Saturday, April 18, 2015

Monthly Matinee Blog April: The Art Of Screwing Up

Roll up, Roll Up Boys And Girls! Come See the Matinee!

This Month: The Miraculous Art of Screwing Up!

     I’ll make a confession; as a hobby artist, I’ve spent most of my time screwing up. I’ve redrawn my main project at least four times, and various side projects exist in a constant state of recreation as new ideas are brought in or something doesn’t work. Sometimes I ball the whole thing up and toss it; three months or three years later, there I am trying it again. I have more pots on the back burner than Wolfgang Puck. Every one of them has been screwed up at least once.
           And you know what? That’s good.

The Strip Questionable Content
when it first began
This is a subject I've been wanting to raise, because anyone who's interested in the indie comic world has seen at least one aspiring creator having an existential quality crisis: I'm just not that good. I'll never be as good as my idol. My stuff looks like crap, maybe I should quit?
It makes me want to shake them. And then it makes me want to grab the culture that taught them to think this way and shake it, too.
Learning is a process that depends on experience. Will Rogers probably put it best: “Good judgement comes from experience. And a lot of that comes from bad judgement.’
In more exalted terms, it’s called operant conditioning; the process of learning new skills and associations through trial and error. All of us learn by operant conditioning, both good and bad.
The problem comes in when we begin to be trained by the society around us, because, at times, society isn’t very smart. What society NEEDS is people who will work to become as skilled as humanly possible in one or perhaps many areas. But what it ASKS FOR is people who are ‘innately gifted’ and get things right the first time by some magic, starting as early as preschool.
Carol Dweck writes that “Society is obsessed with the idea of talent and genius and people who are ‘naturals’ with innate ability.” and that we start pressing this bias very early in life, in the school room.

 ‘If you went to school,’ writes Dr. Tellman Knudson, ‘then you have almost certainly been trained to
Questionable Content today
fear failure from an early age. Here’s why: Getting the “right” answer the first time is the only thing that is rewarded in most schools. Getting the wrong answer is punished in a variety of ways: low grades, scolding and contempt from teachers and peers.” Knudson goes on to point out how foolish this learned attitude is.
‘ the fastest way to succeed is to jump in, make things happen, and be OK with failing repeatedly. ‘Fail fast and fail often” is a saying you’ve probably heard in entrepreneurial circles.
However, in school, were you taught to jump in and make things happen, even if that means you didn't get it right the first time? Were you rewarded for not being afraid to fail? Probably not (unless you were extremely lucky). Most schoolchildren learn early that if they fail, they get a big, red F on their paper — and all the unpleasantness that goes along with that.’

But what we learned in school is, frankly, back asswards. You don’t learn to get good by being great the first time, and you don’t learn by giving up. You learn by trying a thousand times and finding little innovations. You learn by doing.  And if you don’t do, you don’t learn.
A lot of potential in the world is lost because of our attitudes towards learning and talent. Generally, there’s a continuum of views with two poles: the ‘fixed mindset’ and the ‘growth mindset’, according to Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  Heidi Grant Halvorson puts it more accessibly as the ‘be good’ mindset and the ‘get better’ mindset.
At the ‘Be Good’ extreme, we find the belief that each person has their ‘god given abilities’, innate and unchanging. This one was real popular in the mid 17th to the mid 19th century, but it’s persisted in classrooms around the world. It’s the mindset that a kid expresses when they say ‘I’m no good at this anyway, it’s stupid.”or ‘I’m no good at school’ or, worst of all, “I’m not smart/fast/good at that/ ect.” We see it when we watch people nervously avoid trying tasks that look intimidating or hear people say ‘I’m not much of a (fill in the blank).” The core of this belief is that we have to be good within the first few tries, or stop doing something. ‘The problem with the Be-Good mindset,’ Halvorson writes,  ‘is that it tends to cause problems when we are faced with something unfamiliar or difficult.  We start worrying about making mistakes, because mistakes mean that we lack ability, and this creates a lot of anxiety and frustration.
Stephen Leotti's work today, via the
strip 'Stardust The Cat'
Anxiety and frustration, in turn, undermine performance by compromising our working memory, disrupting the many cognitive processes we rely on for creative and analytical thinking.
Also, when we focus too much on doing things perfectly (i.e., being good), we don’t engage in the kind of exploratory thinking and behavior that creates new knowledge and innovation.’

