I got a new tattoo yesterday, one I’ve been wanting for a long time. It’s on my collar bone and shoulder, and it reads, “Dare to fail greatly.” That’s not the full quote — it would have been a bit overwhelming to write out the whole thing. But it’s enough to serve as a reminder for me.
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”– Robert F. Kennedy.
If you’ve been following my various blogs for long, you’re already aware of my strict religious upbringing. What I have not talked about much is what a very insecure kid I was. I never felt like I fit in with kids at school or church, and I spent a lot of time wondering what was wrong with me. I started playing the piano when I was three, and was always drawing something, and I knew I had a talent for both. And that made me feel like I didn’t fit in, because I wasn’t average. Rather than embracing that as something that made me special, I felt it was something that made me weird, and weird was not good. Add to that the fact that I was a voracious reader and had a fairly advanced vocabulary, and that all combined to make me a misfit with kids my age. I spent lots of time with adults, because I felt like I blended slightly better with them.
The result of growing up in that way meant that I had a strange pull between wanting to show off my talents — music and art — but being afraid neither would be deemed good enough. So I only shared what I felt was safe, the things that people would be most likely to find acceptable. I knew I was capable of more than I was sharing, but I couldn’t take the risk of having that made fun of, or simply not appreciated.
I lived that way through high school, and through my first year of college — and then somehow, I ended up married, with babies quickly following, and jobs, and bills, and everything that comes when you’re suddenly an adult. There was no time to think about art, but the insecurity stayed put. Now I was not just insecure, I was also completely without identity. If there’s anything worse than being an insecure artist, it’s being an insecure artist who makes no art.
When I finally “discovered” photography, I was a pretty lost and frustrated soul. Life had not gone terribly well for me, and I was at a point where I really needed to figure out a way to reclaim myself – or more accurately to claim myself for the first time in my life. I had no idea who I was – the source of most of the problems in my life — but I knew by now who I was not.
For the first few months, photography was a technical exercise. I had no idea how exposure worked, and I had forgotten what it felt like to be creative. I photographed my kids, went through some kitschy phases, didn’t really think of photography as an artistic tool. And then, as I played around with it, something switched in my head, and it all made sense. Photography was my new medium, my tool to communicate, my outlet, my identity. And so I became that little girl again, with rapidly developing talent, but too afraid to open up and be vulnerable, sharing only safe, cute images that I knew people would like. Living for compliments that were a poor replacement for self-confidence.
And that made me angry. I am not like everyone else. I don’t think like the masses. I have a well of deep, dark thoughts and feelings, and they are just as valid as everyone else’s. That was when I literally shut myself into my darkroom, closed out the world, and used photography to finally understand and value myself. That was when I began to realize that it is truly unimportant to me how people view my work. It is my work. Not theirs. I don’t have to explain it, apologize for it, tailor it, or refine it to anybody else’s tastes. My work was dark, sometimes disturbing, and often ambiguous, but it was honest.
I learned during that time to stand behind my work, to know in my own head and heart that it was good and valuable. I started sharing my work more freely at that point, because I knew I wouldn’t be destroyed if other people criticized, misunderstood, or ignored it.
Photography helped me understand and embrace who I am, and it started me solidly on the road to becoming a person who is confident in all areas of life. I am a very different me than I was before. I didn’t succeed in photography because I was a confident person; I became a confident person because I chose to take a risk in my photography. I “dared to fail greatly.”
I am proud of who I am now, and what I’ve accomplished thus far in my life. I own the many mistakes I’ve made along the way, and the ones I will make in the future. I am supremely imperfect, and accepting that has been the best lesson of all. I do not have to create perfect art. I simply have to create my art, to communicate what I think and feel. It’s not my responsibility to make others like it. It’s not for me to decide whether it’s “good” or “bad.” My job is to explore myself, to hold up a mirror to my soul and let others see what they may. If they happen to appreciate my photographs, that is icing on the cake.
My point, if I haven’t already hit you over the hit with it, is this: great art isn’t made out of confidence. It’s made out of vulnerability. The confidence comes later. It’s a choice you make first, and believe gradually. When you find yourself envying those who appear to have the confidence and bravery you want for yourself, remember that you are just as capable of making that choice as they were.
Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly. Amen, Mr. Kennedy.