The importance of failure

As a teenager, Aaron Paquette and his friends loved the outdoors—so much so that they convinced their parents to let them camp out in the wilderness to test their survival skills.

They brought no food and no water, relying instead of traps and lines to find their next meal and melted snow for something to drink. It didn’t go as planned. It was the middle of winter, and Paquette and his friends were on an island in the middle of a frozen lake. After a couple of days, their traps remained empty and the ice was too thick to cut through and fish.

With time running out, Paquette and his friends began talking about trudging across the lake to find a sled full of supplies left by their parents.

“We were pretty hungry,” he remembered. “We thought by the fire that night, ‘somebody is going to have to go across the lake to the sled.’”

That somebody ended up being Paquette. When he got to the sled, he found a pack of wolves waiting in the trees nearby. When he started hauling it back across the ice, they followed him. What resulted was a wild attempt in the middle of the night to outpace the pack while listening to the ice crack and splinter underneath his feet.

After a minute or two, Paquette thought they’d given up the pursuit, only to turn and see a large wolf trotting beside him just a few metres away. He froze in fear, and shouted out to his friends for help. They came to the edge of the island, but only one friend would come out to help him. That friend started howling, Paquette joined in, and the wolves turned around a left.

Although it was a nerve-wracking experience, Paquette looks back on it with humour, especially since he found out afterwards that his dad and a few other parents were camped close by the whole time in case things got out of hand. Today, he remembers the experience for the lessons he’s learned, which have helped him as an award-winning artist and author.

“What it taught me is that it’s okay to let people go off, or to go off on your own, and try things and fail at them,” he said. “The best teachers are the ones who will let you go and do that.”

This story is one of several Paquette tells when he speaks to audiences. His most recent trip brought him to Prince Albert on Saturday, where he delivered the keynote address at the second annual Parts for the Arts professional development workshop.

While Paquette has a number of messages for new artists looking to develop their talents, he returns over and over to importance of confronting and overcoming fear.

“Everyone’s got this fear that they’re not good enough,” he said. “The truth is, we’re never going to be good enough. No one is, but you have to start, because it’s through that effort that you actually get better. If you’re not failing, you’re not succeeding.”

Paquette speaks from experience. Although he’s now nationally recognized as an award-winning author and artist, the path was a rocky one.

He didn’t expect his painting to amount to much, and temporarily gave up his dream to become a forklift driver. He wasn’t confident in his writing either, only finishing his young adult novel ‘Lightbringer’ after his wife read the first three chapters and urged him to finish it. These days, he’s now asked to paint at places like the Royal Alberta Museum, and ‘Lightbringer’ is an award-winning Canadian best seller.

It’s easy to forget those early fears, but Paquette still remembers, and he stresses to new artists that it’s important to take risks, try new things, and sometimes even fail. He sees events like Parts for the Arts as essential to helping them along.

“We all kind of need someone, some group, some circle, some relationships that are going to keep pushing us forward and just that knowledge that when we fall it’s going to hurt, but at least there’s some hands to help cushion that fall,” he said.

Even though he’s firmly established in Canada’s arts scene, Paquette still looks for new challenges and new risks to take. His latest has him entering the world of municipal politics. Roughly one year ago he successfully ran to become an Edmonton city councillor, and has since added committee meetings and budget votes to his regular schedule. Like his artistic career, it hasn’t been easy, but he’s confident that taking the lessons he learned from the creative side of his life will serve him well in politics.

“It’s actually been really fulfilling and adventurous,” he said. “I’ve definitely ruffled a few feathers, but I also tend to be super practical. Some of those feathers that have been ruffled don’t like it. At the end of the day, you look at what I’ve actually put forward and it makes sense for people. It makes our community better. It makes people’s everyday lives better, so sometimes bringing forward interesting or different ideas, while it can be unorthodox, it also helps to make life better.”