Art & Failure: Why the Two Go Together

From Jeff: This is an article by Matt Appling. Matt is a teacher, pastor, and writer. His first book, Life After Art, debuts today. Watch the video preview, buy the book, and get $100 in free resources at

I’m a teacher, an art teacher. Let me be honest for a minute: I love it when my students succeed, but I also love watching them fail.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy giving high fives and holding up great work in front of the class, as well as seeing the beaming smiles and proud faces it inspires.

But I love it just as much when my students’ work doesn’t stack up, when it doesn’t live up to the vision they had in their minds when they set out to create.

Life After Art
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It’s not that I’m cruel or that I like seeing kids disappointed in themselves. Nor do I want them to dwell on their failures.

But as writers, storytellers, artists, and people, I think we’ve lost the art of failure that is essential to success in life.

Failing at life

Why do so many adults feel insignificant? Like their story doesn’t matter? Why do they feel like failures? It’s because failure has never been an important part of their story.

Think about it. The best stories involve conflict, some kind of struggle, some hero with incredible odds stacked against him, right? Someone who keeps getting knocked down but keeps getting up.

No good story — no good hero — has it easy.

But so many of us have been conditioned to give up. To avoid failure. To quit before we reach the climax of our story.

How can we become the heroes we want to be if we never have faced the stacked odds, or gotten back up, or worked through crushing failures?

People feel like failures precisely because they’ve never been taught how to completely and spectacularly fail.

Why we need to fail

For a long time, I had a weird relationship with failure. It was a dark cloud to be avoided at all costs. Even if that meant doing nothing. Doing nothing would be preferable to failing.

It wasn’t until I became an art teacher that I saw how desperately kids needed to fail. Relationship with failure became one of my favorite things to teach, and one of my favorite things to write about.

I love it when the lightbulb clicks on over a student’s head. They realize that what’s on the paper doesn’t live up to what’s in their head. Their hands can’t yet do what their minds envision. And they learn a few lessons:

  • They learn that success is not cheap.
  • They learn that failure is not the end of the world or a sign to give up. There doesn’t have to be shame in failure.
  • They learn they can make dynamic decisions based on their past failings. They can learn from failure.

I love giving lots of high fives when students realize that they’ve failed — and then they keep going.

Don’t stop until you’ve failed

Perhaps our life stories are lacking something special…

Or we don’t feel like we’ve accomplished enough…

Or that we haven’t become the epic heroes we dreamed we’d be…

…Precisely because we haven’t failed enough. We’ve avoided it or given up too soon. Or we’ve never put ourselves in danger of failure. We’ve never pushed against anything.

If you feel like a failure, don’t worry. That’s a good thing. It means you’re in the game and experiencing conflict. You’re telling a great story that will be told one day to future generations.

Just don’t stop writing before the story is over.

Have you failed enough as an artist? Share in the comments.

Matt is a teacher, pastor, and writer. His first book, Life After Art (Moody Publishers), is now available. You can follow him on Twitter @MattTCoNP.

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67 thoughts on “Art & Failure: Why the Two Go Together

  1. Excellent point. Failure is always an option, and it shouldn’t be an unwelcome one.

    It’s often been said that writers whose first work does spectacularly well have a harder time working through the problems of their next book because their first success came so easily.

    It’s far better to have faced failure and found your way around it. Then you’ll understand why the end result works and have more of the skills needed to succeed again.

    1. It’s just too bad most of us don’t get that far! We get to the “fail” step…and then fail to keep going. We just retreat and stay fearful of other failures.

  2. I’m a big fan of failure because it leads to understanding which leads to success. But I’d go one step further and argue that even our failures are successes if we keep going. And sometimes what we think is a failure is a work of art in other’s eyes. So really, in the end, I’m not a big fan of failure. In fact, maybe failure doesn’t really exist and everything can be part of the success journey.

  3. Jeff this is one of the best you have ever written…and you have some of my favorites in the past. We find our significance in the art of failure is a great thought and a point to live by. The joy of finding oneself in the work of life is discovered in the failures. The truth is in the realization that a failure is not a missed opportunity. Thank you so much.

