BIG TALK: On being a Winning Loser with Annette Wagner

Big Talk is our long-form interview about Stuff That Matters. We interview rad people who are also passionate experts in their field. We can often get lost in the little details of day to day life and the intention of Big Talk is to get you thinking about the bigger picture, while perhaps learning something new. 

Our first Big Talker is Annette Wagner, a creative and creator of the Winning Losers Project- a forum for failure. For the past week, and for the next week, everyone will be focused on who's winning in the world. We figured now was a time as ripe as any to talk about the flip side of that coin- Losing. 


Describe yourself in 140 words or less

I am an experimental creative. Problem solver. Writer. Artist. Idea generator.

After years, and years, in design, advertising and marketing, both client side and in agencies, in various roles, delivering the same, same, but different stuff, the rewards haven’t been the soul satiating outcome I expected.

So after some serious internal reflection, realisations, and the wonder of kids, I’ve been leaning into what satiates me the most, being a better creative. I’m passionate about conceptual arts, innovative thinking and fearless doing. There is reward, and happiness, for giving things a go, and constantly falling short of perfection!

I still do all the clients important business stuff, the dollars, deadlines and distribution, and the general demands of boring washing and kids lunchboxes, but, my deal, the thing that makes me want to participate in life, is creating things in all different forms.

The thing that makes me want to participate in life, is creating things in all different forms.

Now, let's flesh it out a bit more- what do you feel were some monumental moments in your life?

Discovering and exploring the world and most importantly, discovering a love that is reciprocated which has and continues to support me. A love that has brought two amazing little people into our world and more recently allowed me the time to revisit my life purpose. I’ve been doing a lot of internal cleaning lately, clearing out old habits and beliefs and allowing new adventures and opportunities to unfold. I’m looking forward to allowing many more monumental moments to come.

Tell us about the Winning Losers project. How did it come about?

Not fearing failure is an important message to remember and the Winning Losers Project is a concept that I started exploring when I created a range of awards to celebrate failure, in an age when many of us fear it the most. I needed to convince myself first that putting my creativity out there, without fear of failure was possible, and I desperately wanted to demonstrate this to my own children.  It’s OK to be monumentally mediocre, but stubbornly persistent. Even better to be disappointingly crap, but demonstrate extraordinary perseverance. After a positive response, and lots of conversations, I only recently launched the Instagram Winning Losers Project handle to create the forum of failure. I love that so many people want to reframe their vulnerabilities positively by sharing their fails, and celebrating the lessons.

It’s OK to be monumentally mediocre, but stubbornly persistent. Even better to be disappointingly crap, but demonstrate extraordinary perseverance.

What is a failure story that you've heard that really resonated with you?

Choosing money over your life values. Who hasn’t? We’ve all been there. Its hard to not feel the pressure of competing. Or find yourself in a position where you have to sacrifice something that is important to your very souls values and beliefs, just for money. Its such a consumer world we live in, I find it drains and distracts me in many ways, but I’m getting better at listening, stopping and really considering what is important to me, so I can make the right choices. We all have a choice. Sometimes they don’t work, so we learn.  

What is one of your biggest failures?

Choosing money over my life values! For years I perused a career in finance for seemingly nothing in the end. The money I earned, I lost during the GFC and the time I invested in my career, I cringe at now because of the criticism and lack of support I experienced. But, I am grateful for that time, I gained so much and the lessons learned have been invaluable. Sometimes you need to veer off course to realize that it isn’t part of your life purpose and what you think is important because its what everyone else is doing, actually isn’t important to you at all. 

Sometimes you need to veer off course to realize that it isn’t part of your life purpose and what you think is important because its what everyone else is doing, actually isn’t important to you at all.

As an artist, what is the thought process (or grieving process?) after an idea/ event/ situation fails to come into fruition? 

I used to avoid trying altogether because of that fear of failure. Now, I’ll give anything a go. It's a confidence skill in the end I think and I try to practice being confident, and courageous as often as I can.

I like revisiting lots of low tech processes, the avant-garde for our modern era! Nothing makes my head space feel more free and fulfilled like painting a little gouche picture, or immersing myself in an art project by tying a sign to a street post for passing cars to read which I’m off to do later today!

 Image from Annette's instagram. 

Image from Annette's instagram. 

I’m not sure I grieve when things come to an end, as even if they don’t go as planned, something else unexpected happens, and I forget to grieve. I explored so many creative ideas before Winning Losers came to be anything. It's the second time in my life something has come from an idea that I’ve not been 100% convinced on. The first thing was my husband! I’m not sure I’d say the other creative ideas ‘failed’ quite yet either, as I think they will take shape eventually too.

In your experience, is there a relationship between failure and creativity? 

Absolutely. It was possibly my biggest disabling thing fearing failure, which caused procrastination, avoidance, dependence and so many other excuses. I can proudly say my list of fails continues to grow! But, failure is a matter of perspective and I am learning to use failure to my advantage. I practice turning it around. Turning it into motivation, believing in myself and taking on the challenges by letting myself feel out of my depth, uncomfortable, confronted and exposed. That uneasy feeling doesn’t last for long in the scheme of things. I’ve stopped caring so much about what other people think in the end, being mindful that what is important to me is that I tried, even when my berating internal voice reminds me about the last time I tried something new! 

In your opinion, what do you think is behind society's fascination with winning (or better yet- why do we avoid discussing failure)? 

It’s something that’s ingrained in us early somehow, watching our parents back a team sport, playing sport ourselves, peer pressure, societal pressure, personal expectations, and even the GPS ETA can become a nemeses! Not to mention the Olympics which is about to consume our thoughts internationally, and we won’t be focusing on the person who came last in the race, yet, they are faster and more focused than most of us will ever be. To just be in the Olympics is a victory in itself, isn’t it? Winning Losers is all about reframing that conversation on failure. I don’t profess to know if giving all the kids who participated in a race and didn’t win a medal works either, but encouraging people to try, if that’s what they want, has a good thing. Encouraging someone to try something, that becomes a talent, can be something amazing to watch grow.

What do you wish you could tell everyone you meet? 

Our expectations are often harder and higher than what others are for ourselves. Take small steps to try doing what it is that makes you happy and if you don’t know what that is, then open yourself up to experience life and it will find you. I just read this great article in The Guardian, James Rhodes: ‘Find what you love and let it kill you’. It is actually a Charles Bukowski quote and I love it. When most people die, their wealth isn’t what is celebrated- wills often just cause resentment amongst those that live, so why not find the thing that you love and are most passionate about, and let it kill you?!

Our expectations are often harder and higher than what others are for ourselves.

Where do you see Winning Losers in a year? What is the next step? 

I’m hoping the Winning Losers Project continues to grow and gain momentum. I’d like to increase the contributors to be international and of all ages. I’m especially looking forward to sharing the Olympic Winning Losers, as I aim to share some lists of those that came in the last three places of some events!  I do have lots of plans and ideas to expand the project, I’ve just got to start giving them a go and I’ll remember, that even if they fail, so far its been well worth it!