Creative Failure: Teacher or Trap?

In Creativity and Inspiration, Life Is Short, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, The Craft, The Italian Incident, The Life Creative, Thoughts & Theory, Uncategorized by David28 Comments

In the creative life very few things go the way we expect them to, and I suspect when they do, it’s because we’re not reaching far enough beyond our comfort zone, not risking enough. First steps into any new endeavour—whether that’s learning a new technique or beginning a new body of work—are not the steps that get you to a polished outcome; they’re the steps that get you started, and believing that they should be easier than they are, or result in quick and easy results, will only lead to frustration and the belief that something must be wrong with you or the idea you are exploring. If that belief stops you from exploring any further, then you’re trapped.

So much of the creative life happens in the mind, and what you think and believe determines everything: what your work is about, what it looks like, and how deep or personal it might be. All of this is a mind thing, not a camera thing. We know this, but it’s easy to forget it the moment things get hard, don’t go as planned, or just plain fail.

I’ve had whole trips that didn’t go well. I’ve spent thousands of dollars and weeks of my life only to come back without a single meaningful photograph.

What do you do with that, besides the inevitable self-flagellation? How you react will either teach you or trap you, depending on how you choose to think about it: is this so-called failure a trauma or a trophy? Is it something that has truly harmed you, or is it something in which you can find a valuable lesson or a raw material for new work? Does it sideline you or introduce you to a new direction, reveal a new opportunity to improve your skills, or hone your thinking for the next time you try?

Life is hard and short, and it hurts when we spend any of it doing something that doesn’t work out the way we planned. When the magazine doesn’t publish your work, the gallery isn’t interested, or the project feels like it’s going nowhere. No one would blame you for feeling hurt and confused (well, you might), but what you do next depends on how you think about it.

There is a difference between what hurts us and what harms us.

I have relearned this painfully over the last seven weeks as I’ve wrestled with phantom limb pain after the amputation; you wouldn’t believe the pain you can feel in a body part you no longer have. It would be funny were it not so truly painful. It hurts like hell. But it does not harm, and remembering that makes it a little easier. I go to a massage therapist, and what she does is often painful. It hurts, to be sure, but not only does it not harm me, it helps me heal. Keeping that in mind makes the pain more bearable, it helps to remove the sting.

If you care about your creative work, the inevitable failures, detours, and missteps, will hurt.

The more personal the work is—the more it matters to you—the more it will hurt. But whether or not it harms probably depends on how you react, how you think about them. If you are taking risks with your art, you will experience many failed efforts. That’s a good thing. You learn more from failure than you will ever learn from success, but whether you learn and move forward probably depends on whether you think of those failures as trauma or trophies, the latter of which are hard-won and worthy of celebration.

For the Love of the Photograph,

P.S.#1 – I’m Back on Instagram

I left social media three years ago for many reasons (other than needing a break from it all). But lately, I’ve felt like I’m missing something. Not followers, not likes, but connection. So for those of you on Instagram, seek me out again. I’m there. I’m approaching it differently and more playfully than I did before. If you’ve missed that connection or want to hear from me or see my work a bit more frequently, you can still find me at @davidduchemin.

PS#2 – Footnotes: A Quick Update

Thanks to so many of you for asking about my recovery since the amputation. There’s not much to tell at this point. I’m walking, though still with crutches. And though I aim to ditch the crutches by August 5th, two months since the surgery, it remains to be seen whether that’s doable (or wise). I’ll let the experts tell me that. The phantom pain seems to be slowly diminishing, and the worst of it seems to be over. Now it’s the hard work: multiple 10-minute daily walks, rehab exercises, and patience. That’s the most difficult part.

I’m also driving again. One of my biggest fears was how easily I’d take to being behind the wheel again since it was my driving foot that I gave up. I’m thrilled to have discovered my body and brain seem to remember how it all works. I can’t feel the pedals, but I know exactly where they are, and I can feel the truck’s response.

I’m still in my temporary leg, but I’ve got a very cool hydraulic foot on order, and it shouldn’t be long before we start working on something closer to my definitive leg and foot. It’s a fascinating, if not often frustrating, process. There has been trauma, but I’m keeping this experience as a trophy. Thank you for being part of that.


  1. As a new reader of your blog, your message was incredibly timely for me. I am the joyful recipient of a “Dismal Failure Award,” the reason for which is unimportant . Mainly it was because you often learn more from failure than success. More than that, your comments about attitude after failure and how you think about your idea are what I needed to hear now, many years later, as I struggle with another project. Continuing to the end of the blog, I was saddened to learn of your health issues and heard such strength and purpose in your “voice.” I wish you all the best for your recovery. That part of your story brought me back to a difficult time and I thank you for your candor.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Sandy. Success is nice, but it’s always failure that is a more faithful teacher. I think if we’re more concerned about the people we are becoming, more concerned about growth than remaining who or what we are in this moment, then so-called failure is easier to be patient with. Forgive the language, but my life motto seems to be “Well, that didn’t f*cking go as planned!” 😂 My recovery is going really well, thank you! Off to have a short hike right now.

