Chapter 15: My Best Teachers Were Failures

 How to Make Your Creative Dreams a Reality:
Strategies to Cultivate Your Talent

Chapter 15
My Best Teachers Were Failures: Advancing Your Aesthetic to the Next Level through Experimentation

I am not about certainty. For me, the creative process is about spontaneity. And that in itself adds a certain complexity to risk-taking, because the best-laid plans can go awry. 

However, in the creative world failure is a step toward success. 

I am not a scientist, and certainly no Thomas Edison, but I do understand his approach. He regarded “failures” as experiments that took him closer to success.

Planning and documenting the experimental techniques going into an artistic effort is critical. You need to chart where you have been in order to plot where you are going. 

For example, while I was teaching at Penland in 1986, I became enamored by the mountain laurels in bloom that populated the woodland areas of the campus. While I was familiar with that particular flower, I had not paid close attention to it. But, finding myself teaching in a creative environment where I wanted to celebrate the beauty of nature, I picked a bouquet of field flowers. The bouquet was dominated by mountain laurel sprays. I used it to decorate my workbench, symbolically celebrating the spirit of creativity at the glass-melting torch. 

I came home with the idea of experimenting with the mountain laurel. I failed. Being stymied by two weeks of failure, I put a few of the efforts on the shelf and destroyed the worst of them. 

Over the next six years, I would periodically try to solve the technical puzzle of representing the flower, which was very complex because the stamens were holstered in a cup-shaped blossom; as the flower wilted, the stamens sprung out of the holster to pollinate the plant. 

The colors were especially challenging because I was seeking the unique translucence that magnified the complexity, beauty, and uniqueness that led many botanists to consider the mountain laurel among the most attractive shrubs in the northern hemisphere. 

My experimentation with this elusive design discouraged me. A few of the interesting ones went back to the shelf. 

It wasn’t until five or six years later that I came into the studio with this need to take the mountain laurel design to the next level. I made a commitment that I was going to solve the technical and aesthetic challenges. 

After ten or fifteen experiments over the course of a month, I was failing again. I felt that my labor and costs had not only failed to produce results but drained me emotionally. 

While I was still experimenting, one night – right before I went to sleep – an idea floated into my mind. I could position the stamens in the translucent blossom by creasing the floral segments and adding clear glass to interpret the fidelity of the flower.

When I entered the studio at 8:00 a.m. the next morning, I immediately started to work on my idea and became very excited by what I perceived would be a breakthrough. 

This was not the first time that my mind, in my relaxed mode, had solved as an aesthetic challenge. In 1979, I wanted to invent a new format to present my floral designs. I could not invent the floral paperweight that I had dedicated my talents toward, because others beat me to it in 1840 in France. 

However, I had this emotional obsession to do something fresh with my botanical vocabulary. 

Over the course of six months, I set aside Fridays and Saturday mornings to experiment with this new series. I “failed” many times, and reconciled the efforts to the shelf. The “failures,” to me, were experiments. 

That mindset changed everything. The studies on the shelf were disappointing, to be sure. But they were also encouraging: I was lifting my flowers out of the traditional paperweight form and into a rectangular block, showing a plant, including the root system, suspended in clear glass. 

The visual information that I was now able to articulate excited me. I had a vehicle that could accept days of labor that were focused on a three-dimensional presentation of a plant. 

Once I was confident with the result of my innovation, I destroyed most of the failures – with the recognition that there were really not failures, but studies that amounted to rungs on the ladder. They lacked the refinement that I demand from my work, but they were my teachers. 

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.


Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit. 
- Napoleon Hill


 I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying. 
Michael Jordan

The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.
Ralph Waldo Emerson


I don’t believe in failure. It is not failure if you enjoyed the process.
—Oprah Winfrey 


It’s only when you risk failure that you discover things. When you play it safe, you’re not expressing the utmost of your human experience.
Lupita Nyong’o