Posted by: Liz Massey | January 24, 2009

Embracing Creative Failure (II): Cultivating Happy Accidents


Image courtesy SXC.

Where would we be without serendipity, also known as the happy, fortune-bearing accident? We should probably be happy that we do not live in a universe that conforms exactly to our expectations, especially where scientific discovery is concerned. Without the “X Factor” that unexpected results bring, who knows how long it would have taken scientists to discover oxygen, electric current, photography or the vulcanization of rubber. And who knows if such vital medical breakthroughs as the discovery of penicillin, the development of chemotherapy as a cancer treatment or the role of the pancreas in the development of diabetes would have happened at all.

That’s all fine, you may say, but I’m not trying to save lives—I’m just trying to write a short story, or create beautiful ceramics, or sketch a street scene. I don’t want to make mistakes—and I don’t know why I’d celebrate that fact if I did.

However, understanding the power of serendipity to improve your creative efforts is vital to developing one’s skills in a flowing, masterful manner. If you’re always afraid of the consequences of making a mistake when you prepare to make art, it’s likely you’ll feel too intimidated to make art very often.

As I’ve written previously, comfort with creative mistakes comes from practicing radical self-acceptance. Art is enhanced by aiming for being what you are truly capable of as an artist, not by judging yourself solely against an external and possibly unrealistic standard.

Why is a tolerance for creative accidents and mistakes so valuable for artists? Here’s a short list of advantages, with affirmation from great creators of generations past:

Reduce options, increase knowledge

“Most of my advances were by mistake. You uncover what is when you get rid of what isn’t.”

Buckminster Fuller

Find alternate solutions or approaches

“Mistakes are usually what trigger off a new direction.”

Graham Gillmore

Access originality

“There is no art which has not had its beginnings in things full of errors. Nothing is at the same time both new and perfect.”

Leon Battista Alberti

Increase ability to make meaningful distinctions related to one’s art

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

Scott Adams

Learn more about the materials you work with

Choleena, Art Director and Principal of Tantramar Interactive Inc., a prominent Atlantic-Canadian web design firm, writes in her blog Happy Happy Accident about her discovery of important characteristics of her art materials as a child:

“In art, I’ve always loved exploring the surprises that present themselves … I remember lying on my belly on the pavement outside our house… full array of coloured construction paper, scissors, ruler, crayons and the like fanned around me… where I coloured in the sun for hours one day. When I was finally ready to cut out the drawings I’d made, I picked up the scissors from a piece of orange construction paper and was amazed at the outline left behind. The sun had bleached the paper so that where the scissors were was an intense orange and the rest of the page was a light orange. Over the course of the afternoon the orange had faded so slowly so that I didn’t notice it. In the same way, when I lifted the semi-transparent ruler from the page, it left a mark. But this time is was less intense than what the opaque scissors had left.

“Years later, when I entered Fine Arts at Mount Allison, I discovered that this was an art form! Thaddeus Holownia introduced us to the work of Man Ray, which included photograms.

“All those years ago, the ephemeral inks in my construction paper made it a light-sensitive paper!”

How to cultivate “planned happenstance”

So if serendipity happens by accident, what can we do other than wait and hope it will transform our lives? There is a proactive way to approach serendipity—not forcing its hand, but making its appearance more likely. This way is aptly represented by the phrase “planned happenstance,” a term used by career experts Kathleen Mitchell, John Krumboltz and Al Levin. These three were describing a way for college students and other job-hunters to gain clarity on their interests and make the most of their informal connections with others, but the term is also a lovely way to describe how to prepare oneself for those “chance encounters” that can electrify one’s art and mark a turning point in technique, approach or subject matter.

I spoke with Kathleen several years ago for an article I was writing, and she described the basics of the four-fold process she advises clients to follow to create planned happenstance: clarify your ideas, remove blocks, expect the unexpected, and take action. The overarching theme of this process is developing curiosity about unexpected changes, rather than recoiling in fear.

Accepting that our lives are impacted by random forces outside our control isn’t novel. Everyone from fortune-tellers to insurance agents offer ways to cope with uncertainty; it’s the “planned” part of planned happenstance that separates it from being the vocational equivalent of hoping to win the Powerball lottery.

“This isn’t magical thinking,” Mitchell told me in the interview. “It’s taking action in the face of uncertainty. You have to be ready to take action, even when you don’t know how it will all turn out.”

Be curious. Expect the unexpected. Take action in the face of uncertainty. All are excellent ways to experience the synergy that serendipity brings, and make mistakes and failures into fascinating steppingstones on our artistic journey.

Resources for increasing your serendipity

Happy Accidents Exercise

A great lesson for ages “5+” from KinderArt that teaches that mistakes in art are not always “wrong” or bad.

Career development via planned happenstance

Designed for college students who are seeking employment after graduation, but the path outlined in this article also works well for using the planned happenstance/serendipity concept in one’s art-making.

More readings on art and serendipity

Serendipity in Room 117

From a 2005 issue of Art Comment Quarterly. How an encounter with a musician that doesn’t meet expectations leads to unexpected learnings about art in general.

Snow lines and serendipity

Steve Durbin of Art & Perception blog discusses a discovery about a photograph of horses in the snow that came to him after the fact.

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