  2. David, wise words as always. The effort that doesn’t result in quick success helps keep us humble, and appreciative of the success that is truly earned.
    This article, Having Not Gone Farther, and Tell Me a (Better) Story have all really hit home, some of your best (as in getting to the core of the issues) writing.
    Glad your recovery is progressing well.

  3. I just wanted to let you know you are often in my thoughts and I am willing you on from ‘over the pond’. You truly are a remarkable man David and I always feel inspired after reading your posts or watching your videos. Good luck my friend.

  4. HI David,
    I feel very respectful when I read about your resilience in front of adversity. There is a light at the end of the tunnel,for sure, but being patient requires a lot of energy which can be rrather tiring both physically and mentally in the long run. When I read your texts “A beautiful anarchy” I realise you have a very srong mindset. It helps me accept my own ailments easily ; Thank you for this helpful communication .

  5. David, you are an inspiration! I always read your posts and I learn a lot with all of them. Thank you for sharing your experiences, your thoughts not only about photograph but also about life. Wish you the best!

  6. Whether you ditch the crutches on August 5, or September 5, you WILL ditch the crutches whenever it’s
    best to do so, that is for sure.

  7. I am always encouraged and inspired by what you have to share. Thank you for your honesty and for sharing the wisdom you have learned in the hard places.

  8. Glad to hear you are mobile and driving. You are an inspiration to us all!

  9. So helpful the distinction between hurt and harm, and thank you for letting us be a part of your story. Healing and wholeness to you!

  10. David, I want to first of all thank you for the inspiration you have been to my photographic journey for the past 20+ years. I do get what you say about choosing to redirect the trauma or failures towards new opportunities. Starting in 1973 graduating from RIT as bachelor of “Fine Arts” photographer I promptly had all of my camera gear stolen, decided to head West and became a carpenter/woodworker. My education. did teach me to pay attention (after the incident) to the signs in the darkrooms saying NO SMOKING in those tiny rooms with flammable chemicals. Fast forward to California living, growing a family, learning my trade, never losing interest in photography and seeing the world through various lenses. 2017 Wildfires then wiped the slate clean . Everything gone, camera gear, hard drives, books (some of yours) clothes, left with just the ones on our backs, the wife and I and 2 cats started a new journey. Greatest joy now is photographing the grandkids with iPhone, and building a new home. Never stop seeing. Best wishes and blessings with recovery. @pfarinato

  11. Keep fighting the fight. You’ll be back in shape in no time. In the interim, thanks for sharing your creative and personal journey.

  12. David, where can I find your best advice on how to create a compelling body of work?
    Do you start with a statement of intent / preconceived idea & create & select only the images that fit this predetermined objective?
    Or, do you have a vague idea & build a collection of images & then write a retrospective statement [of intent] to best describe your chosen best images?

  13. WOOT WOOT!!! 👏 Indeed, you’ve come such a long way in such a short time. We’re all proud and excited for your successes as well as failures. It’s all a part of “growing” pains… learning a new way of living, moving and yes even breathing. Keep on going – one step at a time. You’re inspirational, even in your failures. So, when you feel like you’re failing, just remember there’s a cheering section here. Get up David! Move David! That’s okay David take a break, recenter and tackle it once more! You got this David!!! And a shout out – WOOT WOOT 🙌 for your wife and family as well. They too deserve a round of applause. You all remain in my prayers.

  14. Hi, David –
    Thanks for all the years of sharing your passions and pains (!!); it helps us all keep perspective and keep keeping on…
    My grandpa had a leg amputated late in his life, but he was quiet and I was young, so I never really knew what-all he went through.
    Your mention of driving again (bravo!) reminded me of an interview (while she drove!) with musician/actress Savannah Welch, who had recently lost her right leg. It is a great interview, posted on her website, link below. I am sure you would be able to find some mirrors in her experiences. Like you, she is another human who, just by sharing her story, encourages the rest of us.
    Thanks again.
    several articles in the “Press” section, all good,
    the one i refer to is:
    Lonestar Music Magazine: Q&A: SAVANNAH WELCH

  15. Good Morning David…One thing that is certain as I read your blog or your books, it causes me to think in a good way. It’s basically facing truth. I’m on my third read of Heart of the Photograph and it’s the same and different at the same time. Lots of different ways to attack a challenge or a way to open a door to a new way to photograph and experience life. It’s an exiting process. Definitely not boring !!!

    Keep up the good work. Hope the adjustments tomorrow on the prosthesis make it easier to walk.


