Monday, September 14, 2009

Failing Well

One great secret to success in life: Failure.

More specifically, the ability to fail well. To shrug off your failure and come back just as hard as the first time. It's what makes champion sportsmen, successful inventors and industrialists and every career artist/writer/actor/dancer/musician/creative type you'll ever meet.

Thing is, that's harder than it sounds. Failure is hard on the ego, and failing at something you really, deeply care about can be devastating.

Or not. Thomas Edison failed something like 3000 times before he got a light bulb to work. Walt Disney was turned down by over 100 banks before he was able to finance his first amusement park. Actors get turned down at one heck of a lot of auditions for every part they get, and there isn't a writer alive, no matter how bestselling, without a fair-sized stack of rejection letters behind them.

Failure is how we succeed, *if* we don't let it get the best of us. And how do we do that? How do we take those rejections, those hard knocks, and come right back swinging?

The key is how we explain our failures to ourselves.

The ones who stay down when they fall, or need MUCH more time to get back up, are those who see their failures as Pervasive, Powerful and Permanent. For example, Joe Writer gets a rejection letter. He thinks, "I suck at everything (Pervasive), this letter proves it (Powerful). I'll *never* be any good as a writer (Permanent)." It takes him a week to work up the nerve to send the next submission, if he doesn't just stick his manuscript in a drawer and give up. After all, he's no good, right?

Those who bounce back do it first in their heads. The better they see their failures as Isolated, Weak and Temporary, the better they do on their next performance. Jane Scribbler gets her rejection letter too, but she is able to think, "It's only one letter (Isolated), and just one market (Weak). Somebody's bound to say 'yes'."

I know, this perspective is easier to say than to do, especially when your latest setback has you feeling like you've been kicked in the guts. But, if you want to succeed, learning to fail well is vital.

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One side point: Denial, Distortion and Projection are also effective ways to deal with failure. Effective, but not exactly healthy. Refusing to allow that failure into your mental landscape (Denial), reshaping reality to meet our mental needs (Distortion) and pushing the causes of our failures outside ourselves (Projection-- often persecutory in nature), these are elemental ways our ego protects itself from damaging information.

Thing is, what protects our ego often blights our character. Blocking failure robs us of the opportunity to correct the causes of our failure and eventually succeed. Nothing good can come of this...

17 comments:

liz fenwick said...

Brilliant - but is there one that is half way between PPP and IWT - because I think all depends on what else is happening when the failure hits.....
lx

Charles Gramlich said...

I tend to have an internal locus of control, which means I see my failures as being due to myself. I don't see them as permanent though, at least not usually. I always figure with more work I can get better.

elizaw said...

Actually, I can name a number of writers that were never rejected. Ever hear of Scott Lynch? He's writing a series of novels called, "The Gentlemen Bastards", first titled, "The Lies of Locke Lamore"? He never even sent a query letter. This guy posted his prologue to a writing community, and someone in the book industry saw it, asked for everything he had, and bought it before it was finished. Now it's a big, best-selling fantasy series.

... That said, I agree overall with your thoughts. But some people get lucky. Some people struggle. Some people don't make it.

Steve Malley said...

Liz, you're right: most of us, our reactions fall on a continuum. And while a rejection letter might seem huge coming on the heels of divorce and the death of a family member, that same letter wouldn't have much impact the day after a lottery win. :)

Charles, my way of looking at life, that internal locus is a very good thing. My very first reaction when I suffer a disappointment is to look at what I might have done better. I think our society offers a great many examples of what can happen when people refuse to look at the part they play in their own failures...

elizaw, Scott may have been one heck of a lucky writer, but it's hard to believe he still doesn't suffer the evils to which all flesh is heir. Disappointment, failure and sorrow come to us all, in life, love and in art.

Angie said...

Excellent post, very true. I'll admit I have a hard time of it now and then, but on the whole you just have to keep going. I think that "permanent" part is the most harmful. [ponder]

Oh, and great pic. Very apt. :P

Angie

Steve Malley said...

Angie, any one of those three can be utterly toxic if left unchecked. And any one tends to lead to the others, a self-destructive spiral that can turn the sky to ashes.

Once, in a bad breakup, Powerful got the better of me. I knew that the end of that relationship was isolated (just one part of my life) and temporary (I was a little jaded for that 'I'll never love again' stuff), but I spun out pretty bad on the thought that I was on an endless treadmill of infatuation, intimacy and inevitable heartbreak. It just didn't seem worth bothering. And that stain began to taint everything else...

Oh, to be nine again.

Angie said...

Steve -- I guess what I'm thinking here is that no matter how bad the other two are, if "permanent" isn't in there, there's some thought that things can or will change, and that you'll get past it eventually. I certainly agree, though, that any of them can be devastating.

Angie

cs harris said...

Much here to ponder. I must admit I tend to see failures--at first--as pervasive, powerful, and permanent, with much weeping and wailing. It usually takes a few days before I can put things in perspective.

My mother was always quoting me Sir Andrew Barton: "I shall lay me down to bleed awhile then rise to fight again.." I guess it taught me to stand up again and keep going, but I may overdo the laying down and bleeding part a bit.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

This all makes good sense. And I think you have to believe you can do whatever it is you are trying to achieve, even if others don't think it's possible.

Riss said...

I must have good timing in reading this 'cause I'm working on learning how to be a transcriber and I am getting my butt kicked at the moment. I've been doing the same bs three times in a row because the program thinks that I need to add this or that, etc. etc. grr...I'm never going to get this (c: Kidding. But yeah, good advice. I'm going to go apply some of it now.

Lana Gramlich said...

Good points, but Walt Disney may not be a good example. Disney totally SUCKS, they own 1/5 of all of the mass media in the US (i.e.; ABC News, etc.,) & policies created for the benefit of Walt Disney World have really f*cked over a lot of people. Disney's a great example of the continued benefit of an evil empire above that of the people. Freaking Christian Conservative propagandists at the core.
Ugh...sorry...end rant. Great post. Failure sucks. It makes me do crazy things & think stupid things about my own stuff from time to time. I've found that the key (for me,) is to just do what I want to do. To heck with the world. ;)

Miladysa said...

Very thought provoking.

"failure isn't a word in my vocabulary" was a saying often quoted to me as a child.

Shauna Roberts said...

I've had good luck with Denial. I don't see that my character has been damaged by it, but maybe that requires the Distortion and Projection as well.

A lot of meat and vegetables for thought here. Thanks, Steve.

Steve Malley said...

Candy, I tend to counterpunch before I get a chance to feel the pain.

Every rejection letter I got for my first novel, I sent another query out right away, then curled up in a ball, felt worthless, looked at what I could have done better, etc. Pretty much how I roll throughout my life. :)

Steve Malley said...

Ralph, I'm a big fan of Thoreau, myself: "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."

Riss, glad you found something you could use. As always, take what you like and leave the rest. :)

Lana, old Walt was anti-semitic, racist, oppressive to his workers and, in many, many other respects, a dickhead.

Steve Malley said...

Miladysa, I got 'Trouble ain't nothing but opportunity in its working clothes.' :)

Shauna, Denial is the granddaddy of all coping mechanisms. Some psychologists say the others are only there to cope with the little bits that denial can't handle.

Other psychologists say those psychologists are wankers. But more politely, of course!

Avery DeBow said...

Yes, but distortion is so much fun...