Creativity (and the inestimable value of a f*ck up)

Photo credit: Kiran Jonnalagadda

Chasing perfection is like digging a hole. It has no point, it has no end and it only serves to take you further away from the world.

There is no honour or glory in perfectionism — it’s no more heroic than any other task that diverts you from a truly worthwhile goal: improvement.

But creatives in every field — from the commercial to the purely artistic — are, at some point in their careers, made to fear the mistake.

And yet there’s no binary notion of ‘right and wrong’ in creative work. The ‘right’ idea can be a cul-de-sac of brief fulfilment — something that feeds complacency or, worse, habit.

The ‘wrong’ one, on the other hand, can transform your whole creative outlook for the better.

In copywriting, mistakes are hidden in an attic like a mad Victorian lady. They are left behind when it’s time to share our thoughts — tucked away because the unhappy reality is our ‘mistakes’ too-often define our ability and our potential.

It’s a sad and strange attitude to take… especially at there is literally no one in a senior creative position who has not climbed up there on a rickety stepladder of blunders.

Spotting the mistakes in our own creative is pretty much the only fool-proof path to improvement. Spotting the mistakes in other people’s creative allows us to sidestep manholes before we plunge down them ourselves.

Sol Stein, the legendary author, publisher and editor talks about ‘the necessity of sitting through bad plays’. There is extraordinary creative value, he says, in being there…

‘…to witness the coughing and squirming in the audience, to have ears up like a rabbit to catch what didn’t work, to observe how little tolerance an audience has for a mishap’.

The creative advertising students I teach are encouraged to capture every single example of bad advertising they can find. I’d be happier for them to possess an encyclopaedic knowledge of terrible advertising than excellent work — quite simply because while the latter often inspires mimicry, the former inspires invention.

In a fairer and more rational world we would celebrate our mistakes more joyously than we do our award wins. Each gaffe unlocks a new level in the great creative game. Without them, the trajectory is flat and meandering and barely worth the journey.

Melanie Rothschild wrote a wonderful book on the power of creative missteps, The Art of Mistakes.

Here she imagines not only what creativity would look like without mistakes, but how life itself would appear. For her, ‘the entire evolutionary process rests on a dance of mistakes and new directions.’

That dance is one we’re unable to sit out. Creative mistakes will come no matter what we do to guard against them. Creativity, after all, is a leap across a river. The only guarantee of staying dry is to never leap yourself.

Rothschild says:

‘Mistakes give us ideas that we could never deliberately think up otherwise. Yet we are misguidedly programmed to steer clear of them… at all costs. And most of the time, the price we pay for avoiding mistakes is the cost of stretching our thinking in substantive, new ways. There are serious consequences for not understanding the nature of how mistakes serve us.’

And for me, that’s the most important point of all. It’s not the mistakes that harm us as creative thinkers, but an unwillingness to look them in the eye.

There are plenty of things worth chasing in a creative life — inspiration, enlightenment, a sense of who we are and how we belong in the world.

Chase all of these things until your shins ache and your hands shake. But, whatever you do, please stop chasing perfection.

Andrew Boulton teaches Creative Advertising at the University of Lincoln.

Senior Lecturer in Creative Advertising at the University of Lincoln & Copywriter