Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Fear of Failure

I chastised one of my robot parents the other day as he jokingly gave his daughter a hard time about the robot run she was practicing.  The language was all about how she hadn’t gotten enough points and wasn’t perfect.  I pointed my finger at him – father of four girls – and said ‘you’re part of the problem!’.  He knew what I meant as I had shared my recent blog with him.  I meant that girls are chastised for not doing things perfectly the first time and it starts to keep them from stretching themselves, whereas sit back and listen to the language we use with boys.  “Get out there and give it the old college try”, “Give it one more chance”, “Keep at it”, “Nice try”.  Notice that not once do we chastise them for not being perfect.  It makes me mad.

So fast forward to your life and realize that some of the anxiety related to starting a large, creative project is due to your pre-programmed fear of failure, to not being the perfect little girl.  Well – screw that crud because that is what it is; crud. 

Now lets talk about the truth to getting any complex and creative endeavor done – building a winning robot or designing and stitching a casket.  There will be a TREMENDOUS amount of failure involved.  Sometimes I don’t even realize how programmed everyone else is to be perfect or fearing failure as failure is all around me and I am so comfortable with it.  There is no class in “how to build something no one ever has done before” – what happens is the maker explores, prototypes and makes lots of false starts while trying to figure out the best way to go about it, throwing away many attempts.  I can give you lots of advice to warn you about pitfalls, suggest going through checklists to be sure you have thought through possible issues before you start a path of action, but that only saves you from some of the problems.  And the truth be told, I only know these because MY first attempt FAILED. 

So in full disclosure here, I am going to show some of my failures in getting to the final products and how I make peace with it.  Some failures are things that can be removed and redone.  Some turn into other projects.  Some just have to be accepted if they can't be fixed.  And some show you to a new and better idea and that is just what the creative process is all about.  Those of you who have taken my classes for a long time may have noticed that sometimes there is progress in my photos that is out of order from the text.  Well, I failed and decided another way was better.  And often I try to include my failures as part of the instructions.  In other words - if you find yourself in this place - here is how you fix it.

My Stumpwork Mirror -
 Looks great from the front
Failure #1 is my stumpwork mirror frame.  I juggled writing the instructions while making it and in the final days I was so excited yet also tremendously scared, as I had no idea what I was doing – I was writing it as I went along!  But the lesson needed to be posted and I needed to finish so I was thinking about that when I pasted my embroidery onto the finished wooden form. 

Think about the line in the directions to ‘be sure to mark the top of the frame’ before you paste on the embroidery.  You know the front is symmetrical and the bottom and top look the same.  Well the back doesn’t.  Mine is upside down.

Yes – crud.  And so the easel doesn’t work.  Well, I could throw the whole thing away.    But how many people would ever know?  (Ok now everyone does….)  I can put a hanger on the back and hang it on a wall.  Or I can get a iron plate rack and let it rest angled on a table as I had intended and just move on.              

Turn it around and you realize that I pasted
the embroidery upside down
I have moved on.  It is beautiful and people see it and freak out over the figures, bugs, etc.  No one yet has noticed that the easel is on upside down.  And I have saved many of you from the same fate.   And as time went on, I realized that soon I will just have a plexi face made for it and will end up hanging it on a wall with the plexi over it to protect it from the build up of dust that will prematurely age it.  So the easel doesn’t even matter. 

Failure #2, I can’t seem to get my Flat Casket designed.  Ugh.  The casket is even all finished with the papers and everything.  I want the four elements (Water, Earth, Wind, and Fire) but I have found three different allegorical representations of these and have gone through so many versions on the sides of the casket.  Noah has copied even more of the themed motifs for me from old pieces so I can try.  So far all of the motifs have come from mirrors and because of that, I can’t seem to get the symmetry to work on a casket.  I think I will have to give up and work the motifs into a mirror where they truly want to be.  I have to say that I LOVE the water element.  I just want to do that grotto and ship so bad.  But
A front for the Elements Casket with Earth and Water
trying to share the space nice and symmetrical.
I have issues with the Wind and Fire sides - so boring.  So I periodically print it out and tape it to my casket and walk around it and think.  It has been over a year that I have been doing it and the problem has not been solved yet.  It might be time to experiment with a different design idea for this box.

This is my favorite version of Water.  Love that ship.  
In fact I have many partially designed sides, caskets, trinket boxes, and mirrors on my computer.  Sometimes they are abandoned and led to something that was better.  Sometimes they just represent an idea that won't work or I didn't like as much as I thought when I started drawing it.  None are wasted work, they are just part of the 99 ways on the way to a better light bulb.  And I am comfortable with that, I know that every time I do a side that doesn't work out I am actually learning and discovering the rules for what works well on a piece and it makes it easier to design one or look for a new solution.

The Fire side.  Not working for me.
What do I put in the rest of the white
space?  More fire?! Ugh.
So hopefully you are understanding that the design process is messy.  There are more false starts than you can shake a stick at.  And that is before we start embroidering! One of the benefits of looking at all the historic pieces up close is being able to see the false starts. I can't tell you how many pieces I have turned over - 17th century stumpwork and 18th century crewel pieces - to find the first draft tracing on the back!  They messed up and then turned the linen over and drew it again!  It makes me much more comfortable with my own mistakes to know that it isn't because I am a screw up, it is just a natural step in the creative process.  So I just try to have a bit of extra linen on hand 'in case'.

