Failure or Success: What are we more afraid of? A Leading Innovation in Arts & Culture Conversation

By    Nov 20, 2014

Photo by Martin Fisch via Flickr

We’ve just wrapped our first Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) Leading Innovation in Arts and Culture. This unique course was created by Dave Owens at Vanderbilt University and customized for the arts and culture sector by National Arts Strategies. This eight-week course, offered on the Coursera platform, brought more than 9,000 artists, arts administrators and cultural entrepreneurs from around the world together to discuss the specific constraints to creating good ideas in our field and to build strategies for successful innovation. This was by far the largest course on innovation in arts and culture ever implemented.

This week, we are sharing some of the inspiring conversations had by our participants in the Leading Innovation in Arts and Culture course on Coursera. We encourage you to engage and add your voice to the conversation.

We often find ourselves in situations where we are too hesitant to take risks in our jobs or to make the time to innovate. We often hear about being afraid of failure but many of us may also be afraid of success. Think about it. If we try something new and it succeeds, the result may be more work or greater uncertainty. This is especially pertinent to us in the arts and culture field as we often work in organizations that are resource constrained. Participants in the course dove into this topic, offering suggestions for better framing this concept.

Antoni Baszczeski states:

“If we replace the word “failure” with “practice” there will be better psychological perception and much lower hesitation to act…”

Ernesto Murllo Rodriguez agrees and offers these suggestions:

“If we start to step outside of our comfort zones, controlling our fears, finding a way to manage our limitations, using the ability to understand our environment to make smart decisions sustained on critical analysis to find possible solutions and the strength to overcome our obstacles, then maybe we could find the innovation that we are looking for.”

Ashtyn Greene reflects on her personal struggles with fear of both failure and success:

“I have found myself struggling with fear of failure and fear of success. Failure scares me personally, success scares me socially. I consider myself to be a (small scale) perfectionist and I want everything to be done just right. I am afraid of success because I don’t want the attention that could come with the success.”

Another participant mentions that self-confidence can be what perpetuates the fear of failure, but this does not tell the entire story:

“The lack of our self certainly will result in our fear of failure, but we cannot attribute all of our fear to it. Besides some weaknesses of our own, there are also many other aspects we should take into consideration. For example, in a conventional district, you may FEAR your innovation will be ignored, even sometimes criticized. This kind of fear is not from our lack of self-confidence but to others or the environment of the society.”

Being the manager means making tough decisions when it comes to allowing your staff to take risks. When in this position, we are often excited and encouraging when the ideas succeed, but at a loss when they don’t. Lisa Wagner reflects:

“As a manager, I see this so often.  The fear of failure holds supervisors back in making decisions, or thinking of solutions.  When given the “green light” that there isn’t a right or wrong answer, it is amazing how they will open up and find answers.”

Does this then mean that we need a green light in order to feel comfortable to take these risks in our work? Kenneth Tabachnick shares his opinion on how critical this safe space is:

“It seems natural to think of fear of failing as a main block. But it is interesting to think about how fear, generally, might be a block or a motivator. In some sense any fear is a fear of failure of something. If we are in fear of our life, we are in fear of failing to protect ourselves or those around us. I know of many artists who are driven by a fear of some kind and I believe it is this fear that drives their art and success.

Good ideas, for me, are the product of synthesizing the available and relevant information, making the right connections to the givens and the context, and if a creative idea, often making an analogous leap based on some other experience. The bad ideas come when some part of this almost magical process is blocked.

So for me the question would be how to foster and maintain that open creative space. Unfortunately, I believe it is different for each person, dependent on their make-up. For some, the fear of failure or some other thing is necessary to seeding the open field necessary for creative and good ideas. For some it is stability. For others it is physical security. For others it might be something physical like lack of sleep.

What seems to be true, however, is that the person having the good or creative idea must feel he or she is in some kind of safe space, though what that space looks like and consists of will vary from person to person. In a group setting it is well known that such a safe space will foster more good and creative ideas. But one must also recognize that some people do not produce such ideas in a group setting.

Most important then is to reach an understanding of what that safe space is for each person and to have an understanding of what provides the environment for him or her to experience the open field necessary for good and creative ideas to emerge.”

What do you think? Do you find yourself in situations where you are afraid of success? What are the best ways to tackle this fear and start framing it in the light of practice? Do we all need a safe space or green light in order to feel comfortable in our risk taking? How might we, as leaders in the arts and culture field, build these spaces for our staff to field comfortable?