  16. You are such an inspiration. I look forward to all your posts. So glad to hear you are working your way through.

  17. Dearest David, thank you for your as usual incredible wisdom, your courage and honesty! As always your words have touched my heart deeply and before I forget again to tell you, that picture of you grinning ear to ear as you made your way across the therapy bars was so beautiful and inspiring that it moved me to tears. To see the soul and Spirit of a being shining so brightly out, especially in the face of severe adversity, is an honor to witness. I too am healing and making progress although I still cannot lift much of anything with my left arm other than now my cell phone for a moment or two in order to take a few pictures at least. Sadly lacking in quality and resolution but hey it’s a start! I have been asking and contemplating what I am supposed to be learning from this round of whammys starting with the fall causing a broken shoulder (from a lower back that was already causing problems), then knee issues from trying to compensate and to top it all off I got the stomach flu badly for several days. In the midst of all that I admit to some tears, but as a great mentor of mine in this life has often said, “adversity is the greatest teacher.” While like many humans I am not a great fan of adversity, I have to grudgingly admit that it’s true as it does force us to find an inner strength and creates needed change in our lives that perhaps would not happen otherwise. Although admittedly I don’t think we create everything in our lives consciously, I do think it’s important that we take responsibility for all of our experiences and ask the question what am I supposed to be learning from this? I haven’t got a lot of answers yet other than perhaps it’s time to let go of a deeper level and pervasive lifelong tendency of self condemnation…. Something I think that most of us humans have to contend with to some degree anyway. I think you’re words here have touched upon that subject beautifully. It brings to mind something a wonderful art teacher of mine said to me many many years ago in college. I was in his amazing drawing class and found one day that I was so paralyzed with fear that I could not even bring pencil to paper so great was my need to be “good” if not perfect! Seeing and perceiving accurately my hesitation, he came up quietly beside me and said, “the act of creating and the act of judging are always mutually exclusive.” It’s been an ongoing lesson, one which I often need to remind myself to simply let go and allow the process, I’ve never forgotten those invaluable words and they helped me through many a creative barrier both in art and the art of living.

  18. Your article brings to mind something I learned years ago – the difference between failing and being a failure. Failing is one of the two ways in which we learn and grow – the other, of course, is having success. But being a failure speaks to a way in which we identify ourselves, a way that most of us need dedicated practice in letting go of.
    And to you, David, as our old friend Bob Zimmerman is wont to say, “keep on keeping on”

  19. Hi David,

    One of the most beautiful parts of coming here to read your words is also reading through the comments from the people you’ve impacted with your wisdom. I’ve often thought how I would love to spend more time with the kind of people who leave such thoughtful insights on topics that have also impacted me. I don’t think I’m alone in hoping that maybe one day soon there will be a private community built around the beautiful things you’ve shared with us… Craft and Vision community… A Beautiful Anarchy community… Cult of duChemin (hehehe)… For those of us who will miss out on what you share on social media, we’d still love to have a place to participate in the connection you mention in your P.S. And we’ll pay you for it. Monthly, yearly. We are longing to connect over the things you’ve already given us, and to be a part of whatever comes next.

    Thank you for continuing to share your light with us. It means more than we can truly say.

  20. Hi David – so glad to hear you’re on the mend. Your courage is an inspiration to me! I think sometimes we creatives get into trouble because we judge everything – ourselves, our work, our circumstances. If we could drop that part of our everyday existence, life could be more meaningful and joyful, less exhausting. We may plan a trip that we later label a failure, a waste of time and money, a bad idea, but that actually can’t be true (unless we died…..). It only really exists as a failure in our own brain.

  21. David, so good to hear you’re progressing, if not without challenges. Being able to drive again must feel so freeing …
    As always, your comments apply far beyond the creative context – the way we approach disappointments changes our outlook in all aspects of life.
    Thanks for continuing to share your journey.

  22. Hi, David:
    Decades ago I burned my right hand cleaning a commercial deep fryer. The doctor did a great job healing my 17-year old body. But the sensation of the burn followed by an intense pain would come upon me unexpectedly and unpredictably for many years thereafter. The pain as you’re learning will eventually subside and go away. Meanwhile, I / you carry on the best we can. Some stumbling their way through, others like you making their own road to recovery. You are overcoming the pain and I look forward to your continued guidance and encouragement on this photographic journey many of us are taking with you.

  23. David glad to see you coming through the operation successfully.
    Ever think about doing another “conference” as you did several years ago in Vancouver?
    I did not attend but wish I did but I did get the videos.
    I am getting to a point in life (81 in another month) where participating in one of your “active” workshop is a no go but would like to see, hear you, and perhaps interact with you in person.

  24. Glad to hear from you today – missed you last week! You keep on keepin’ on! A lot of us out here are “running with you”!

  25. I am reminded of a quote from Boris Baker when he lost to Bjorn Borg. In his post-game interview he wasn’t upset, and he simply said about his loss “Well I’ve learned how to beat him next time”. Always stuck in my ind.

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