Using Your Failures to Become Even Better at What You Do

Recently, a commenter on another article suggested we read this post. So we have. And we’re proud to reveal our take-away: “Be proud of your failure because it will help you succeed.” (Yeah, tell that to the mortgage company. Right.)

Saddest pic we ever saw; we think it’s the white socks

Paula Scher on Failure – by Jay Dixit (Psychology Today)

Paula Scher is one of the world’s most famous graphic designers, known for creating Citibank’s umbrella logo as well as for design work for The Public Theater, The New York Times Magazine, the American Museum of Natural History, The New York City Ballet, and Herman Miller. She believes failure is the secret to artistic success. “You have to fail in order to make the next discovery,” says Scher. “It’s through mistakes that you actually can grow.”

You have a whole philosophy about recovering from failure—how you can learn from failure and how it can actually help you. You’ve spoken about how failures and mistakes in your own work led to your current level of success and allowed you to be creative.

There are two different ways this thing works. I did a TED talk about the difference between serious work and solemn work. I define serious work as being where you make breakthroughs, and solemn work as doing the status quo and the level may be very good but it’s not breakthrough.

There’s another factor—and I’m talking about this as a designer, but I imagine it would work in any form of the arts and to science. When you’re working and you make mistakes, particularly when you’re young, you make discoveries because you do things that are inappropriate and wrongheaded, but within the wrongheadedness you find an unexpected way to go. These things are truly the breakthroughs.

When you’re fulfilling a function—when you’re being obedient, in other words, you’re doing as expected—you can’t learn anything. Because you already know the answer. It’s through mistakes that you actually can grow.

You have to get bad in order to get good. You have to try a lot of things and fail in order to make the next discovery.

That works in a short-term methodology when you’re just working on a specific project, but also long-term in terms of a whole career. I find I make big discoveries and I make huge leaps and then I repeat myself and I’ll be known for what I did—I’ll get the acclaim for the breakthrough—and that elevates everyone’s expectation of who I am and what I’m supposed to do, and I will repeat that because it has become successful.

And I will repeat it and repeat it until it provokes my utter failure because I’m going along doing exactly what I did. And it’s very hard to make the breakthrough because in order to make the breakthrough again, to go up again, you either have to fail or be unqualified for a job where you don’t know what you’re doing, where you make honest mistakes because that’s how you learn. And that success is its own guarantee of failure.

So you’re saying that one of the ways that you experience failure is: Let’s say you make a breakthrough and you’re rewarded for it—by people praising it—and you repeat that same formula that worked for you and it gets stale after a while, and eventually that lack of innovation becomes regarded as a failure?

That’s right. In my TED talk, there’s actually a little cycle about it. It’s first being serious—that’s how you make the breakthrough—then being solemn (that’s when the breakthrough is expected), then being trite or hackneyed, and then being forgotten and then getting resurrected again. You go through that entire cycle, and the failure leads to the next reinvention—as long as you understand what’s happening to you. Some people grasp on some to try to repeat the old success. They feel, “Well, oh, I’m just not doing the old thing I did well,” and in fact you have to let go of that for a while and free fall and find the next thing.

What do you do in order to understand what’s happening to you and try not to grasp on to the old success?

That’s the “aha” part of it. The really hard part is to let go of yourself. You have to have the self-awareness that it’s happening, and you can’t be defensive and protect yourself. Like I find, the minute I see young kids doing something I really, really hate, I know I have to pay attention to them. Because I realize I really, really hate it because I’m defending myself.

Can you give an example of that?

I’ve been through so many styles and trends that have been like that. That’s your first reaction when you see something new that you aren’t part of. It’s a generational shift. I’m 60, I’ve been through this a lot. You never can do what the kids do. What you do is look at yourself and find your own way to address the fact that the times have changed and that you have to pay attention. You can’t be a designer and say, “Oh, this is timeless.” Nothing is timeless! Times change. The minute you say, “This is some fashion phase, I’m going to ignore this, because my work is timeless,” pay attention—you’re fooling yourself! What young designers do is they rebel against what came before them—meaning they’re rebelling against you. That’s what allows them to discover the next thing.

They need that to propel them forward. So when they rebel and they rebel against you, that hurts your feelings. You feel threatened by it. When you feel threatened by it, you tend to denounce it. “Oh, these young kids today, they’re doing this terrible crap yada yada.” How many times have we heard that? What you’re doing is you’re not paying attention. You’re defending yourself. If you can embrace it and you can look at it and find the value in it and why it is here, then you can grow yourself, and you’re much stronger that way.

There’s another kind of failure. Once you realize the thing you got rewarded for has become stale and that you need to try something new—when you’re trying to innovate, I suppose you make mistakes then too?

Then you really don’t know what you’re doing, so you make some really terrible things. And you have to have the luxury and the time to do that, and it’s hard when you’re a working professional to be able to fail like that. But there’s nothing better for you than to make some big ugly terrible thing that’s just a disaster.

The thing about your mistakes is, when everybody praises something, you don’t learn anything. But when you do something terrible, you know what not to do. And that’s fantastic. You also learn what you could do if you manipulated it a different way. You have to try these things. You have to see where the failure takes you. That’s very scary and risky and also hard to do while you’re trying to do something professional. So you have to set aside some personal R&D to make the failure.

Is that what you did, or were you lucky to be in a field where you could fail in your actual work?

When I was young I had this job working in the record business. I was an art director for CBS records and I used to make about 150 records covers a year. About 80 percent of them were terrible. And that was how I learned to be a designer. I was very lucky. Because most kids don’t have the option to really fail like that.

That’s where I learned the value of the failure. Now, as a working professional and a partner of Pentagram with a reputation to uphold, I’m probably less likely to make outrageously ugly things. But the downside of that is that the work becomes expected, so I have to make changes on my own. So I began painting as a way to balance and be able to make other discoveries, and I made these very complicated map paintings and they started selling. The success hurt the expression. So I have to go back to R&D and develop some other ways of pushing that.

Do you think it takes a particular type of personality to be able to do that, to be able to take down your defenses and be OK with failure? What do you think it is about your personality that allows you to do that?

This is hard, because it gets very personal. Maybe I had less to protect. Some of it came from being a woman, in that the expectation was that I wasn’t going to do much anyway, so what the hell?

I find that men are much less likely to talk about this stuff. Unless they’re so über-successful that they put themselves out as gurus. It’s the idea that failure is not embarrassing to me. What’s embarrassing to me is the idea of failing and not knowing. Do you know that Randy Newman song, “I’m Dead and I Don’t Know It”?

2 thoughts on “Using Your Failures to Become Even Better at What You Do

  1. geraldsanford says:

    ‘SERIOUS WORK AND SOLEMN WORK’. Me thinks someone’s taking ones-self too seriously. WRITE to tell a story, PAINT to show a story, ACT to play a story…and SLEEP to dream a story…before the LONG SLEEP knocks on your door. Simple as all that. gs

  2. geraldsanford says:

    I’m really lost. Lawrence ya gotta help me! When we wrote — especially for TV — which many of us just used to support our writing the “great play”, or even movie, whatever — did we put as much effort into trying to figure out what it was all about, or did we just write because that’s what we did? We were writers. We invented stories. And it paid well. What else were we to do? In fact, I’m still doing it. gs

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