I recently read a couple of articles in Writer’s Digest about “failing well,” called, “The Art of Failing Well,” and “Menaker’s Mistakes,” both in the January 2014 issue, as well as an article National Geographic, titled, “Failure Is an Option,” September, 2013 issue.
“The Art of Failing Well” was a mini-memoir, written by Scott Atkinson, about his adventures in creating a writing career, and all the failures that he encountered—publicly and privately—and how they all made him a better writer. How he’d been called out in a university class as winning the class’s “highest honor,” which turned out to be “…the distinction of being the class’s biggest failure.”
Mr. Atkinson also related about his failure with agents, manuscripts, and having been nominated for a Pushcart Prize—but not winning it.
In “Menaker’s Mistakes,” Mr. Menaker, a publishing industry legend (I read) discusses how one should keep all one’s failures in perspective…to focus on the long haul. He also said (and this kinda surprises me, because I’ve always been a “long view” kinda guy) that most writers in their 20s and 30s are mainly concerned with the work-at-hand and not working toward a career. I’d heard this from my ex-agent, and both times, it surprises me. For real? But, once I stop and think about it, I’ve seen the same mindset in my work life: nearly everyone I’d worked with on getting something done that involved distinct and separate parties to “play nice” with each other, behaved similarly: blinders on only for their immediate concerns. The future never seemed to matter.
Mr. Menaker’s long-view outlook also handles things like rejections/criticisms, expectations of perfection. And learn to forgive yourself. He says: “The past is the definition of inevitability. Regret, whether it’s professional or personal, is only useful if the lessons learned are applied to the here and now or plans for the future.” A great sentiment to take to heart!
In the NatGeo article, “Failure Is an Option,” by Hannah Bloch, which also gave some black-and-white photos that gave me the chills, cause they involve tragedy (and I seem to have a “thing” for arctic and antarctic wastelands…), it talked about how failures are needed, because they advance a cause. We cannot have successes without failures, and too many successes can breed overconfidence, which—in turn—can breed failure…
On a windy July day, in 1897, Salomon August Andrée set sail in a 67-diameter hydrogen balloon from Danes Island, in the Svalbard archipelago, for the North Pole (chilling NatGeo article photo on page 126). He reasoned he could circumvent most of the risk involved in such exploration exploring from the air. In short, he was dead wrong. The article points to many other failures, including Columbus’s failed attempt to sail to India, attempts on Everest (I always think about a book I read as a kid, about mountaineer Maurice Herzog’s conquest of Annapurna, and the picture of his frostbitten fingers, the flesh falling off those fingers…), Shackleton’s near-doomed trans-antarctic journey (creepy picture, page 130-131!), Otto Lilienthal’s giving up the body to flight, Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated global flight, Apollo 13, and oh, so many, many more.
“Failure—never sought, always dreaded, impossible to ignore—is the specter that hovers over every attempt at exploration. Yet without the sting of failure to spur us to reassess and rethink, progress would be impossible. (“Try again. Fail again,” wrote Samuel Beckett. “Fail better.”)” By Hannah Bloch, “Failure Is an Option, NatGeo, September, 2013.
Oceanographer Robert Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic‘s wreck (you know-who-you-are, why I mention the synchronicity of “Titanic“…) defines all this back-and-forth interplay the “yin and yang of success and failure.” Modern institutes are now recognizing the importance of failure, even setting up such organizations as the Institute of Brilliant Failures, as the Netherlands-based ABN AMRO bank has set up. We can learn much from our failures, as Ernest Shackleton did in his near-failed Antarctic journey. He turned his failed goal around and created a new goal—one of survival—and not only turned his mission around, but also managed his dire situation in such a way as to create a positive outcome. Was a great crisis manager, the article went on to say. He and his team survived (his dog team was, uh, not so lucky…). I also add to that that are other factors that play into such events and their outcomes, and they involve the more metaphysical. There are many brilliant, expert crises managers out there who were not so “lucky,” and it’s easy to armchair quarterback after-the-fact…but the fact is some survive extreme adversity and some don’t, and I maintain that it’s not always because of brilliant decisions, but one’s life or soul mission and “help from the other side of the curtain of life.”
In any event (surely, you saw this coming…), all of these articles offer much food for thought not only in one’s writing life, but in one’s life. We should all not be afraid to fail. We should all take chances and attempt to further and better our lives, in the areas of exploration we all choose, whether those areas of exploration are physical or mental. We strike out…we do…we reassess and rethink. Without failure, can we define success?
This is important. Do not let adversity, however defined, beat you down. There are a lot of naysayers out there, a lot of those who are actively and intentionally looking to tear you a new one. To find fault. Go around the rocks, my friends, but just keep going! Aside from not having fun in what you’re doing, there is only one other reason to ever stop…and as long as we’re breathing, stopping is a moot point!
So, fail thee well, my friends!