The Secret to Unlocking Your Creative Potential

Updated: October 24, 2013

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"Fall seven times, stand up eight."
  • Japanese Proverb
Louis Daguerre had been trying to figure out a way to develop permanent photographs for years. One fateful night in 1835, a container of mercury had been leaking vapor onto his precious photo materials. But something else had happened as well: photographs. The first technique of permanent photos was created in the quicksilver's vapors.

120 years later, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, an assistant professor of Buffalo University was tinkering on a heart rhythm recording device. When looking for a part he needed, he reached his hand into a box, accidentally lifted up the wrong resistor and stuck it to his machine. The electrical pulses that happened then were a surprise to him: he realized they had to do with heartbeats. It took a while for him to understand that he had just accidentally invented a pacemaker. But that also meant that he failed in whatever he had been trying to do.

The history of science and medicine is full of stories similar to that of Wilson Greatbach. Like that of the inventor of penicillin, Alexander Fleming, who found one of his test tubes infected by mold and discovered a powerful antibiotic that has saved thousands of lives ever since.

Any one of these inventors could have dismissed their mistake and thrown away their creations because they were “wrong” and a failure. There would have been no penicillin, no pacemaker, no photography then.

But they didn't give up so easily. Why?

Their curiosity drove past their pride. They were open to serendipity. They could see past their own ego and righteousness. They were ready to analyze what went wrong and look at the outcome of their failure with an open mind.

A lucky misstep is not enough for a failure to become a success - it needs someone intelligent enough to interpret its meaning. Sometimes what looks like a simple mistake can be a creative hunch waiting to manifest itself in some form. Failures provide a fertile ground for hunches to grow on.


Ask an artist or creative professional what they think about failure, and they will probably laugh and tell you it's a substantive part of the job. Ask a motivational speaker or author, and they will tell you there are no failures, only outcomes, or that all failures are fuel.

Why is it, then, so hard for us to accept our own mistakes and focus on the learning that comes from them?

The philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett says he has not yet found evidence that any other species would be able to reflect on their mistakes. If they could, they would be as intelligent as human beings. It is our unique gift to fail and learn, and we often neglect it.

Sometimes, though, we use our ability too well - by endlessly brooding on what went wrong. How could I have been so stupid? Why does this always happen to me? If I'd only been more careful / mindful / spontaneous / witty... We've all been there, right?

I believe this happens because the mistake we made has hurt our sense of importance. The feelings associated with failure are some of the most pride-crushing ones, like fear and shame. They tend to shake our whole identity. That's why they can be difficult to shrug off. Practicing analytical thinking and stepping out of the experience works for many people.

In Daniel Dennett's words:

“So when you make a mistake, you should learn to take a deep breath, grit your teeth and then examine your own recollections of the mistake as ruthlessly and as dispassionately as you can manage. It's not easy. The natural human reaction to making a mistake is embarrassment and anger (we are never angrier than when we are angry at ourselves) and you have to work hard to overcome these emotional reactions.”


Being a modern Leonardo da Vinci requires not only creativity, but immense amounts of persistence. The best entrepreneurs and artists I've interviewed for my book about failure and during my career as a journalist are endlessly curious about many different things. However, the thing that makes people do great things and achieve what they dream of is the drive to keep going no matter what happens.

Elon Musk, one of the founders of PayPal and now SpaceX and Tesla, when asked if he thought about quitting after three failures with SpaceX, responded:

“No. I don't ever give up. I'd have to be dead... or totally incapacitated.”
That kind of determination is the only thing that will take us to Mars and make us drive electric cars. And it makes people think, wonder and talk more about Elon Musk and his great quest. As you can see right now as I'm writing about him.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck found out by studying children that the mindset of a child defines how they will react to failure. They were either told that they were very smart or very hard-working, and then faced with difficult problems designed for older children. The ones who thought they were smart were crushed by the failure. The ones who were praised for trying hard simply thought they had not tried hard enough this time.

Studies also show that if you encourage children to learn things on their own, they will become more curious and creative than if directly instructed. I know this personally, being a Montessori kid - as do the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The Montessori mentality made them ask the question 'why?' and not follow the rules. Breaking rules can often feel like failing in our society but is crucial to creativity and innovation.


Most successful people have not gotten where they are because they were born more intelligent, good-looking, charismatic or rich. It's because they have put in the hours to master a skill and despite the setbacks always kept doing stuff. They've either also mastered the skill of getting over the anger, frustration and shame of failure - or they have been thinking about failures differently from the get-go.

Sir James Dyson, the inventor of the Dyson vacuum, perfected the art of trial and error in our times. The model that finally went to market was the 5,127th iteration of the vacuum cleaner that has been regarded as the king of vacuums. In his powerful column for Wired, he says it's time to redefine the word 'failure' and start regarding them as problems that have yet to be solved.

Did James Dyson fail over 5.000 times? Of course not. The trials were part of the creative process and he knew it. If he would have stopped at failure number 100, he would still have tried to make a vacuum cleaner work many times more than the average person. He paid the price of the invention but kept going anyway.

“By the time I made my 15th prototype, my third child was born. By 2,627, my wife and I were really counting our pennies. By 3,727, my wife was giving art lessons for some extra cash. These were tough times, but each failure brought me closer to solving the problem. It wasn't the final prototype that made the struggle worth it. The process bore the fruit. I just kept at it...