  4. Ah, yes. I believe I fail three times in at least 1,000 different ways on a daily basis.

    You’re right, when you learn to fail, you realize success does not come easy and so you appreciate it more. You’re driven by that success to win, to avoid failure.

    If you’re scared to fail, how can you expect to succeed? Most likely you’ll be afraid of any action at all!

    Art and failure do go together. The story isn’t going to end with a failure.

  5. The first time I heard someone say, “I’ve learned so much by my failures,” I was shocked. I had lived my life avoiding failure at all costs. Consequently I had not learned how to fail. I realized quickly how essential it is to teach others how to fail. When all that is recognized is perfection, failure is the enemy.

    Great post.

  6. I wrote a book, published it, and watched it bomb spectacularly. But it taught me that I was too anxious to get published and not willing to research what I was doing. Lesson learned.

  7. I’m unsure how this comment stuff works, but wanted to attempt, because these words meant a great deal to me. So much so, I forwarded to our tee tiny new writers group as well as my two boys, who are really men, in college. This is for all of us. Thank you for putting in words what I feel is a valuable lesson for everyone tripping along uneven trails of real life. Most of all, thanks for sharing. Best regards 🙂

  8. As a High School Art teacher, I see ‘failure’ on a regular basis… many times in the form of a lesson plan gone awry. Thank you for this well said reminder that is not remembered enough.

  9. This is a timely post for me. I listened to Brene Brown’s TED talks on shame and vulnerability this weekend. She talks about how vulnerability is essential to change, creativity, and innovation. And not being afraid to fail is a key element to vulnerability and creativity. Thanks for a great post!

  10. I have met so many parents who are afraid of letting their children fail, thinking it will irrevocably damage their little psyches.

    It’s like never allowing your seedlings to harden off in the spring. If all you do is coddle them and keep them in a warm and safe environment, they will wither away at the first challenging temperatures when they are finally out in the real world.

    Besides, you just never know how your failures can serve you. Will they allow you to teach others, to lead a small group to a better place because you have fought your way through those failures? Thinking about what you have learned through failure is a wonderful place to find some real gems for writing, helping others, and stepping stones for further success.

    1. Yes! If you pick up the book, I’ll elaborate on how adults are really projecting their own insecurities on the little people around them. Children are far less fragile than we are, often times.

  11. Wow what a wonderful article.yes it happens with all but mostly we also try to avoid it all the time but truly one must be alwa ys ready to deal with if one wants to see success in life.after all failure and success are two sides if the same coin.

  12. So often nowadays we don’t let our kids fail. Our intentions are good — we are trying to protect them — but in preventing failure we are also preventing opportunities for growth. Yeah, sometimes it’s hard and painful, but when I look back on my life so far, the periods in which I’ve struggled the most, both creatively and personally, have also been the most productive and the periods in which I’ve grown the most.

    Loved your book, Matt. Lots to think about.

  13. Failure has taught me and and grown me more in life than success ever has. This is true. I know it. Yet, I think I might need to write it 100 times on the chalkboard because it’s still a painful, uncomfortable truth to swallow. I’m loving Matt’s book.

  14. Thank you for this piece. Like many of us, I spent years scared of failure. It is empowering to come to the realization that failure understood as a positive life experience leads to growth. I see the benefits in both my business and personal life.

    Unfortunately, we do not live in a culture that teaches us to learn from failure. I have seen the results of this in post-secondary students who expect to succeed without understanding the need to work hard for it. When they don’t achieve the successes they envision, some of them crumble under the pressure. Yet, when you work hard, take risks, and learn from your failures, you may see rewards beyond anything you could have dreamed of, especially if you define success broadly.

    1. Absolutely, Rhonda, and I think you’ll find a lot to agree with me in Life After Art. We are taught two fundamental mistakes when it comes to failure: that failure is meant to be avoided at all costs, and that success comes without failure. My contention in the book is that both of these deceptions go completely against our natural inclinations as children. We have to be “re-wired” to fear failure, and most of us go into adulthood with that unnatural attitude.

