Many of you know that I have spent some time thinking about failure, how failure is defined, what it means, and so on and so forth.
Recently, as in possibly three weeks ago, I was feeling like an UTTER failure. You know, the kind where you think you will NEVER do anything, no one likes you, why are you even BOTHERING? Yeah, that kind. I wondered why my friends liked me, why my employer hadn’t fired me, and if anyone would ever want to buy anything I wrote. I was like: hand to forehead WOE.
I rode it out. I talked to people. I checked reality. An acquaintance reminded me this was chemicals swishing around in my body. Eventually the storm passed, I dragged my weary soul back to dry land and took stock. I was fine. Nothing had changed, really, only my perception.
When I feel like that, in the morass of it all, I still try to keep my agreements with myself. It helps me to not spiral further down. And in the midst of that storm, I applied for a writer’s workshop that is held in the fall. I thought I was unworthy. I wouldn’t get in. But I would bother, and I would let them decide, before I rejected myself.
Last week my friend Nicole recommended the podcast Magic Lessons, which is by Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame). I was a little skeptical, since I wasn’t a fan of the book. But I’ve heard at least one of her TED talks, and I trust Nicole. The first episode was an interview with someone that Gilbert was coaching. It resonated for me. I had downloaded the last one, and none in between. The last was an interview with Brene Brown, who writes amazing stuff around vulnerability. Gilbert talked about people who had leapt and the net didn’t appear. Brown said, “What’s worth doing, even if I fail?”
“What do you love doing so much the word “failure” doesn’t have any meaning?” Gilbert asked. They go on to talk about inspiration and what it owes you, about being present to the process of creation and not focused on the outcomes.
I was starting to despair about moving to the next level with my writing. Saturday I came home from hanging out with some writer heroes of mine. I felt so encouraged just from those conversations. I checked my email and I found an acceptance to a writer’s workshop on the east coast. I was so stunned I made my girlfriend read it out loud. After so many rejections, it just seemed … so easy.
But when I stop and think about it more, I have been steadily working on improving my writing, however slow my pace might be. Most of our effort is like the part of the iceberg that’s under water. We only see the tiny fraction that sticks above it. And the truth is, most successes are built on many, many failures. There has to be effort and feedback and recalibration. There has to be support and encouragement. And in the process of applying for writing workshops, I have continued to make the effort.
So I’m thinking about my relationship to failure, to my ideas around failure, and the position I hold with regard to it. What would it mean if I take the idea of failure off the table? This is going to be a huge challenge for me. As I told my friend Daryl on Saturday, I’m horribly extrinsically driven. I like pleasing other people. And deadlines. Daryl suggested knowing these things could help me hack my brain into producing. So I’m going to consider that. There is no one right way to do anything. It’s the doing.
So I am going to keep plodding. And plotting.
Nice one, Jill, my cousin! I so appreciate what you have shared – the importance of continuing to move forward, amidst the feelings of failure. And how exciting that you will be attending the workshop! Bravo!! xo
Thank you Katya! It’s good to be reminded (always) that I (we) are not alone.
First I have to say, congratulations on getting accepted into the workshop Jill! I’m so excited for you!
I’ve read this post each day since you posted it, trying to figure out how to express my gratitude for the wisdom here. Your timing could not have been better, I’ve been feeling this way for the past several weeks too. I’m studying photography to pursue it as a career, and don’t think if I have that special talent for it. It’s also been discouraging to me that I don’t get support from my friends and some relatives as well. It’s a very competitive, (which I learned the hard way recently too) But there’s nothing I want to do more than this. I’m going to apply your always amazing advice! I’m going to keep plodding and plodding along with you.
Thank you so much, Afsoneh.
I’m sorry to hear that you are feeling so discouraged. I don’t know so much about talent (and I despair about whether I have it, too), but I do know that diligence and focus and work are crucial components to making art. I wish when I had started trying to write and expressed a desire to write that I had gotten more encouragement. Your passion will carry you far. Keep trying! And I’m honored to have your company!
Hey, Jill! 🙂 Congratulations on getting into the workshop. Yay!
Lately, I’ve been deep into A/B testing and iteration for ad campaigns. What does this have to do with failure and the literary world? So much!
In the past, when something didn’t work in my stories, even after I persisted and tried and tried again, I’d usually do a 180 and try something totally different. Eventually, one of the many wild things I threw at the wall would stick. Usually, it was something totally unrelated to my starting point and miles away from where I really wanted to go.
In the world of measurable response to ad campaigns, I quickly learned that it’s the very small changes that make a HUMONGOUS difference. Sometimes an entire page of sales copy is spot on, but the headline needs a small tweak. Or maybe it’s just that paragraphs need to be broken up into shorter units with empty space in between. Small. Result-Oriented. Change.
You mention the importance of “effort and feedback and recalibration.” Yes! Effort without feedback and recalibration is like saying, “I drove in that direction and I ended up plunging into a lake. I tried it again and again and ended up in the lake every time. I’m not going to drive down that road ever again. I give up. I failed. Blah, poor me.”
But what if we instead used the feedback of having plunged into a lake to recalibrate our course? Just the slightest turn of the wheel would make all the difference and get us back on the fast lane.
I wish I had gotten more of this education as an artist. Most schools of thought tell you to do what you love and to hell with what the world thinks. No!
Without responding to feedback, our efforts will end up in frustration and futility. We’ll sink into the lake time and time again. Eventually, if we’re stubborn enough, we’ll also drown from sheer exhaustion and disillusion. Test. Test. Get feedback. Recalibrate. Test again.
Caveat: 90% of the time, our peers are not our audience. We must figure out who our audience is in order to get the right feedback. Otherwise, we’re following GoogleMap directions for a different city. No! Don’t go that way! Can’t you see there’s no road?! Holy…. Watch out for the effing cliff!
Matrix Oracle / Zen Takeaway: There is no failure, just feedback. Feedback helps us know which way to turn the wheel so we can get to our destination. My shiny newfound marketer’s two cents 😉
I owe you sushi next time I’m in Seattle. Hugs!
So that’s my long-winded, over-excited way of saying that getting out of my head and focusing on small, measurable actions has worked wonders for me. The benefits have gone beyond the job to touch every aspect of my life. I send you love and hugs <3
Thank you dear Karina for your wonderful response! I love it! Small changes can have huge impacts. So hard to remember when in the midst of it all.
Let me know when you are here! I can’t wait to hug you!