Sunday, March 28, 2010

It's Always Too Soon to Quit

The Importance of Failure
My good friend Carol and I were having breakfast yesterday morning at our biweekly Saturday Sisters writing group* meeting and I was bellyaching about this two-panel landscape that I’ve been struggling with. One panel is a wheat field, the other a desert. The two 12” x 20” boards sit at different heights (the left side is higher by about four inches), but side-by-side with a common horizon line and storm clouds. I’ve spent hours and hours on it and feel that although the cloud is a “10” (on a scale of 1 to 10), the wheat field is an “8” (moved from a “7½” after two hours of painting on Thursday) and the desert is a pitiable “3½.”

Carol remarked that she never imagines me struggling with my paintings. That got me thinking…people rarely talk about the hardships that come before the success. As a society, we celebrate achievement, not the malfunctions and mistakes and grueling process that allow us to achieve. Life doesn’t actually read like a resume because we don’t include the failures.

In fact, our failures are often more important in shaping character and experience than are our accomplishments. Albert Einstein failed the entrance exam to the Swiss Polytechnic Institute. Marilyn Monroe was released by 20th Century-Fox in 1947 because Darryl Zanuck thought she was unattractive. John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, was rejected by 16 agents and a dozen publishers. Soichiro Honda, founder of the Japanese motor company, understood that wrong turns and delays are part of the journey when he said that “success is 99 percent failure.”

* The Saturday Sisters writing group consists of Carol and me and was formed last year so we could brainstorm and edit the things we write. Mostly we just like to get together for breakfast, but I’ve got a novel that will one day be scripted into a movie starring Meryl Streep (ha!) and Carol writes letters to the local editor and thinks she may develop op ed pieces to freelance. However lately, we talk more about art than writing as Carol has been doing some drawing in emeritus and private art classes.

Trust the Process
Painting is all about the journey. Every piece requires missteps and failed attempts. The process of layering—building up, covering up, searching for something that works, not finding it, finding it, messing it up—is ultimately what makes a painting successful. There is absolutely no other way to do it because it is the layering that creates the richness and depth.

Once you figure out that you just have to trust the process, you can control your panic through the ugly stages (and believe me, there are always ugly stages) until you reach your destination: a painting you would put your name on.

As a destination-oriented, bottom-line-focused individual, I’m not sure I will ever be able to truly live my life in the moment. (I believe some aspects of our natures come hard-wired and that I am, it seems, a Hobbes. See below.) But I am amazed at the joy I’ve found in the process and the work that precedes what the world calls success.

Rejection Letter or Merit Badge?
An important objective in my taking art classes has been to develop a portfolio that I can submit as part of an MFA program application. (A Master’s degree in Fine Arts is required to teach at the college level and would provide one more option in making art a viable part of my life.) Typically, applications are due in January for the following Fall term and include 15- to 20-piece portfolios. Prospective students usually work on their portfolios for two years to best reflect their talent and potential.

The likelihood that even a qualified applicant will be accepted is fairly bleak. I read an article this week that said it is now harder to get into art school than it is to get into med school (at the graduate level, not the undergraduate). Acceptance rates are running about 5 percent due to limited funding for instructors and facilities. This means that universities can only accept 5 to 10 new students each year even though they receive hundreds of applicants. Most students apply to multiple schools, multiple times because selection committee objectives vary from school to school and year to year. One of my favorite (and most brilliant) Cuesta instructors told me that he applied three times before he was accepted.

So, even though I have been working on my portfolio for less than a year, I felt it was important to get an insider’s view of the process. I applied in January (with much appreciated recommendation letters from Peet, Marian, and Patty) to three schools—UCSB, UC Davis, and UNLV—because they are ranked among the top 100 graduate schools for Fine Arts and located in cities with affordable housing. Applying was a long shot, but navigating the application process has given me a new life skill worthy of a merit badge.

As of today, I have received rejection letters from UCSB and UC Davis. They were each very polite in thanking me for my application and explaining that they have more applicants than available slots. I have to admit, it stings a little. Nobody likes rejection, right? Not even polite rejection. I should hear from UNLV later this month or early next.

Will I keep trying? Absolutely! One research firm estimated that you can optimize the probability of being accepted by applying to 15 or more schools. I suspect hard work and improving my portfolio will boost my chances as well. The bottom line is: We always have to try. We always have to reach for more even if we falter. It’s the stretch that emboldens us and prepares us for what comes next. Thomas Edison said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”


  1. Your post today covers one of my favorite subjects, failure. I've spend a lifetime at it and from each one comes a better tomorrow. The same applies to our country and it's citizens. The old saying of "a hand up, not a hand out" is an important one to remember.

  2. Agree 100% with John - give a man a fishing pole NOT the fish...that said, I do think that painting is a process but drawing is more of a keep doing things again and again (perhaps like taking many photos - much easier now that we have digital cameras) until you get it "right" (subjective, of course).
    As I've sad to you personally, think I like charcoal because it is a little more like painting in its ability to seem "forgiving" once the line hits the paper.

  3. Further, perhaps we should be teaching our children how to learn from and use failure rather than giving everyone winner's ribbons for the attempt...

  4. It's interesting to compare the word "rejection" with "failure". For me, rejection means I did not achieve some sort of standard set by someone else, whether I agree with it or not but needed acceptance in order to achieve some sort of personal goal. What brings hope in rejection for me is that I can try and try again. Failure for me is that I have lost all hope and the goal cannot be achieved. As Carol said, keep on with "digital" and "charcoal" for now and keep the hope alive! Who knows, the goal may get refined and even better! Oh, and hopefully a mentor is included with that "fishing pole".

  5. Good point about the difference between rejection and failure--I don't either instance is hopeless, though. Didn't Thomas Edison talk about how he hadn't failed, he'd just found 10,000 ways not to do something?!! Ha! I've recently be hearing people talk about "failing forward," meaning that the failures are lost battles that ultimately work to win the war.

  6. I believe that was Edison's way of saying the word failure has been removed from his dictionary. Edison did not fail, he found 10,000 ways to refine the process. My take on it is rejection is the means or process to refine the goal. If I don't go through the process I might be striving for something that I don't really want once achieved. I can think of lots of examples on that one over these 57 years. I pridefully think failure is not an option, for once I acknowledge I have failed, the process ceases, hope is lost, the goal is lost, and, well, maybe I should not have been going down that path in the first place. Failure is not necessarily a bad thing. It's an experience that makes us who we are. I need to dust off that book "Blink" and refresh my memory on a few concepts.

  7. Think I need to read the book BLINK as have had numerous people quote it and/or mention it in passing.
    In terms of "rejection" I totally agree that is more a subjective situation - whereas "failure" is a word that I would internalize - and would put on MYSELF - at this point in my life am not going to let anyone else say that of me and have it stick ... thick skin or whatever you wish to call it - I call it survival...