  15. I respect the sentiment, but wonder if it’s too over-emphasized. Failure is not a possibility: it’s a necessary attribute to all intentional acts. You cannot do without failing. Every thing we do fails in some respect, with regards to some standard.
    The real task is not to work until we fail, but to appreciate our constant failures, to affirm them. To fail again and to fail better, to take from Beckett.

    1. Mark, that is amazingly well said, and exactly what I was trying to communicate. Failure is not a possibility – it is an inevitability. The only way to avoid failing is to avoid trying. And that habit that so many of us get into is a major theme in the book. I squandered much of my early years actually pretending I was not trying in order to deflect the embarrassment of failure. Not a productive strategy!

  16. Great ideas here, especially like the notion that kids need to desperately learn to fail in order to learn these important lessons. I definitely think the same goes for us as well. We need to embrace the fact that telling a great story will involve failure.

  17. I love the term Artist and agree with Seth Godin that we are all artists. When it comes to failing I see it as more important to look at the bigger picture. lets take football for example. Team A plays Team B. Team B loses so they failed to beat Team A. However if that game is within a season and Team B actually wins the league, Did they fail?

    When I have a meeting with a potential new client and they decide against working with me (surely not!) I feel disappointed but then eventually try to look at the bigger picture and see that if I am still a coach in 10 years time and am successful, am I going to remember this brief failing? Probably not, but I most likely would have learnt something from it that got me to where I am.

    Aaron Morton
    The Confidence Lounge.

  18. Oh my. Where is a hammer and a nail?
    I have spent most of my adult life getting close to the conflict in my story, and then backing off so I didn’t have to risk failing. I will risk failing. I will push through and keep painting and writing.
    Great article.

    1. That is great, Pamela! I spend a whole chapter of the book exploring how we think about failure, because it’s been such a great fear of mine in my life. I hope it will be an encouragement to you.

  19. I get where you’re going with this and agree with you, for the most part. Also, I can certainly relate to what you’re trying to say and do with your students – teaching them that failure is not and end unless you allow it to be.

    The only place I really disagree with you is where you say “People feel like failures precisely because they’ve never been taught how to completely and spectacularly fail.” For me, the issue is that most people are not taught what to DO with their failures. We don’t know how to respond to them except, as you said, avoid failure from there on.
    One of the best line to come out of the newest set of Batman movies – and it’s used 2x – is “And why do we fall…? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” The direction our society has taken has moved us away from this mentality and it is to our collective detriment.

    1. Great point, and I think we might be saying the same thing with different words. Maybe the definition of “failing spectacularly” is “failing, and then learning from it.” 🙂

    1. I am everywhere today, aren’t I. 🙂 You know, Life After Art is my third attempt at writing a book. Didn’t even get to the publishing phase. Just bombed out on my own – twice – before seeing a book to completion!

  20. This is an excellent post. I will be sharing it on my blog. I believe failure is very important. We are stronger at the broken places. Thank you!

  21. It’s the old Samurai training motto…”Three times down. Four times up!” It is not your failure that defines you, but you who defines your failure. Do you say, “I quit.” or ask, instead, “How do I overcome?” If you chose the second path, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and ask the questions. Why didn’t that work? What is my shortcoming? Do I have the necessary skill right now to persevere? If not, who do I go to to learn from? No artist ever advances in a void. We are all apprentices of someone. We may reach a point where we have no one left to turn to outside, then we must turn inside and honestly explore who we are and what we would create. The journey is the goal, not the destination!

  22. You have just given me new material for my clients. I help coach the unemployed, who often view their jobless situation as the biggest failure of their life. Trying to show them the positive in their situation isn’t always easy, so thank you! I’m going to share this post with them from now on.

  23. Engaging post and book concept. You’ve really touched a nerve. Are we millions of fearful, postured people. In our inauthentic churches and homes can we simultaneously acknowledge our human frailties and the God’s grace over us.

