On Failure

{This post originally appeared at In Beauty & Chaos on June 19, 2014}

Kate Densmore-1

The words spoken by a comedian at a college commencement ceremony seem like an odd place to find advice that relates to photography and my life. But when I heard Jim Carrey’s words on a YouTube clip recently, I kind of just laughed to myself. The universe seems to be telling me, everywhere I turn, about failure, and it seems to be trying to get me to redefine failure and what it means.

“My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that that was possible for him, and so he made a conservative choice. Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant, and when I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job and our family had to do everything we could to survive. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which is you can fail at what you don’t want, so why not take a chance at doing what you love?” — Jim Carry

Failure is one of my biggest fears. And I am not just talking photographically, or creatively – it extends into all areas of my life, especially to my family. I lie awake at night, worrying that I am failing at being the kind of mother I want to be. I worry that I failed to feed my family enough vegetables that day. I worry that giving up my teaching career 3 years ago was a horrible mistake and that if I ever have to go back; I will fail to get a job. I worry that I am going to fail to achieve my goals – the big ones, the little ones, the non-optional ones. I worry that I am so overwhelmed with the needs of two little ones, that I am failing my husband as a wife and myself as me. And then there are the things I don’t even try to accomplish, because I am so certain I will fail that it seems silly to even bother.

But that reminder – that failure is possible even when doing something you don’t dream about, so why not try anyways – I needed to hear that. And it ties in nicely with the B&C Book Study we are doing this month, on “A Beautiful Anarchy” by David duChemin (ironically, who was also a comedian before he became a full time photographer). In the book, David discusses fear of failure, and the fear of taking risks. And in typical David fashion, he gets right to the point, and tells us to accept the fear of failure, because it is that very failure, and the continued getting up and trying again, that will lead us to creating an authentic life and authentic art that we can be proud of.

“To be blunt (and this is directed at myself first): suck it up, princess. The only failure is to not do. The real failure is to rob this world of the contribution that only you can make, and to fail to make work that truly gives you that “this is what I was created to do” feeling that has no equal.” — David duChemin

My dearest goals and dreams aren’t big and shiny. Yeah, a beach in Thailand sounds amazing, but in this season of my life, I will settle happily for all my people tucked safely into their beds at night, bellies full of nutritious food, hearts full of love, and heads full of happy memories from the day. And for myself, that I am there with them, everyday, getting to be mom, and capturing what I can of my life with my camera.

And so, it comes back to photography. Where it’s easy to see a visual representation of what we consider our failures, or successes. Where regardless of whether we are in business or a hobbyist, if we’ve been doing this since high school or just picked up a camera last Christmas, we are all here for one thing. To create images that are a reflection of how we see our world.  Inevitably, though, we get to a point where we start really feeling that failure. How many times have I had a shot in my head, and failed to get it in camera? I bet you are nodding your head, too. We’ve all been there. And we’ll be there again. Because this craft we love so dearly, takes a lifetime to master, and daily practice to hone our skills. And it requires us to be authentic, to be vulnerable, and put what we most love into a frame, and then let others see it for what it is. And that’s hard, scary, exhilarating, and we fall down doing it, a lot. But I also hope that you get back up, try again and again and again. Because the real failure is to quit. To give up, to settle for mediocrity.

The key to stopping failure in its tracks? Work. Do the work, and you put failure to rest. Because as long as you are working, you are never done. And if you are never done, then you haven’t failed.  So create those images in your head, try and try again, until you do get it right, and then move on to the next vision. Redefine what failure means to you, and you will never fail at anything again.

“Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action.

 Do it or don’t do it.

 It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself, you hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

 You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

 Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.” — Steven Pressfield

Kate DensmoreComment