Fail Forward

Article by Darren Rousar.

da-1Henri Fantin-Latour, The Discouraged Artist (1865), detail.

Humans reflexively resist failure every time it presents itself. But when it comes to training your visual memory, you should embrace it wholeheartedly. Why? Because that’s how your visual memory learns, through failure after failure. It’s how you fail forward.

What is a Failure?

Relative to memory drawing, a failure is any error in your attempt at drawing from memory. It might be a small mistake, or a large one. Either way, a mistake is a failure. But as we shall see, that is a good thing.


If you’ve done any structured memory drawing you know that your memory drawing subject is the standard to which you are striving to match. For example, let’s say that the subject (known as your target) is a line of a specific length. Comparing it to a longer line (known as a control line), you see that the lines are not parallel to each other. You now have two facts that need to be represented in your memory drawing attempt.

Miss the mark by any amount in length and/or angle and the attempt was a failure.



Reread that last sentence. Notice I wrote that the ‘attempt’ was a failure. Also notice what I did not write – that the exercise was a failure. In fact, making the attempt at all qualifies as a success regardless of your result! That’s true even if you’ve made 10,000 failures1 over the course of innumerable exercises.

Failing is how one learns. And to fail, you first have to try.


Your visual memory is like a muscle. You can exercise a muscle, and you can exercise your visual memory. Muscles learn via failure, which occurs when an action is too much for them to handle. Fail at that action enough times over a regular period and the muscle will adapt by growing to compensate for the physical stress.

The same is generally true for your visual memory. To explain, I’m going to stay with the muscle analogy awhile longer.

As implied above, at least four things are true when exercising a muscle:

  • You need to stress the muscle on a regular basis.
  • You need to stress it to the point of failure.2
  • At each attempt the stress needs to occur in similar ways.
  • Follow the plan long enough and the muscle will physically grow.

So how does this relate to training your visual memory?

First, every time you exercise your visual memory you are putting it under some stress. I’d go so far as to say that this occurs every time you use it, exercising or not.

The second point is one of failure. When you notice a failure, and then deliberately pay attention to it before the next attempt, your brain makes an adjustment. In other words, it learns.

A corollary to that last point is one of similarity. The best subjects to use to train your visual memory are those that get progressively more complicated over time and in subtle ways. Therefore, tomorrow’s exercise should be similar to today’s, and so on.

Of course, the growth you experience will not stick around unless exercising your visual memory is repeated over time. Like a muscle, atrophy ensues without regular use.

10,000 Failures

All that brings us back to the concept of failure. This time, let’s visit it directly rather than through a memory. Take your pencil and draw a short line on some paper. Do it again on the same sheet, trying to repeat both the length and angle of the original.

Now do it again.

And again, until you succeed.

Whether you attempted that or not, it should be obvious that at each try your brain and hand muscles worked together to match the target. In a microsecond you judged length and angle. And you did so in comparison to the original. You also did it by comparing each new attempt to the previous failures.3

Those failures visually told you how much to adapt during the next attempt.

Fail Forward From Memory

When memory drawing the process is slightly different though the intended result is the same. Until you check your attempt, you will not be able to visually compare the target with your attempt.

In-between is when your visual memory comes into play.

Over time, through numerous attempts with multiple sources, your brain learns to remember what it sees. It does this in part by noting the previous errors – whether consciously or not – and then adapts.

The gateway to memory drawing success is failure, be it 10,000 times or more. So fail forward.

If you’re a subscriber to the Sight-Size site you likely remember another article with the title 10,000 Failures. That article and this are similar subjects though they are treated differently. If you’ve yet to read it, why not go read that one now?

1 The phrase, 10,000 failures comes from Scott Provence’s book, Fail to Learn: A Manifesto for Training Gamification.
2 Failure when exercising a muscle means finding the movement being done difficult to complete. It does not mean going to the point of immobility.
3 The flaw in the process described is the affect muscle memory has on the succeeding attempts. When memory drawing, muscle memory is not a factor.

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