Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Original Failure

Fantasy and imagination are all well and good, but without a healthy dose of mistakes we can lose our grasp of reality. Failure keeps our imagination in check by demonstrating what is not possible, nonetheless it is vital to think beyond the threshold of the possible and to toy with the tolerances of the real. Only by doing so are we likely to discover the true boundaries of reality, but this takes repeated careful testing whilst the closer we approach these boundaries the more we are likely to encounter failures.

It is only by committing ourselves to a thoroughgoing familiarity with near constant failure that we might feel our way beyond the contingencies of circumstance and encounter a finer and more discriminating understanding of what is possible and what is definitely not. Failure is therefore the unwavering companion of the true explorer, but only failure accompanied by an equal measure of persistent reconsideration, testing and accumulated understanding.

However, anyone who has experienced this will recognise that it can be a wasteful, time-consuming and demoralizing process. This is why imagination is such an important faculty, because it allows us to conduct tests and envision failures in the minds eye, thus pre-empting the more costly failures that necessarily occur in reality. It is therefore in this constant to-ing and fro-ing between imagination and reality - hypothesis and experiment - that creativity resides and discovery is likely. It also explains why other forms of preliminary testing (mock ups, maquettes, sketches etc) are often such vital tools in the creative process.

Inevitably there are times when other people stumble upon discoveries or solutions without investing a great deal in the process. This is often a cause of frustration for those who have worked hard to arrive at their achievements but it also exposes another important factor in these thoughts on failure and discovery: some areas of enquiry and experiment are simply more fertile than others. So whilst something might be learnt from attempting to reinvent the wheel, it's all the more important to be able to accurately determine when a particular field has been exhausted and to move on. Failure simply for the sake of it is a relatively pointless exercise. There has to be a possibility of success if our efforts are not to be in vain. The ability to perceive such potential (or lack of) is one of the most elusive skills – if indeed it is a skill - and probably has as much to do with luck as anything. This might also explain why so many people tend to be disproportionately interested in the 'new' and unexplored as opposed to the familiar and well trodden. At least the first failures in a new field are somehow unique and therefore original to their first discoverers.


Tamsin said...

I find, though, that the idea of failure can also be very counter-productive. Might it not be more helpful to try to get beyond the idea of either failure or success, and instead try to just focus on keeping working - working with what happens, responding to that and then moving on (and forgetting about deeming things either a success or a failure)?

Lesley Punton said...

"Men Wanted
for Hazardous Journey,
Small Wages, Bitter Cold,
Long Months of Complete Darkness,
Constant Danger,
Safe Return Doubtful,

Honour and Recognition in Case of Success."

Ernest Shackelton.

J. Hamlyn said...

I'd love to get beyond the idea of failure or success but how can we in a culture (and it's associated institutions) so obsessed with meritocracy?

J. Hamlyn said...

“Always make new mistakes” - Esther Dyson

Post a Comment