The Creative Failure that Led to Sigmund Freud’s Success

Why Even a Dead Page can have Purpose

Image: Sigmund Freud Collection, Library of Congress/Aggregate

In 1895, Sigmund Freud started Project for a Scientific Psychology, a monograph where he tried to explain all neuroses under a single framework. The ambition and expectation of the task brought trouble of equal magnitude. In Creating Minds, Howard Gardner writes that Freud “reveals his own despair at the magnitude of the task, the meager tools at his disposal, and the seemingly contradictory mission of laying bare what the psychic censors have withheld from introspection or consciousness.”

And yet, as Gardner highlights, Freud’s breakthrough work The Interpretation of Dreams can be seen as the successor to Project for a Scientific Psychology. The editorial note in Project for a Scientific Psychology agrees, “The immediate continuation of the ‘Project’ among Freud’s published writings is to be found in The Interpretation of Dreams.”

It was only after Freud finished Project for a Scientific Psychology, that he felt the doubts of it, “I no longer understand the state of mind in which I concocted the psychology,” he writes in a letter. He didn’t end up publishing Project, and it wouldn’t see the light of day until a decade after he passed away.

New creative work can always be built at the tail end of a creative failure. In Freud’s case, The Interpretation of Dreams wasn’t an immediate success either; only years after publishing did it cement itself as something that would change the fields of social science and establish the domain of psychology.

There are lots of reasons for us to do things that won’t work out well, especially because there’s a possibility that they lead to something that will. It’s possible, of course, that Freud could have come up with Interpretation without Project. But in practice, and in actuality, he made a monograph he couldn’t bring himself to publish, before he made the one that would cement his legacy. 

Writers sit on both sides of this, and I’m sure people in creative work of all sorts do as well. Mark Manson doesn’t force his writing when he knows it’s not good; why waste the time re-writing? But Danielle Steele advocates writing dead pages, knowing she’ll have something to work with after and that re-writing is easier than getting blocked.

Not every piece of work is meant to see the light of day; but maybe that wasn’t its purpose. The decision is yours to make.