  24. My art teacher said for every hundred paintings we did we would have one masterpiece. Quite freeing isnt it?!

    1. It depends on how you look at it. 🙂 If you struggle with failure like me, the temptation might be to give up. On the other hand, if we have a realistic view of what it’s going to take to achieve a masterpiece, we’re better prepared for the long haul. In the book, I spend some time discussing this very thing – that children as they get older think that everything they make MUST be a masterpiece, or they start sinking into defeat.

  25. For me personally, I really like the idea of not stopping until I fail. If what failure is inevitable then I am not trying enough if I do not fail. That means that I am giving up too soon and not growing in my walk with Christ. If I do not mess up along the way, then my faith in Him will be stagnant and so will my witness.

  26. So extraordinarily happy to see this. Accepting failure is the key to overcoming a perfectionist attitude. I just read that it’s also a “step to success”. Fabulous post.

  27. Good insight. Fear of failure I think has led to less risk taking on my part, and as an editor, it’s my job to produce error-free publications, so there is stress in being perfect all the time. Ironically, when I was going through the process of having my first novel published, I found the editing/revising the most enjoyable part, just to see what I was missing that I would not have caught on my own. Failure helps in that regard.

  28. Positively one of the most inspirational stories on why failing can be a good thing. Thanks for sharing. I’ve been SO excited to read your book!! Love the concept, love the cover, love the trailer video thingy and love that you’ve zeroed in on something that’s been big for me: when I found out my old paintings had been thrown away by my art teacher in a school re-do, I thought I’d missed my last chance to make “art.” The Lord’s been showing me how wrong I was. Thanks for your message Matt!!

  29. Very well written and very true. I too am a teacher, and of all my students, the ones that will learn the least and will make the least progress are those that are so afraid to fail. It’s amazing how young children can be and already fear failure. A fear of ‘not knowing’ is role-modelled to many children from a young age, with adults around them that aren’t willing to admit when they don’t know or understand something.
    Me? I screw things up constantly and am constantly realising I have failed, so I must be perfect! Lol! 😉

  30. Thank you Jeff, for letting Matt guest post on your blog so he could come to my attention.

    Thank you Matt, for bringing the fact that failure is an option that leads to success, to the forefront of people’s attention:). I believe this, and I say it, but I’m not famous enough yet to be heard. I am a writer, soon to be an author, and then I can say this and be heard too.

  31. I circled back to this after two years and it’s a post I will continue to refer back to. Just wanted to let you know, Matt, your message is a powerful and important one. Possibly even life-changing…

  32. Even though it seems that I am reading this post a few years late.
    It still is so relevant.
    Thanks Matt.

  33. Thank u for saying the words I needed to hear. I’m a fighter, but the road has lately been a very long hill that just doesn’t ever “seem” to let up. I know if I just keep putting one foot – painting, collage, sewing, crochet, origami, drawing, bead work, clay, wire, weaving, bamboo crafts … just keep pushing feet forward, I know one day I will again feel the joy of success like a runner when her chest crosses the tape first place. … I keep telling myself that.

  34. I was just crying in my bed eating Oreos because I feel like an inadequate outcast after selling my prints at an art fair in Brooklyn. I sold 5 lol everyone wanted to buy cat buttons instead and looked at me like I have 8 heads

  35. Great Article! Speaking as someone who never had an ounce of guidance or encouragement and lived a life working one worthless job even worse than the one before, unemployment has given me so many empty recent years trying my hand at art seemed a good way to fill the pointless hours. Now we have an art world that is incredibly oversaturated and the only people who seem to catch a break are those from wealthy and influential families. Unfortunately I have neither.
    But we live in a world of 7+ billion people and 99.9% of those pass away anonymously so those who are artists will eventually have countless years of works end up in a landfill or smouldering on a garbage fire somewhere.
    Yup, having experienced so much failure regardless of how hard we try certainly will result in content and happier people. Trust me, this is experience I’m outlining here. The only light at the end of the tunnel is that eventually even the failure end. It may not be pretty or noteworthy but at least when the door slams shut it stays closed.

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