Creativity and failure: turning negatives into positives

Hannah Allen, Performance Coach

There it is again. That nasty ‘F’ word. No, not that one. The one that really makes you wince. Most of us spend our lifetime trying to avoid it, but as creatives the sooner we realise that avoidance doesn’t serve us here, the easier it becomes to master our skills.

Let’s start right here and tackle failure head-on.

Is failure bad? It’s all in your mindset

First up, let’s reframe what it actually means to fail. If your project or piece of work didn’t deliver the result you were hoping, it doesn’t mean that you should pack up your tools and hide away in a dark corner until you feel ready to face the world again. No. It simply means that your first attempt has given you different learnings to the ones you expected.

This is the key here – to ‘fail’ literally means you have completed your ‘First Attempt In Learning’.

FAIL: First attempt in learning

Another way to think of it is like this:

“There is no such thing as failure, only feedback.”

Feedback is positive. Failure is negative. It’s not about getting it right the first time, it’s about how you overcome the situation and learn from it to face new challenges.

Choose whichever wording resonates with you and keep that front of mind as you go into new projects. It might sound corny, but repeating this reframe will get you out of a fixed mindset and open your mind to growth. There is no wrong outcome, only another opportunity to learn and hone your skills.

Ok, so you’ve now got your head around failure as feedback and a means to grow. That doesn’t mean that in the very moment your efforts don’t pan out like you wanted, or when your boss crits your work and it doesn’t go how you hoped, it will all feel rosy. You’re a human after all – you’re going to have natural reactions and feelings to any kind of ‘failure’ or feedback scenario. You’re not alone. But hang in there: you can make your way through this.

What happens when we ‘fail’: introducing the change curve

Back in the late sixties, a psychotherapist called Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed a model to help people come to terms with having a terminal illness or losing a loved one (stick with me, I promise this is relevant). It became known as the change curve, or Kubler-Ross model. Despite its origin, it’s become widely popular in business and adapted over the years to help teams and individuals prepare for and handle change.

This is useful to us creatives, because it can help us prepare for the feelings we might experience if a project or piece of work ‘fails’, or we get some feedback that knocks us off our original course. And more importantly, it equips us with the tools to do something about it.

You might only experience some of these stages, depending on the degree of your learning or the situation at hand. But the common emotions would look something like this:

The change curve


Awareness of the different stages of emotions is key, but that alone isn’t enough to help you deal with each stage and move forward. There are, however, some simple things you can do at each stage…

Stage 1 – Handling denial: “They’re wrong”

Talk it out. You might want to give yourself some time here, but if you can, talk it out with a mentor, coach, one of your peers or a mate. Understand why this particular effort, technique or piece of work didn’t bring the desired results. Gaining an understanding of an outsider’s perspective will help shift you out of denial and into reality.

Stage 2 – Tackling resistance & self-doubt: “I’m not going to change it”, “I’m not good enough to do this”

Don’t put yourself down once you have acknowledged the situation.

Nothing is ever wasted, so if this piece of work didn’t work out for this project, it might work somewhere else. If it isn’t something tangible, look back and think about the techniques and the knowledge you have developed since working on this project.

If you feel insecure about your own abilities, take a moment to make a list of all the successes you’ve had in the last six months – the small wins, the victories.

Now do the same for the last 12 months and keep adding to your list. Keep going until you can feel the tension ease as you realise that you are good enough – you got this far!

In this phase, asking yourself these questions can help:

  • What new thing did you learn during the process?
  • What elements of this work can you re-purpose or apply somewhere else?
  • What successes have you had leading up to this instance? What did go well? What did work?

Stage 3 – Dealing with frustration: “Aaarrrrrgh”

This is natural and there’s no quick fix for this. If you’re in an environment with other people, focus on your breath until the feelings start to ease. As you soon as you have the chance, change your environment for a short break. That might mean working somewhere else, or downing tools to go on a short walk.

It’s also important to change your physiology as this is hugely connected to our emotions and behaviours – if you’ve been sat down for a while, stand up, go for a walk. Outstretch your arms – no, really! Putting your body into a position that feels positive and powerful can actually affect how you feel. If you don’t believe us, check out this TED talk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy.

Stage 4 – Welcoming acceptance: “OK, I get it”

This is where it all starts to feel better. There’s nothing to do here except acknowledge that you’re turning a corner and it’s all about to get exciting again.

Stage 5 – Seeking to explore and understand: “What do I need to do differently next time?”

This is where you go into research and discovery mode, depending on how much time you have. Talk to as many people as you can to get a better picture of what happened, how certain elements of your work, or behaviour, were received or interpreted. Seek to understand the facts and the impacts so you know what to build on as you move forward.

Bring the fun back. This is your explorative journey and a time experiment so you can work out how you’ll take this forward.

  • Explore your options with these questions:
  • What possibilities for action do you see?
  • What resources/support will you need to move forward? What are available to you now?
  • What personal strengths do you have that can help you overcome this?
  • What will you do differently next time?

Stage 6 – Committing and moving forward: “This is what I’m going to do”

You’ve got options. You’ve got ideas. Now assess your best route forward and set yourself an action plan to get there.

Based on the insights you’ve gathered and actions you’ve identified, ask yourself:

  • Which of those actions appeal to you the most?
  • Which are the easiest, most exciting and most interesting to you?
  • Which three actions will you commit to?
  • When exactly will you do them? (Be specific with dates and times!)

Being specific about your next steps forward in the near future will help you actually put those learning to practice. Make those changes. And ultimately, make you grow as a person, a professional, a creative.

Getting used to failure, feedback and change comes with time and experience, but awareness of the above is a great place to start. And just remember, you are not your work.

To quote Steven Pressfield:


The professional loves her work. She is invested in it wholeheartedly. But she does not forget that the work is not her. Her artistic self contains many works and many performances. Already the next is percolating inside her. The next will be better, and the one after that better still.

Steven Pressfield
The War of Art

Would like more guidance on how to manage failure? Life coaches and performance coaches are a great resource and support to help get through situations that affect our confidence and well-being. That’s why we incorporate 1-2-1 coaching into all of our career courses, to keep you on track and help you cope with the ups and downs of a career in the creative industries. To learn more about our courses, book a call or reach out to our Admissions team.

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