The Art of Experimentation: Embracing Risk and Failure…

At the time of this writing my kids are ages 14 and 11. Throughout their time in elementary school I’ve lost count of how many science projects we’ve had to do. It has to be 10 or more between the two of them, but that could also be the exaggerations of a frustrated parental brain talking. Regardless, it’s been a lot. 


I think about how every project begins with a question, a question we may only moderately understand, and a theorized or hypothesized answer to that question. From there, the experimentation begins. We design a series of trials with changing or alternating variables and conditions, and we run the tests over, and over, and over, and over, and over, again, and again, and again, and again…because that’s the only way the data gets clear.


It is laborious and monotonous, and sometimes painfully tedious.


Yet, the interesting part is that, even though we are testing a hypothesis, our goal is not necessarily to prove whether we are right or wrong. The goal is to observe and gather data. The goal is to see what happens and to see what we can learn from it.


In order to truly learn something we have to be open and able to receive data that runs counter to our preconceived ideas. We have to be willing to go through what feels like countless trials, knowing that most of our experiments will “fail” most of the time. The more experiments we subject ourselves to, the more tests we can take, the more trials we can stand, the more data we can collect – the more we learn.


Tina Seelig reminds us that “All of our paths are riddled with small and enormous failures. The key is being able to see these experiences as experiments that yield valuable data and to learn what to do differently next time.” 


Everything is an iterative process.


The process of experimentation is indifferent to success or failure. “Failure” doesn’t matter. “Success” is inconsequential. The only objective is to learn something profound about ourselves and about the way the world works.


There are no clearly defined answers to our questions. No ready-made conclusions. No concrete determinations. Everything is just a theory until it has been tested, and that includes the results of another person’s experiments. We cannot accept the deductions of their data without question. We are variables unto ourselves. The results can and will vary. We have to get our own hands dirty.


We are making this all up as we go along. Everything is an experiment, and every result is a forward motion.


I think this is exactly why John Dewey says that “one of the essential traits of the artist is that he is born an experimenter”.

Dewey explains that 


The artist is compelled to be an experimenter because he has to express an intensely individualized experience through means and materials that belong to the common and public world. This problem cannot be solved once for all. It is met in every new work undertaken.”


In fact, Dewey goes on to say that “Only because the artist operates experimentally does he open new fields of experience and disclose new aspects and qualities in familiar scenes and objects.”


To be an artist is to be in the constant throes of an experimental process. It is to be amidst a ceaseless series of trails and tests. It is to risk failure again and again and again.


Tom and David Kelley make clear that

“creative people simply do more experiments. Their ultimate ‘strokes of genius’ don’t come about because they succeed more often than other people—they just do more, period. They take more shots at the goal. That is the surprising, compelling mathematics of innovation: if you want more success, you have to be prepared to shrug off more failure.” 


This is certainly easier said than done. I have grown weary and despondent. I have found my resiliency waning. The constant bitter flavor of failure, without the palate cleansing sweetness of success, has caused me to begin to lose my creative appetite. So this reminder is as much for me as it may be for you.


We must, as Jocelyn Glei suggests, “Mine [our] ‘failures’ for valuable data about what works and what doesn’t”, realizing that  “As long as you learn from the process, it’s not a mistake.”


The risk of experimentation isn’t prompted by aspiring for successes but by the desires for discovery.


Our opportunities for growth are proportionate to our willingness to fail…

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