance that mistakes are a kind of confirmation; proof that we’re “making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing (our)self, changing (our)self, changing (our) world… doing things (we)’ve never done before, and more importantly… Doing Something,” we start to shift our perception. We sense that a life lived with too few mistakes will invite more regrets than a life lived with too many; and this is a large part of what gives us the courage to step up and embrace the fullness of life – mistakes and all.
The cusp of the year is always a time rich with meaning and ripe for self-introspection. A good question to ask ourselves is: Where am I holding myself back – whether that be in “art, or love, or work or family or life” – frozen on the precipice of change/motion for fear of making a mistake?
The answer will come in the quiet space of your heart, the space where the soul speaks to us. As you peer into yourself acknowledging where you are holding yourself in check, you are likely to be met with a harsh lash of retaliation from your Ego as it tries, with everything its got, to resist the change that it senses you’re about to make. (To our Ego the familiar equals safe and anything else is seen as a challenge to its dominance, threatening to topple it from its throne and putting its rule in peril).
Feel your fear; know it intimately; make it your friend. For your fear is doing you a beautiful kindness, giving you valuable information about just how much this thing, whatever it is, means to you – if you didn’t care about it on a deep level it wouldn’t hold such a charge for you. You wouldn’t be so afraid to step out. Your fear of making a mistake is doing you the service of showing you just how important it is to you.
So feel your fear and know, by way of it, how much of you is invested in whatever this thing is; it’s intricately woven together with your longing to get it “right.”
Know, too, that in your beautiful messy jumble of humanity you’re still going to get bits of it “wrong.” After all, one of the few certainties in life is that we all make umpteen mistakes along the way.
Feel your fear fully, and then… Do Whatever It Is Anyway.
As Neil enjoins: “Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect… Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.”
We didn’t come here to be perfect; we came here to grow and expand.
And the only way we can do that is by embracing and learning from our mistakes.
So as we go forth into another new year let’s commit to making more and more “glorious, amazing mistakes.” Let’s celebrate them; let’s celebrate what they tell us about ourselves.
Let’s garner the information they hold and discover what works for us. Create the conditions that stimulate the seed of creative potential within to germinate, allowing us to bring forth and make manifest in tangible form the germs of ideas we have been given.
Let’s celebrate the self who’s bold enough to do this; the self who in her perfect imperfection dares to make mistakes – for that is who we came here to be.
Let’s celebrate this self who loves and lives and follows the heart’s longings.
The self who dares to let go of limitation and boldly dance with life itself.