Art & Failure: Why the Two Go Together

Table of Contents

Book Cover, Children Learn that failure is something to be feared

An article by Matt Appling.

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.

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.


(Matt’s first book, Life After Art, debuts today)

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