The Virtues of Failure

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”—Thomas Edison

(© Ian Plant) We all fear failure. Sometimes we shrug it off and get on with things; sometimes that fear is crippling. Failure sucks. Failure hurts. Failure is embarrassing and demoralizing. Avoiding failure might seem like a wise strategy; to some, simply not trying at all is the safest approach.

But the safe way is the wrong way. Although fear of failure is a natural and often healthy thing, it can stand in the way of personal, artistic, and professional advancement. Avoiding failure stands in the way of success; it stands in the way of achieving your dreams.

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Behind every successful person lies a string of failures. Failure is not the opposite of success. Giving up because of fear of failure is. Failure is just part of the process. Everyone experiences failure, and the bumpy ride that is life will knock you down more than once. Successful people dust themselves off and get back on the horse.

Failure can teach you many things. Of course, failure can provide negative reinforcement, teaching you what not to do. But it can also teach you something positive, allowing you to refine your vision and message, and to make your path forward more clear. With every failure, you can learn something valuable, allowing your future successes to soar even higher.

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It’s a lesson I constantly have to relearn. As a full-time professional photographer, I don’t have a steady income that I can rely on. Instead, I only eat what I hunt. That means I’m always scrambling to bring in business, in an increasingly competitive and oversaturated market. Being a pro photographer these day can too often be humiliating, as I have to struggle daily with “death by a thousand cuts” from snarky online trolls, rejection from photo editors barely old enough to shave, and mass indifference from Internet audiences overwhelmed by an apocalyptic tornado of cute cat videos, celebrity selfies, and other assorted social media nonsense. And then there are the constant artistic failures, the too often expensive days in the field that don’t yield any decent images, and the challenges of having to constantly go head-to-head against millions of photos—some good, some bad, and some Photoshopped so much that they’ve lost all connection to reality—with a public that too often can’t seem to tell the difference.

Continually putting your work up for public display and censure (whether you are a pro or not) is a recipe for epic and repetitive failure. Even on good days, I think about going back to my real job. On bad days, I reach for the tequila. On really bad days, I start looking wistfully at high places and long drops.

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But through all this, I’ve learned something critical. Yes, the cost of failure is often high. But the cost of not trying is even higher.

Anytime I find myself playing it safe, I remind myself of this; because the most rewarding moments in my life have occurred when I’ve stepped away from the security of the familiar. Anytime I don’t feel like waking up early or heading out into the cold because the light looks bad, I dig down deep; because some of my best photos have been taken during punishing conditions seemingly unlikely to yield good images. Anytime I find myself shooting something a certain way because I think it will maximize the number of “likes” I get on social media, I stop and shoot it my way; its okay that most of my personal favorites are also my least popular, because a few are my most successful. Anytime I find myself not chasing a potential business opportunity because I’m afraid I’ll be rejected, I push past that fear and try anyway; because my most rewarding client relationships didn’t just fall into my lap, they happened because I took a chance and made a connection.

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Most image I make aren’t successes the first time around. Usually, my attempt to photograph a subject results in failure the first, second, or even third time I try—and sometimes I’ll try dozens of times, and still not get what I want. But perseverance eventually pays off, and each failure on the way prepares me better for that lucky break when things finally come together. Photography is an iterative process; one shot leads to the next, and the more you get behind the lens, the more refined your artistic vision becomes. If you aren’t out there making a lot of failures, your successes won’t reach their fullest potential.

Your life will never be defined by the failures you avoid. And if you achieve success, your life won’t be defined by your failures along the way. Despite all the noise, injustice, and back luck out there, if you overcome your fear of failure, you’ll find a way to cut through it all.

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And do you know what? Because I’ve learned to embrace the virtues of failure, I don’t have many bad days, or for that matter, even merely good days. Instead, I have a lot of really great days. Days when I am thankful that my work and my passion are the same thing. Days when the fickle preferences of photo editors and Internet masses fade into the background. Days when I feel that everything is moving, slowly but surely, in the right direction.

Days when I realize that all my failures are just stepping stones on the path to success.

You can learn more about mastering the art of photography with my free ebook Essential: Pro Secrets for Unleashing Your Creativity.

4 Comments

    You cannot believe how timely this is! I am not pro but I enjoy photography and just felt like giving up yesterday! Thank you very much! I also had the encouragement of 3 other people but coming from someone like you, it helps even more!

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