5 Things To Do When Things Don’t Go Right

Steve Buckwalter

April 4, 2018

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” ―Thomas Edison


As a creative, there will come a time in your life when you’ve put a lot of time and energy into a project and in the cold light of day, you realize it’s just not very good. The feeling usually starts in your gut that something isn’t quite right. Your work is no longer engaging your intellect, your emotions, and most importantly, your creative energy. Something is just not clicking.

This type of creative collapse can happen at any stage of a project, and figuring out where to go from here can be difficult. While self doubt can feel crippling to an artist, you can’t let it stop you. Instead, use it as a tool to propel you forward. It’s all part of growing as an artist and as a human being.


After recognizing the problem, take a step back. Walk away and think about something else; whether it’s a few hours, or a few days, or a few weeks. Recharge in ways that work best for you. If you’re an extrovert, go out with friends and talk about something else. If you’re an introvert, read a book or watch a good movie. I often find that returning to a project I’m struggling with after a break allows me to it in a new light.


Once you return, consider watching or sharing your project with someone else in person. I find in doing this, I’m able to see the project through someone else’s eyes, and I realize all the ways I was biased toward my own work because I had fallen in love with its idiosyncrasies and had convinced myself it was working. This is why movies are screened for test audiences. By simply reading survey responses, you could be led astray by the way people think about how to respond. The best responses are the visceral ones that people make in a theater while watching the movie. If they aren’t laughing out loud at the laugh lines, then you know your movie isn’t funny. You can’t get that honest reaction on paper.


Where you go from here depends on a few factors. Work backwards through your process and identify all of the things that aren’t working. If there are more things not working than are working, maybe you need to go back to your initial idea and keep working at it to find a new way of expressing or developing it. But don’t get trapped by the sunk cost fallacy that assigns value to something just based on how much you’ve already put into it. You need to judge the value of a project by its future value and ignore the amount of time or money you’ve put into it already.  That time and money is gone and there’s nothing that will bring it back, so don’t get trapped in a bad project for something that is never coming back.


On the other hand, don’t give up! As an artist, the most important thing you can do is create, and if you find that you’re consistently walking away from projects, then you’re allowing failure to fuel self doubt. Finish the project you don’t feel good about and use it as a learning tool. By identifying your weaknesses, you learn how to avoid them in the future. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Learn to find value in honesty, both in yourself and in the opinion of others. Maybe the things you hate about your work are the things that actually make it unique and personal.

And finally, never stop creating.