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Fail Fast, Fail Forward

by Taylor Slattery | July 15, 2021

Learning something new is an uncomfortable process. It’s humbling to be a beginner at something and when starting from the bottom, looking up to others at a place where we’d like to be, it’s difficult to identify the steps they might have taken to get there. From our perspective, their level seems like the product of talent, but we’re only seeing the end result. It’s the same for any pursuit—talent can only take you so far, the only way to reach higher levels is through dedication and hard work.

It’s important to first cement this attitude into your brain. Use it as the foundation for your learning. You need to become accustomed to feeling uncomfortable and manage your expectations of how quickly you can progress. When things aren’t coming to you easily, you might get down on yourself, but you don’t know what you don’t know, so it’s only natural for your initial steps to result in failure. Take comfort in the fact that you’re walking in the very same footsteps of every creative who’s come before you. You aren’t alone in this journey.

Also, throw time out of the window. Only concern yourself with the quality of your work. In the beginning, don’t worry about how long it takes to make something or how much faster someone else can work. Concerning yourself with time—whether that’s your age, the length of your process, or a future date by which you’re hoping to achieve a certain level, will only induce more stress and hamper your learning. Creative skills are impossible to measure with metrics and adding time into the mix can cause the perceived distance between your current level and your target level to appear even greater.

In the beginning, every step we take is full of trepidation. We’re still gaining our bearings and dealing with a great deal of uncertainty. This uncertainty in regards to your ability will never disappear, no matter how high a level you achieve, so get used to its presence. You often hear professionals talk about “imposter syndrome” as the type of doubt that can cause you to question your place in an organization, the legitimacy of your pricing, or your deservingness of an award.

Ignore that impulse to undermine your confidence. Learn to use your uncertainty—it can guide you to the answers you’re looking for. If you’re uncertain about your decisions, that just means you haven’t tested enough variables yet. Failure is part of the process, in both learning and creating, and the only time it ceases to exist is when you’re no longer growing. Its presence is a sign to continue, use it to reinforce your conviction. Keep pushing because progress is just around the corner.

Don’t let uncertainty prevent you from getting started, that’s the wrong way to deal with it. If you’re the type of person who finishes watching a tutorial and immediately starts the next one without putting into practice what you’ve just learned, then I’m looking at you. It’s understandable—you want to do everything in your power to close the gap between where you are now and where you want to be. Every video watched or book read feels like tangible, measurable progress toward your goal, but unless you put this knowledge into practice, it won’t amount to anything.

You need to first try and utilize the knowledge you do have, not only to cement it in your mind but also to find the spots in which your understanding is lacking. Be ambitious, try things outside of your comfort zone, a bit beyond what you think you’re currently capable of. This is the quickest way to find holes in your knowledge and the best way to ensure that the time you do spend studying is targeting specific areas in which you need to improve.

There is no direct correlation between the number of Bob Ross videos you watch on Youtube and your ability to paint. Courses, books, and tutorials don’t directly translate into skills. You can only learn so much through theory. You can read books about how to swim & have a perfect theoretical understanding of how to do it, but until you actually jump in, you’ll still be a beginner. There is a massive chasm between theory and practice. True learning takes place through doing and that process doesn’t begin until you put the books down and actually get started.

That isn’t to say there is no value in knowledge gained from books or videos, just that theory without practice is just that—theory. In order to connect the dots you’ve gained through study, you need to encounter these concepts in the wild and examine them from many different angles to fully grasp them. It’s through trial and error that these principles exit the world of theory and become tangible tools we can wield.

You never know when something will click. Sometimes, knowledge is just out of your reach, you may need to be further along in your journey in order to receive it. In the early stages, you won’t be ready for some of the more advanced concepts and much of what you read just simply won’t stick. Months or years later though, you’ll have that sudden moment of clarity where things just snap into place and those previously confusing concepts now make perfect sense. It’s a bit like painting on a surface that hasn’t been properly primed. No matter how many coats you apply, without the proper primer, that paint just won’t take.

When it comes to design or any creative practice, the bulk of learning happens through trial and error. Trial and error is the means through which we build our primer to ensure that all the things we learn through theory can stick. Between getting all of the answers spoonfed to you by a pro or plain and simple trial and error, the latter may sound like the longer process of the two, but it’s actually much faster. By experimenting and reaching conclusions on your own you come to understand not just what works, but how and why. Without this knowledge, you won’t be able to participate in any of the successful rule-breaking you always hear teachers and pros talking about.

Part of what makes this process feel so long is that there are very few milestones along the way. Beyond reaching a level that makes you employable or recognition by awards, you won’t have any concrete means of orienting yourself. This is why imposter syndrome is a problem that persists at every level, from student to professional. That’s why it’s so important to make efforts to manage this mental component from the very beginning. Without control of our uncertainty our perception becomes distorted—we self-sabotage, minimize our progress, and the path ahead never appears to get any shorter.

The road ahead is long and arduous, and there’s no way to make it through unscathed. You’ll have plenty of stumbles along the way, many things you’ll look back at in disbelief and wonder how you could’ve made such an obvious mistake, but these only come with hindsight. The fastest way through is to embrace failure and just get started. Every stumble along the way is a learning opportunity and these moments should be celebrated. Exploit your brain’s ability to adapt. Throw yourself as far as you possibly can outside of your comfort zone and see how you manage. The more opportunities you give yourself to observe design principles in practice, both through your work and others, the better you’ll come to understand them, and soon enough they’ll be second nature.

Just like learning a language, the most effective method is to learn through immersion. Study only so much that you have a basic understanding of the fundamentals and then jump in and get your hands dirty. Make something. Make mistakes, then figure out how to correct them. This sort of trial and error will reveal which areas need improvement—and they might not be the ones you had imagined.

Look to those further along in their journey for answers. See how they approach the kinds of work you want to make and analyze their solutions to the problems you’re grappling with. Reach out and ask them for feedback. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a response and some insight that might supercharge your learning.

There is knowledge that can only be gained through experience. Don’t wait until you feel like you understand something to get started, because there’s no telling when things will click. Move from theory to practice as quickly as possible. Create, critique, repeat. The fastest way forward is to fail.


Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.


This blog is powered by Sessions College, the leading online school of visual arts.

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