Flops, Failures, and Fortitude: 5 Keys to Success in any Creative Endeavor

by Natalie Wickham

The young teacher finished arranging the game pieces for the first planned activity of the evening just as the doorbell rang. A few minutes later, the first student was seated on the floor, eagerly anticipating the fun he would have during the group class. He was soon joined by another cheerful face, and the teacher chatted with them about their day while they waited for the rest of the students to show up. But as the minutes ticked by, it became apparent that no other students would be arriving. After hours of researching, compiling, and preparing the materials for this group class that she had planned for her studio of 23 students, the discouragement of having only two students in attendance was acute.

Have you felt such discouragement? Have you poured your time and energy into a creative project or event only to have it royally flop in the end? I raise both of my hands with you. In fact, the brief story above was inspired by my first failed attempt at holding a summer piano camp. And I know I’m not alone. Such experiences are replete in the business world. Whether a professional musician, an independent music teacher, or in any number of other music-related professions, you are a business owner. Business guru, Robert Kiyosaki, has this to say, “If you don’t fail faster, you’ll fail anyway. Look, you’re in the middle of a learning process. The process requires that you make many mistakes and learn from those mistakes.”*

Most of us are familiar with the story behind the light bulb and the thousands of experiments Edison attempted before he finally reached his goal. Here’s his optimistic take on the experience: “Results? Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward….”** It sounds inspiring enough in the world of inventions and discoveries, but considerably less so in the presence of an unenthusiastic audience, or when looking into the faces of the two out of 23 students who bothered to show up for our event. But it is this same spirit and determination that drives culture-impacting advancements and movements today. If we want to achieve long-term success, we must embrace failure as an opportunity to grow in wisdom, strengthen our character, and develop expertise in our field. I’ve experienced many such opportunities over the years and have learned five keys to success in any creative endeavor:

  1. Take pleasure in the process. If your idea of success is wrapped up in the end result of a project, then you are sure to be disappointed. But if you approach every aspect of the project with the right attitude, success is guaranteed. For example, if you’re planning a group class on the music of the Revolutionary War period, pour yourself a cup of something hot to drink and enjoy perusing various articles, books, and song histories that will enrich your musical understanding regardless of how many students show up for the class. If you are putting together a new recital program, have fun listening to and sight-reading unfamiliar music that you can play for other occasions even if the recital is a let-down. When you plan a big event, take time to network and develop relationships that you can maintain even if the event generates negative feedback from some attendees. There are so many benefits to be derived from branching out into new experiences, regardless of whether the end result is deemed “successful” or not.
  2. Invest yourself 100% into every project from start to finish. It’s so tempting to let your emotions get the best of you and to give up when your efforts appear to be a flop. This is when you have to resolve to put a smile on your face and persevere even when you feel like quitting. Treat every individual like you are doing the whole thing just for them. You never know how much you will impact one person or how the word will spread. Be faithful in the small things and you never know what bigger opportunity may be waiting just around the corner!
  3. Realize that you can never see the whole picture. Boy did I come to realize this in a big way recently! Last fall, I sponsored a promo video contest for a book that I had written and published earlier in the year. Any person was invited to produce and submit a short video clip promoting the book. The prize was substantial and I spread the word via dozens of blogs and independent filmmaker communities. It seemed like a fun idea, and I was sure many aspiring filmmakers would latch onto it. But when the deadline arrived, only three clips had been submitted. The process of judging to narrow the field to the best three submissions was eliminated for obvious reasons and we immediately went to a public vote. The winning entry was determined, the prize awarded, and I chocked it all up to a royally flopped experiment. But this fall, the winning clip was submitted to a large film festival where it was seen by hundreds of viewers and eventually went on to win first prize in its category! The “failed” idea was recognized and awarded in front of 1,000+ people who never would have seen it otherwise. I try to keep the biblical truth of Isaiah 55:9 in mind – God’s ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. You just never know what He is doing “behind the scenes” when the view from the front lines looks dark and dismal.
  4. Be proactive, not reactive. It’s easy to get defensive and blame people or extenuating circumstances when things don’t work out. Instead, set aside some time and evaluate the idea or event objectively. Could you have communicated differently or better? Could you have enlisted the help of additional people to oversee certain responsibilities? Are there specific skills you need to improve in order to achieve your objectives next time? Are there elements of what you’re offering that need to be done away with or revamped? Along the same lines, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. If you really want to reach people and be relevant in society, find out what people need and want, and then brainstorm to come up with creative and effective ways to meet those needs.
  5. Keep dreaming and taking risks. Any time you try something new, there is the risk that people won’t be receptive, or that there will be a poor turnout, or that you’ll lose a lot of money, etc. Once this happens a few times, though, you start to realize that it’s not the end of the world when things don’t go as planned. Just approach each new endeavor with a humble spirit and a desire to learn from it. Be willing to take the first step even when you can’t see the end of the path. True, the bigger you dream, the bigger your potential for failure. But if you’ve never failed, perhaps it’s because you’ve never dared to dream.

Fortitude is defined as, “That strength or firmness of mind or soul which enables a person to encounter danger with coolness and courage, or to bear pain or adversity without murmuring, depression or despondency.”*** Whether you’re teaching a musical instrument, performing concerts around the world, launching a business, or trying to invent a light bulb, you are sure to meet with obstacles and frustrations. Things won’t always go as planned. Some ideas will flop. Many outcomes will seem like failures. But you can prepare yourself mentally and emotionally right now so that when those times come they will leave you stronger, wiser, and more successful than you would ever be without them.

Before You Quit Your Job, by Robert Kiyosaki
** http://www.thomasedison.com/quotes.html 
*** http://1828.sorabji.com/1828/words/f/fortitude.html

Natalie WickhamNatalie Wickham is a Nationally Certified Teacher of Music and enjoys teaching students of all ages and levels in her independent piano studio. She serves on the board of the Kansas Music Teachers Association, and is Past-President of the South Central Kansas Music Teachers Association and the Wichita Metropolitan Music Teachers Association. She frequently presents workshops for music teachers and loves sharing ideas to help others run their businesses more creatively and efficiently. She is the founder of the popular Music Matters Blog, an on-line compendium of creative, practical, and up-to-date resources for the music teacher. Natalie is also author of the book, Pajama School – stories from the life of a homeschool graduate, and producer of the CD, Journey to Self Publishing – 12 steps to successfully publish your book.

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