Making the Most of Failure

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

These past few posts, we’ve been talking about making writing resolutions and putting them into action.  As we start the new year, I thought I’d add one last post on this topic, only this time with words of wisdom I’ve collected over the years from various creative people.  We can make big plans and dream up fabulous scenarios but ultimately, we have to come to terms with the fact that sooner or later we will fail at our resolutions.

This is probably not what you want to hear and it’s certainly not something I want to say, but the truth is that as soon as we set a goal, we are opening up ourselves to the possibility that we might fail.  After all, if our goals were so easy that failure was impossible, then they’re rather wimpy goals, aren’t they?

If failure is so inevitable, how do we keep ourselves from giving up?

 Focus on bouncing back.

The core skill of innovators is error recovery, not failure avoidance.
~Randy Nelson (Pixar executive)

According to an interview with top Pixar executive, Randy Nelson, when looking for new innovators to join the Pixar team, he doesn’t so much look at whether an individual has failed at something in the past.  Rather, he explains that what he cares about is how that person bounces back.

This, of course, makes perfect sense.  After all, everyone makes mistakes now and again and if we spend our whole lives avoiding failure we’ll end never taking worthy risks or trying anything challenging.  Next time you make a mistake or slip up on something, don’t waste precious energy worrying about what’s already happened.  Focus on what you can do moving forward to fix the problem.

You are NOT your project.

Don’t say “I failed.”  Say “this failed” and move on.

Someone (I can’t remember who it was) said this to me in passing and while I can’t remember whose words these were, the words themselves have made a lasting impression on me. In fact, I jot this quote down on the inside cover every time I start a new writing notebook so that it’s the first thing I see every time I start writing.

Remember: just because something didn’t work out the way you wanted doesn’t mean that you have failed.  Maybe that project just wasn’t meant to be.  Or maybe you need to approach it in a different way.  But none of these things make you a failure.  You are not your work.  Once you’ve gotten comfortable setting that boundary, you’ll be able to face just about any hurdle.

Make it better.

Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.
~Samuel Beckett

My very first design teacher used to say “Make it better” to every design we brought in for critique.  This didn’t mean that the design was bad–in fact, many of the students in the class presented projects that were quite creative and well-executed.  The teacher’s point was that no matter how good your design, you can always try to find a way to make it even better.

The same is true in writing (or any creative endeavor, actually).  You try, you fail.  Then you try again and you might fail again but that time you’re closer to getting it right.  In the words of Beckett, you “fail better.”

Whatever direction you choose to go, you’re always going somewhere.

If you come to a fork in the road, take it.
~Yogi Berra

Sounds like a silly quote, right?  In fact, many people quote Yogi Berra for humorous effects but the truth is that some of the things he said actually made a lot of sense.  For instance, it might seem obvious that if you come to a fork in the road you should take it, but the beauty of this statement is in its simplicity.

Sometimes you have to make a tough decision (choosing which road to take) and a lot of people get stuck making that choice because they’re scared.  What are they scared of, you ask?  Failure.  I’d be willing to bet that every person who stalls in a decision is doing so because he or she is afraid of making the wrong choice.

But what if you just assume that there is no right and wrong?  What if you just choose and deal with the challenges that pop up when they appear?  Every decision you make propels you forward toward something.  The trick is adjusting your trajectory when you realize your current route isn’t taking you toward your goal.

Imagine the impossible…

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
~Lewis Carroll

…and figure out how to make it possible.

My dear friend, clear your mind of can’t.
~Samuel Johnson

I once attended a panel discussion about science fiction and how television executives, writers and movie directors envisioned all those gadgets and technology of the future.  One of the panelists said something along these lines: “it’s easy, you just take technology we have now and move it ahead 20 or 30 years.”  If you think about it, all those great sci-fi movies and TV shows of the twentieth century did just that.  Look at all those classic James Bond spy toys or the communicators they used in Star Trek… they work a lot like smart phones or other modern-day gizmos, don’t they?  The point is, sometimes you have to imagine the impossible (and what’s more impossible to imagine than something that hasn’t happened yet).  Of course, imagining the impossible will only be useful if you also think of ways to make the impossible possible.  Don’t say “I can’t,” say “how can I?” and do it.

These quotes have helped me deal with failure and challenges in my own work and I hope they will inspire you as well.  Sometimes all it takes is a little fire beneath one’s backside to help a writer go from “I don’t think I can…” to “Bring it on!”

So go ahead and show the world you’re a literary bad@$$.

  • Lovely post! Thanks for this. Picking ourselves up and trying again is probably one of the hardest things for us writer types. Some wonderful bits of wisdom to get us motivated for 2012.
    Thanks!

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