The Art of Failure

By Samra Khawaja
Cross-signs pointing in different directions with one direction saying "success lane" and the other direction "failure drive."
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Everyone is familiar with the concept of failure. However bitter it may feel, failure can be a necessary step towards success. In the arts, without taking chances, artists risk not tapping into creativity that can potentially lead to great outcomes. NEA has spoken with many individual artists and art leaders in the past, from various art fields, on their relationship with failure as well as success (see our 2014 NEA Arts issue). Today, we’ve pieced together a few of their personal insights to remind you that maybe, failure isn’t so bitter after all.  “I think that if you want to grow in any field or improve at anything, failure is a part of the process. You can't expect to have success without some failure.” – Cartoonist Whit Taylor “Failure…it’s actually a good thing. I think failure is information. And the fact that you even know that something is wrong is a wonderful success in itself. It’s all just about getting better and it’s more about process than the result.” – Playwright Katori Hall “I think success is really about breaking through to a level where your art is relevant to people and it has an effect on people and an impact on people. And it provokes their thoughts, and emotions, and maybe, their creativity.” – Stand-up comic Marc Maron "[W]hen we say 'failure,' it connotes being dead in the water as opposed to thinking of it as a way to know where the boundaries are. As much as I might get down when it initially happens, I always find a couple of weeks later, a couple of months later, that the perspective on the failure--why did it fail?--is the big question. And answering that will tell you a lot about who you are.” Round House Theatre Artistic Director Ryan Rilette “Success is being able to sleep at night without worrying what tomorrow will bring. While all successes are built on mountains of failure, it's important to not let it get you down.” – Filmmaker Ted Geoghegan “You go through multiple failures every day on your way to finding something that does work. A lot of my ideas fail, but they give me clues to what direction might succeed. I have to be fairly confident about my ability to think on my feet and turn the failures into something interesting.” – Choreographer Gabrielle Lamb “To me, looking back, the things that have been failures are things where I didn't challenge myself, where I tried to just get by on old tricks, or repeated myself because someone liked it the first time [so] they're sure to like it again.” – Actor Jason Segel “I don't think I’ve had any failures as an artist. I’ve had things that didn’t turn out the way I expected them to, but I really can’t recall failure.” – Visual Artist Shan Goshorn “It’s [a question of] how satisfied you are with your own work, and I think if there's satisfaction, then you're a success. That's how I look at it.” – NEA Literature Fellow and writer Samrat Upadhyay “Actively failing and embracing failure as nothing more than feedback for the next stage of your work is critical to success in any genre.” – Visual Artist and Architect Amanda Williams