The Motivational Allure of Failure

There’s an old adage that goes something like, “What would you do, if you knew you couldn’t fail?” It’s a great exercise in thinking big, in deciding on paths that may be frightening due to the risk involved in trying them out, or in finding solutions that may be held back due to overthinking the pitfalls.

However, in many creative pursuits, the definition of “success” or “failure” tends to be expressed in only one way: monetary compensation. How many times have we, as creatives, listened to others as they questioned every moment spent on artistic pursuits?

“How much do you get per video you upload?”

“Have you sold a book yet?”

“Do people actually pay for your paintings?”

Certainly, it’s the goal of many artists to support ourselves financially through our art. However, the marketplace being what it is and daily life being as expensive as it can be, that’s not always possible. Sadly, this tends to lead a lot of creatives to giving up on our dreams, since any time and energy spent on the work that moves us is considered frivolous, or worse, that horribly dismissive term, “hobby.”

But what else do we gain from creative work, beyond a paycheck? Is there value in failing to make a living wage from art that fills something else in us that makes the hours of work worthwhile? What would you do, if you knew you couldn’t succeed financially from your artistic pursuits?

In a way, it can be seen as a freeing experience. If you aren’t expecting to land a publishing deal, how experimental can your next novel be? If you don’t worry about your subscriber count, can you be entirely personal and more specific with the videos you produce? If the sculpture you’re carving will only live in your garden, couldn’t you make it something that inspires you every day?

With more and more opportunities to build a career out of self-directed creative work, it almost seems shameful these days to say that we make things “just” because of the love we have for the work itself. But working on something simply to pay the bills can often dull the shine of it, and when we’re beholden to an audience, customers, or patrons, we often don’t have full autonomy over the work we produce.

It’s not necessary to give up on the dream of building a creative career, but remember that it’s not the only goal available.

Go out and fail spectacularly.

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