So I have to give an analogy now.  It is easy to fall into the trap of the master plan.  We do this thing
Our FAT contraption - no master plan, it just evolves.
every year called FAT at MIT.  Your team builds a 2 foot by 8 foot part of a giant chain reaction.  We do it in only 1-2 days and it always follows a predictable pattern.  My dad gets nervous because we don't have a 'plan'.  We have an assortment of cool ideas that everyone has spouted out and has run off and gathered the parts to put together the separate units.  All of the rest of us have gotten really comfortable with expending effort to try out an idea and accepting that some number of them will fail - ruining materials or costing us time.  But in that process we find out the problems and unexpected wonderful effects we can build on - things we just can't predict.  So for awhile we have to ignore him and his upsetness because we are all bulling forward without a master plan.  Then at some point hours later, it starts to become obvious that parts are starting to come together and we will 'make it' and have yet another really cool device.  But to get there, we all have to join hands and jump into the unknown and try things and be willing to throw many of the ideas away.  If we waited until we had a perfect master plan - a recipe to follow - we would fail in the end because it wouldn't work.  We have to have the minor failures along the way to actually succeed.

A side of a casket never finished - but soooo lovely and sold for $$$.  Was this someone's failure?
For those of you who are used to doing a sampler from a pattern, this is likely the most scary part of
becoming a designer.  To realize that there really isn't ever a master plan - there is a direction and a feeling you are trying to get and to accept that you will change your mind as you go.  You will end up with a box that has a few extra stumpwork apples in it, a partially made skirt in what is now the wrong colors, a face that looked scary and you might be making a stuffed tree trunk to cover up something you don't like on the partially finished embroidery.  None of it is wasted work, it was part of the process.  And in some cases, you might realize that you need the design to be different on that panel and you will abandon it.  Perhaps you will finish it and frame it on the wall (or give it to someone).  And it might then be like some of these antiques which are obviously panels that never made it on a casket.

Your design and colors and plan for techniques will evolve.  And some days you will leave your frame across the room and just stare at it...for a month trying to realize what comes next.  Always good to have another panel in process so you can turn to that when you are stuck on the other.  Nothing really great comes without the blood (can cover that up with a bug!), sweat and tears.

So embrace the possibility of failure and jump in with both feet...


  1. Absolutely right. So often I have left a piece propped up on a chair to stare at it in odd moments, and done something else while I did so. I think making peace with mistakes is part of enjoying the process and not just the results..

  2. Well said, Tricia. I encounter a lot of embroiderers who are scared to death of making mistakes. They're so scared they won't even try different types of embroidery for fear of failure which saddens me greatly. My philosophy of life is that it's not worth getting too worked up over something unless someone could die or be injured. I often say "it's only embroidery, what's the worst that can happen?". Embroidery and designing should be fun and mistakes are part of the journey.

  3. Thank you, Tricia!

  4. Thank you so much for this, Tricia! You are so very right about chastising vs. encouragement in what girls and boys are told.

    And thanks also for *permission* to make mistakes and to fail, and to learn from those experiences - something I learned years ago in quilting but somehow managed NOT to carry the lesson over into my stitching. I'm currently working on a 17th century sampler reproduction (erm, adaptation actually - why should I stitch with a color that doesn't show up on the background fabric?) that I never would have started except that the kit was a gift from my husband - who is unaware of the limitations of my stitching abilities. Now I've learned a number of new stitches (and would never have gotten through spiral trellis without the directions you have posted somewhere - thanks again!).

  5. Have you tried coloring in the design that doesn't look quite right? I can't work computers very easily so use my trusty colored pencils, but I KNOW you could put the color in with your computer. Sometimes a stronger color on one side can balance out a design. Won't work for "fire", but if there's any other panel.....

  6. Sometimes I feel as if the frog stitch (rip it rip it)is my favorite stitch. It took me a while to realize that the project is mine. I don't have to make a perfect copy of someone else s design. I can change elements or colors if necessary.And yes, bugs can hide a multitude of sins.

  7. I am working on the first step in EGA's Mastercraftsman in Counted Thread Embroidery. For the last two weeks I have been stuck and unable to work on my sampler. I didn't like the way a couple of the motifs turned out and was faced with the prospect of ripping out work. I summoned the courage yesterday, took out the offending stitches and restitched the motifs. It was as if a great weight was lifted off my shoulders. It didn't kill me and I can move on! The next time it happens it shouldn't be such a big deal for me.

  8. Your post really spoke to me. Whenever I drew anything as a little girl I was told "Well you'll never be an artist" I sure they were well meaning but I'm 51 years old now and I still feel like that deflated little girl whenever I draw anything. I started designing my casket and that little voice keeps saying it's not good enough--but you know what--I am a really good stitcher/embroiderer and I WILL do this. Thank you for giving me courage to realize that I CAN do this --all it will take is the courage to know that I don't have to be perfect I just have to enjoy the journey.

  9. Wonderful posts, thanks Tricia! I'm back to looking at my designs so far & have decided which casket would suit my purpose & budget. My only fear now is that due to only having started the Course a few months ago, I dont have the threads yet. Not to mention my fear of "what about all the other projects I have on the go".
    Then I need to work out when I can fit the casket of choice into my budget.

  10. No reason people HAVE to start in January and there is time to catch up or say - hey I am on a different panel - who cares! The kits will be getting ready in January/Feb to go out with the threads. Waiting for two different items to come in for them.

  11. It's the fear of being the class dummy that I hate. Reversible blackwork took a "couple" of classes before the aha moment. Currently signed up for a seminar class that will be more learning than practicum for me but will expand and advance my knowledge for the next time. Not a "see one, do one, teach one" person