I started out with a simple idea, and by the end, it got more audacious and interesting. I got to a place I never could have imagined because I learned what worked and didn't work.”

  • James Dyson
Thomas Edison has been quoted saying that he didn't fail, he just found 10,000 ways in which the light bulb doesn't work. He might have stolen some of the glory of the inventions from Nikola Tesla and his team members, but he can be respected as a master of industrial trial and error. The research laboratories he created were designed to make the biggest amount of trials and errors possible - to learn and prototype as quickly as possible. His trials resulted in 1,093 patents overall. Not a bad ratio at all.

These inventors' stories show us that it's not the setbacks that matter, but the doing, making and trying out stuff. Again and again. And then again.


1. Accept the nasty feelings.

They're part of the experience and will not kill you unless you try really hard to avoid them. They probably serve a purpose, so why not ask them what it is? Where are they coming from? Is it just the ego, your pride, hurting? Don't try to escape the feelings, because the more you do, the stronger they'll probably return. Deal with the feelings as they come. Try out different methods to find what works for you: writing (see next), singing, meditation, yelling alone, boxing… as long as you make sure not to hurt anyone.

2. Write down what happened and how it felt.

Some people prefer talking about it to a friend, spouse or therapist. Many successful people I interviewed about this said that writing feels more efficient because when you see the story there on paper (or screen), you've detached yourself from it and can look at it from different angles. Writing also forces you to crystallize your thoughts, which is exactly the kind of ruthless examination that Daniel Dennett talked about. You will see your role in the failure clearly, and there's nowhere to run. This is good because it forces you to grow.

3. If other people are involved, apologize.

Often the failures that shame us most are the kind that affect other people. If yours has made someone's life more difficult or had a negative impact on other people, don't delay your apology. When you've accepted your responsibility in the events, it's easier to make a sincere apology. Tell them how you feel and that you understand your role in it.

4. Write down at least three positive things about it.

Now that you've detached yourself, it's easier to see beyond the primitive reaction of personal hurt to what else might come from the failure. If it was a dear friend who was going through the failure instead of you, what would you tell them that would make them see the positive side? Write it down, don't just think about it. It will feel more concrete that way.

5. Put the failure in perspective.

If you read stories about almost any creative and successful people, you'll see that their road wound everywhere but straight to the top. There were missteps and bumps in the road. Sometimes there were long and dark caves. Get inspired by other people's stories and see how your failure is only a different path to where you want to go. If you use it the right way, it can even become a fast track.


1. Ask the right questions.

What can I learn from this? What is this trying to tell me? What can I do now? These are all more productive questions than why did I fail again? Make your questions positive and forward-leaning. There's always hidden data in a failure, so dig it out by directing your questions towards the core of the lesson. Again, write them down if it helps. The ultimate question to continue life after failure: What would I do if I couldn't fail?

2. Wake up

If the failure is really life-crushing, think of it as an opportunity to start fresh and do what you've always wanted to do. It's not like you have anything to lose. J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book when she had lost everything. Many people have reported spiritual awakenings happening after different forms of failure: bankruptcy, losing a job or a home, a failed marriage or a relationship. That's when you're most vulnerable in a good way, so meditate on it and embrace it instead of fighting it.

3. Turn it into material.

Use the state of anger and frustration to create something: a blog post, drawing, song, photo, painting… or a book. The best piece of advice I ever got for column writing, for example, was to write about the most embarrassing moments of my life. I started practicing it and ended up publishing a book about failure. Because failing is human, it's easy to relate to people - and characters - who fail. All your mistakes can become masterpieces.

4. Talk to (and inspire) others with the same experience.

Now that you've gone through the failure and know how not to do what you were trying to do, share your experience so that others don't have to fail the same way. Write a detailed account of what went wrong and how much you learned. It goes both ways: you can learn from other people's mistakes as well, so share the love and let people learn from yours. They will love you for it. And it's easy to connect to someone who has proven to be honest about their shortcomings.

5. Take better risks.

Once you have that experience of the downside of taking a risk, you know you'll be able to handle it if it should happen again. You'll probably avoid plunging into crazy risks head-on, but that's only wise in most cases. You've also learned how to connect with other people through the experience. As Julia Landauer, a racecar driver, puts it:

“By being open about my risk taking I am learning to be smart in my risk-taking, I am inviting people to grow with me and my risk-taking, and when I crash, physically and figuratively, I am learning how to quickly pick myself back up and take bigger and better risks. With bigger and better risks come the potential for bigger and better successes.”

Every great story includes a failure or many. The best part is always the one where the hero defeats the failure and rises from the dead - take Jesus, for example. Like the stories of the inventors of photography, the pacemaker and penicillin, all epic stories are remembered by the lowest point, the one where everything could have ended. They would not be epic without it.

Mistakes are going to happen whether we're prepared for them or not. Once you start practicing how to best utilize them, you will actually look forward to making more mistakes - better mistakes. If you practice getting over them, you will begin to see mistakes as opportunities automatically. You can focus on creating.

What kind of failures have taught you the most? Do you have a strategy for getting over mistakes? Comment below to share your stories and tips!

Image credit: korobkova

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