Some people imagine that artists come to their work with an idea perfectly conceived by their genius intellect, and it springs from their minds fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. And we as artists can fall for this lie even though we should know better. We imagine that if we were real artists, then we’d just be able to sit down and create, and everything would flow naturally. But after studying various artists and designers I respect, I’ve come to the opposite conclusion: the key to success is becoming good at failure. I believe mastery of the arts isn’t measured by how much you can get right on the first try but rather how well you can iterate. The best artists get as much failure out of the way as early as possible so that they can spend more of their time on being successful. And the bigger the project, the more iterations they go through.
Artists are trailblazers and innovators: people who look at the path less traveled, think “that’s still too mainstream,” and then pull out our machetes to start slicing open a new trail. Other fields have policies and procedures, established ways of doing things that, if carried out precisely, will lead to quality results. For the people in those industries, failure is costly and can mean millions of dollars wasted or even lives lost. But we’re artists. No one’s going to die if the hands look wrong in a drawing. And if your pastry attempt is a flop, you feed it to the dog and make a new one. Yet we get caught up in perfectionism, insisting that we have to get everything right the first time. Fear of making mistakes means fear of trying anything new, and I can’t think of anything more toxic to the arts than that.
So what do we do instead? We iterate. We don’t carve our first attempt in stone; we write in pencil and keep the eraser handy. I know how tempting it is to take the big vision in your head and start trying to produce it right away. But instead, there’s a better method available. And while I said we go off the beaten path as artists, when we do, it often follows this pattern:
First, an idea pops into your head, a vision of what could be. And you should start by explaining the vision to yourself in a way that you can understand it. You might think you already understand it, but if you’re anything like me, that’s hubris talking. Only through trying to explain it to yourself can you spot the areas where your understanding wasn’t as complete as you thought it was. If you’ve got a picture in your head, sketch it out. If you’ve got a story idea, write a synopsis. If you’ve got a song, maybe try humming it to yourself. As soon as you run into difficulty, it tells you what you were missing in the original conception. It’s handy to spot that before you get a hundred hours in and realize you’ve been headed the wrong path the whole time!
The next step is finding a way to explain the vision to a peer, another artist who can see what you’re trying to do. This is going to force you to clarify that initial vision even more, to get it to where someone else can see what you’re seeing–someone with artist’s eyes that can pierce through the basic concepts and visualize the possibilities behind them. These eyes also come from a different perspective. Since they don’t share your blind spots, they’ll be able to spot potential problems you may have missed and suggest improvements. Just because it started out as your vision doesn’t mean no one else has anything to say about it, and getting early feedback can head off a multitude of problems that would otherwise come in later.
Only after this point do I recommend you actually start making your work of art itself. You’ve done a few mockups to resolve the major issues, and now you’ll make an attempt at creating the real thing. Maybe more than one attempt. When you’re finally moderately satisfied with what you’ve created, it’s time to get feedback from non-artists. These reviewers won’t be as good at seeing what you were trying to do because they’re too distracted by what you actually did. If your piece isn’t able to speak for itself in a language they can understand, they’ll be confused, and you’ll need to address that for your final version.
And finally, when you’re getting to the point that you’re not sure whether the tweaks you’re implementing are making things slightly better or slightly worse, you’ve done all you can and it’s time to put your work out there. Hang your painting on your wall, send your manuscript to the publisher, perform your song at a coffee shop–whatever it takes. Perfectionism can whisper in your ear, nagging you to keep your work hidden for a while longer because it’s still flawed. Of course it’s flawed. You’re human. God’s not waiting on you to get anything perfect. He already did all the perfection that needs doing. The thing that remains is the art that only you can make, because it’s a reflection of who you are. So put your work out there. And in a few years, when you look back at what you made and all you can see are the mistakes you were blind to before, that means you’ve advanced as an artist, and it’s time to go out and make something even better.
Cameron Miller, writer
Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash