Fear of Failure

Somewhere along the way you came to believe that you can’t draw or design.  Someone, maybe another kid, a parent, a teacher said something critical and you believed that your drawing was no good.  Or maybe you sailed through those years confident in your abilities but ran into a wall when your work was reviewed by a professional, and then your were crestfallen. Whatever the source, you came to believe that you can’t draw or design.

Drawing is something technical, it’s a skill that can be developed over time; design is something more fundamental but also more abstract, it’s about communicating an idea and problem-solving visually.  Unfortunately, the fear of failure with drawing or with design is like shooting yourself in the foot because it inhibits progress with both.

A lot of artists don’t like to talk about their fear of failure, and yet professionals have managed to learn from their failures and grow into success.  I was one of those kids who drew in my comfort zone and was praised for it by everyone who saw my drawings.  That’s kind of like professional success wherein you’re paid to do what people know you can do consistently and because they recognize your speciality.  But I also didn’t challenge myself with different subjects or styles until entering art school.  It’s hard no longer being a big fish in a small pond but I’m growing faster than I every have before since then.

These growing pains led me recently to examine my own fear of failure and I found advice of design mentors on my journey.  I’m happy to share them with you here:

  • Lastly, an interviewer records his experience with Ian McCaig, designer for Star Wars and John Carter of Mars (among other projects) in Shadowline: The Art of Iain McCaig:

“Put it on!” McCaig said.  “We’re all ten-year-olds when we’re drawing.  It’s the rule.”

“Why?” I asked.

“‘Cause before you were ten, you probably never thought about whether you could draw or not. You simply did it.  Drawing was as natural a way to express yourself as speaking.  Then you hit ten and got stupid about it.  Drawing was important, and if you couldn’t do it like Leonardo, you didn’t do it at all.  So, I’m taking you back to ten, so I can un-stupify you.”

“Suppose I don’t want to learn to draw?”

“You don’t have to.  You already know. You draw perfect people and creatures an worlds every night in your sleep. I’m merely going to show you how to do that while you’re awake.”

I must have looked skeptical, because he went on. “Dude, it’s your first language.  You started scribbling pictures before you knew any words at all. Don’t you see? It’s not a magic trick, and it’s not a special ability. It’s a language, and you already know how to speak it.”

“Then why can’t I draw?”

“Because you think you can’t. It usually takes about six months, one hour a day, to change your mind.” He whooped again. “Go on. Put on the T-shirt.” …[snip]…

And yeah, I was shocked, because now I could draw. Maybe not like Leonardo, because even if you speak a language, that doesn’t make you Shakespeare. But it does mean you can communicate, which I think is his point. it’s not what the drawing looks like, but what it’s saying. If you focus on that, it’s amazing how the drawings seem to look better, too.

Ian McCaig’s point about drawing like a 10-year old moved me profoundly.  It reminded me of how proud I was after successfully skiing down a difficult slope without falling once as a little girl.  Yet my dad in a moment of wisdom told me “If you’re not falling, you’re not trying hard enough.” When I get frustrated with my art, I think back to hitting the hard cold snow, picking myself up, dusting myself off, and trying again.  I learned how to shift my weight, avoid and compensate for ice and bumps, and even jump.  Every time I fell I learned something.  It’s the same with drawing an with design.

No one can make your progress but you, but these words of encouragement have helped me along the way and I hope they help you too.