I’m assuredly guilty of this. I was given a violin and lessons as a young girl, and hated the awful sound that came out of my violin instead of the fiddle music I loved so much. I stopped in three weeks. As an adult, I regret that. If I’d stuck with it as a kid, I’d be a fiddler today instead of tentatively trying to play ‘Good King Wenceslas’ all over again while the cat hides under the bed. The ‘Be Good’ mindset is like a nice warm cottage. It’s cozy, inside it you don’t fear anything. But if you never open that cottage and go outside, you sure aren't going to learn much.

On the other end of the spectrum is the ‘Get Better’ attitude.When we think in a ‘get better’ way, we don’t fear failure, because we don’t see it as a judgement on ourselves, our character and our worth as a human being. We see it as a lesson. ‘The Get-Better mindset,’ Halvorson continues, ‘is practically bullet-proof.  When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and mastering, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur.’
And we actually,surprisingly enough, make fewer mistakes. The mistakes we do make serve us.
Want some proof? There's plenty, both anecdotal and scientific.

Anecdotally, let's turn to somebody all us comics folks know:
Jack Kirby.
You could call him the Father of American Comics. To plenty of people, he's a god. But he had some major screw ups along the way.
In their article on Jack Kirby's life, JVJ Publishing Illustrators
Kirby's work circa 1944. See what I mean?
writes 'In 1954, as the rest of the industry was retrenching due to the public furor over comics and juvenile delinquency, Simon and Kirby launched Mainline Comics, to minimal fanfare and mediocre sales. With titles like In Love, Foxhole, Police Trap and Bulls-Eye, they had all the popular genres covered. They were the most successful and well-known creators in comics history. And they failed miserably. Most titles lasted only four issues.'

Jack Kirby failed. And then, he went on. And that's how he succeeded.

An early page of the strip 'the Devon Legacy'
You can prove this in a laboratory too. In several studies on both humans and animals, innovation and success was much more common when it was rewarded rather than when failure was punished. Halvorson conducted an experiment wherin volunteers were broken into two teams by personality, one on either extreme. She then gave them some puzzles to solve, promising a grade at the end. Then she started cheating. She interrupted, changed the puzzles mid tests, threw in a few unsolvable problems.
The Be Good folks got frustrated. They got angry. They got anxious. And they screwed up. But the interesting thing is that the Get Better group was barely bothered. Why? Because they weren't judging themselves, telling themselves ‘you’re not doing good enough.’ They were actually focused on the project, rather than what the project said about their intelligence and how other people would see them based on it. And that’s the key.
The latest work on The Devon Legacy. Now THAT is IMPROVEMENT!
 When we can stop seeing every ‘failure’ as a sign that we’re not worthy, a lot of things change. We stop defending ourselves over every little detail. We stop giving excuses. We stop needing to hide our work in progress, say that we’re not that good before someone else does, or get emotional over criticism. Why? Because a criticism no longer attacks who we are. It’s a lesson, not a threat. And that’s when we start learning, every day, with every experiment, with every trial and every error.

Doctor Knudson says it best.
‘Like everyone else on the planet, I bet you were once one-and-a-half years old. Correct? And at that age, you had absolutely no fear of failure. I can say that with confidence because if you were afraid to fail, you’d never have learned to walk!
Somewhere inside there’s a “you” that has absolutely zero fear of failure and wants to try to do everything. Access that brave little person once again, and you can achieve anything.’

The first page of  the strip Elsewhere, 25 years ago
'Elsewhere' today


  1. No lie, I take a bit of pleasure in going back to the first comic of some of my favorite strips and wallowing in the funk! I think this is why it's important to always push ahead, and not get caught up in re-dos and fixing stuff.

  2. Wonderful article! And thanks for using my art! Here's to more horrible burning in flames failures I learn from!


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