The Freedom to Fail

The internet is amazing. It’s how I’m here talking to you today. It has opened up the world to information in a way that barely seems possible, it has allowed us to remain connected with our loved ones and it has given us the opportunity to form friendships across oceans. And yet, no one can deny that there are downsides. Not least for creatives.

Nowadays, it can be nigh on impossible to switch off from the constant noise. And, as great as it is to have so much knowledge at your fingertips, the never-ending advice can be overwhelming. And then, of course, not to sound out the broken record, there is the din coming from the cancel culture mob. Even as private citizens, we can feel like we’re always under the microscope- and that scrutiny only seems to intensify if we dare to do something different. It’s hard pill to swallow, especially when, let’s face it: that’s what being creative is all about.

Not that I think people should be free from criticism (obviously). Nor do I want to offer banal advice to just get offline (especially when so many people’s incomes depend on being online in some capacity). But I do want to offer a glimmer of positivity.

Because, in order to achieve anything, we have to be prepared to fail. As writers, we have to remember: we can’t write to suit other people, we can only write the best version of our own story. There’s no concept of perfection, no possibility of pleasing everyone and no way of coming out of the process unscathed (even if we just take a beating from our inner critic). We will most certainly fall down and get a few scraped knees- we just have to learn to pick ourselves up again.

Creativity has always been about being brave. I imagine every creative individual feels like they’ve got Daedalus’ wings strapped to their backs, not sure if they’ll make it without flying too close to the sun. Not sure if they’ll tumble down into the glinting sea. It’s a dangerous business- yet if we don’t take that leap, we’ll be imprisoned forever.

And, above all, we’ve got to focus on our own flying, not getting distracted by what others are doing. It doesn’t matter if they’re freewheeling and showing off; it doesn’t make a difference if you think they’re flight plan is way off. Ultimately, we’ve got to make sure our own life jacket’s on before we assist others 😉 Then, and only then, can we be free to make our own mistakes.

14 thoughts on “The Freedom to Fail

  1. I love this post and think allowing others (and ourselves) to make mistakes is important. I think people do see extreme reactions towards people who have made mistakes online and start worrying. They wonder what happens if they make a mistake. Will all their online friends suddenly turn against them and demand they get off social media and never show their face again? Will someone try to look up their employer and try to get them fired? One can argue endlessly whether such fears are rational–but I think people do experience them. And I agree that can stifle creativity. People worry about saying or writing the “wrong” thing and not being allowed to learn and grow from their mistakes and move on. It’s true, though, that we can’t really control others’ reactions to us or our work/writing/whatever. We can only really worry about ourselves and try our best.

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  2. I think we’ve forgotten that not every thinks the same way and the rhetoric we use limits the expression of ideas and opinions. For example, if you express an idea that goes against [insert political or social issue here], you may be attacked for doing so.

    Which leads into your point about mistakes. Sometimes, people step out of the realm of what’s acceptable in an effort to grow and learn. But the backlash is severe because everyone is trying to do and say the right thing, and they know that they may be the next person to mess up.

    It’s a constant feedback of fear. No one wants to be heard but they don’t want to get cancelled either. And that’s what needs to get fixed in some way. People shouldn’t be afraid to make a mistake. In fact, it should be celebrated because it means we’re learning.

    What really needs to change is how we react to things, and as you pointed out, that’s the only thing we have in our control – how we react. Thanks for the great post! 🙂

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  3. It’s very worrying to me how the internet can shape our experiences of what it means to be creative, to try out something new, to speak our minds. I think it’s incredibly difficult for people to be open to failure on the internet because the criticism received can be overwhelming. It’s not like school, where if you make a mistake, a good teacher might say, “Oh, I think you meant to phrase it this way…” or “Original approach. Have you thought about what might happen if you did X?”

    The harsh reactions that we see on the internet are also puzzling to me because, quite often, we don’t even know whom we are speaking to. It seems quite cruel to me, for example, for someone to read someone’s story and then tell them that it’s drivel and they should never write again. But what if that writer is, say, 13? I think they have less experience with that kind of cruelty and may be more susceptible to self-doubt. Cruel words could make someone never write again and it’s really a shame people can’t respond with more affirming words and constructive criticism. Being kind costs nothing!

    Unfortunately, the internet tends not to see potential or someone who can learn and grow. Too often, they assume the worst of anyone who makes a mistake and the response is mockery and/or banishment, perhaps followed by an attempt to get the person fired from their job. I think many people are very aware that any of their perceived mistakes might follow them permanently. I have conversations with people all the time who are afraid to say anything because they are so fearful that someone will take it the wrong way. I think most of us want to be open to failure because failure is often the beginning of growth. But it’s hard to do that in an environment that is not remotely receptive to failure.

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    1. Well said!

      I think one problem is that, when we encounter someone on the Internet, that one post or essay is usually all that we know about them. This is very different from a classroom situation, where the teacher has observed the student for months, has had many interactions with them, is expecting growth and is actually invested in their growth.

      I have had situations where someone observes me once IRL and immediately makes a snap judgment about what I am like in the rest of my life, but on the Internet it’s much worse.

      I also wonder whether youth culture is a factor. My impression is that many Internet spaces tend to skew toward younger people, compared to real-life settings. In general, teens and twenties don’t realize how much they are going to learn and grow in the coming years, and so they don’t realize how much other people are going to learn and grow either. There’s a tendency to think of everyone’s character, opinions, and abilities as forever fixed.

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  4. Great advice there. I think it’s something we often need to be reminded of: don’t be afraid to take a leap to pursue/do something. Don’t be afraid to fail because failing is not the end. Couple years ago, I needed to hear/read those words and I got it from Pema Chödrön’s “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better.” It was a very inspiring read.
    And I also agree that we gotta try not to get distracted by what others are doing. I think these days, because of social media and all, it’s a lot easier to get caught up in comparing what you’re doing to what someone else is doing and feel that your efforts are less or don’t mean much due to doing so.

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  5. Ever notice how many accidents professional athletes endure on their way to becoming champions? I’ve always believed that the only way to do anything well is to be willing to fall down and then get up again. The problem is that social media makes it too easy to laugh at, humiliate, and bully those who are on their way to becoming champions. The rest of us need to learn to applaud the falls and the mistakes. I suspect that those jeering the loudest are the ones sitting naked in their own muck, too embarrassed to be seen, and well on their way to becoming nothing at all.

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  6. Good words.

    This reminds me of how Jordan Peterson points out that the way we develop a worldview is by talking, trying out different ideas and arguments and points of view. Ironically, he says, if we never allow people to say anything that is mistaken or even morally wrong, they will not be able to think and that’s not a good outcome.

    My big fear with my books is that if they gain any popularity, someone is going to come along and say, “It’s clearly about [insert recent hot-button topic].” And I’ll be going, “NO, it’s not about THAT, I’ve been working on it for five years!”

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  7. Ahhh I LOVE this post so much. And I’m agreeing very much on how we should stand up and live not only for the sake of others or to void any criticism, but we should live for ourselves too. Great post!

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  8. This is such an excellent post, and something I think about a lot! Failure is so necessary, even if it’s yucky and feels terrible. Because the only way forward is through, and often, that’s a bit messy.

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