Wednesday, February 17, 2010

On Failure

I was watching last night when Lindsey Jacobellis failed out. For anybody who isn't following the winter Olympics, Jacobellis is a snowboarder. At the last winter games, she had a solid lead for a gold medal in the snowcross racing event. But she stumbled just short of the finish line and had to settle for silver. This year, much was made of her comeback moment. She did interviews, NBC ran features on her, she got endorsement deals. It was a Big Deal. An athlete seeking redemption, or in the words of Bob Costas, a chance to "silence her critics once and for all."

But Jacobellis didn't even make the finals. In the semi-final, she kind of bobbled coming off a jump, then clipped a gate, and her race was over. It didn't look like much, honestly, and it was probably the kind of thing that's happened to her a million times before in practice and during lesser races. But this time it cost her.

I watched the replay a few times. Right after she went out of bounds, she raised her hands as if to say, "How can this be happening?" Then she stopped and just looked down the hill, where her Olympic dreams were racing away from her.

At the same time I was watching this, my wife was watching a girl get cut from the final 24 in American Idol. I didn't see it, but she said this girl broke down and begged the judges for a chance. My wife said it passed the point of spunk and just got embarrassing. This singer, who came so close, just couldn't understand that the decision was made, it was irrevocable, and her own want—no matter how large it was—meant nothing.

I kind of understood how this feels. I've never failed on such a big stage, or so publicly, but I've definitely notched up an impressive list of failures. The worst, of course, came just last year, with a massive book rejection.

Contrary to what they say, I don't really believe failure builds character. Failure is just failure. What builds character is what comes AFTER the failure. Sometimes I think we place too much emphasis on emotion, too much care and thought are given to processing and recovering from and understanding a failure. Is it really that hard to understand? Jacobellis bombed her race. My book wasn't good enough. Or as Simon told the American Idol contestant when she asked what she did wrong, "You just didn't sing as well as they did."

If I could give my kids any wisdom I've learned from getting kicked in the teeth over the years, it would be this: "Feel whatever you have to feel, but DO what you have to DO." After you flame out, go ahead and throw a pity party, doubt your talent, get angry, get sad, cry your eyes out, get drunk, sober up and get drunk again, annoy your friends with forlorn emails, curse the powers that be ... do all these things. But whatever you do, don't QUIT. Stay in motion. Keep writing. Keep singing. Prepare for your next event the way you've prepared for every other event. Let the emotion run its course, move through the stages and let it drain away. But the one thing you can never, ever do is give up, because once you've done that, then all you'll ever know is failure.


Erica Orloff said...

This is an effing brilliant post.

One I believe.

Unfortunately my suck-it-up beliefs were honed by being so sick for so long. But I remember ONE night in the hospital when the dreaded "chemo" word was coming up again . . . and when at the end of it, after it took me two YEARS to get off high-dose prednisone, in one sucky fell swoop, I was back on massive doses and TPN. And I remember being in that hospital bed feeling SO friggin' sorry for myself. So I gave myself 8 hours. I cried. I called friends. I wailed to my parents the unfairness of having an autoimmune disease. I asked the universe WHY. The answer I got back was BECAUSE. And when the 8 hours were up, I told the Universe it hadn't beaten me yet. Not ONE moment after was wasted on pity.

I've used the same technique for other things. I give it a time limit. Might be an hour. Never longer than a day. And then I move on. Because it IS what you do after that defines you.

Melanie Avila said...

Can I please tape the last paragraph to my forehead? (so other people can see it)

As you know, I'm going through a bit of a difficult time right now, but I'm so sick of all the "I don't know how you get through the day without crying comments." Really? What good does that do? Yes, I'm sad. Yes, I feel sorry for myself (just a little bit), but no one else is going to live my life for me so what's the point in wallowing? Maybe that makes me a stronger person than some, but really it's just me living my life.

I love Erica's idea of a time limit. That's pretty much the way I work too. Sometimes I'll watch a sad movie and let myself feel miserable, but when it ends, I get up and do my thing.


ROFL. My wv is "unchi". And here I feel so balanced.

LurkerMonkey said...


I believe it ... I don't usually give a time limit like that, but when I start to get frustrated at myself for wallowing too long, then I know it's time to get back on it.

LurkerMonkey said...


Unchi rules!

I totally understand. Receiving sympathy, which is usually (hopefully) offered with the best of intentions, is NOT my strong suit. I prefer to see the strength in the action, if possible, rather than dwell on the consequences. I put myself out there ... no one MADE me do it. So sure, maybe it sucks when things don't go the way I hoped, but the fact is, I'm still driving the boat. I can imagine you feel a little bit the same way right now ...

Mark Terry said...

I'm completely with you on this one. Completely. I run into some folks, very successful ones, and I wonder if they've ever failed. And I figured they must have, because we all do. I guess it's the Kobayashi Maru all over again, damned Star Trek. How we face failure and how we deal with it is the important part.

(I would also note a recent article about the state of California in Time Magazine where they commented that with so much entrepreneurship over the last 2 decades, most people have several failed business ventures behind them and there's almost an attitude of, "Well, if you haven't failed a couple times, you must not be reaching high enough." Interesting thought.)

E. Flanigan said...

OK, this post reminded me of that Winston Churchill quote:
"Never, never, never, never give up.”

But then I went on an internet tangent and saw a couple other Churchill quotes I'd forgotten:

"Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”
(Lurker, I think that's what you're saying ....)

AND my favorite:
“If you are going through hell, keep going.”

Smart guy, that Churchill!

Jude Hardin said...

I don't know. I don't think it's even reasonable to allow an industry as fickle and arbitrary as publishing to determine success or failure. I'm sure every writer, on every end of the spectrum, has at one time or another thought about saying, "Fuck it."

It all just depends.

Sometimes "Fuck it" can absolutely be the right answer. Sometimes it's better to just move on.

LurkerMonkey said...

"Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”

I should probably have this engraved on my headstone or tattooed somewhere inconspicuous.

LurkerMonkey said...


Boy, I dunno. I've actually thought long and hard about this since I read your comment, because I essentially agree that sometimes, people spend a lot of time pursuing a goal that is beyond them. Sometimes people are not well matched to their dreams ... a 5'1" guy will never play in the NBA. That kind of thing.

But beyond that—beyond a fundamental and incontrovertible mismatch—I realized I don't agree with what you said. Not exactly. Here's why. It's not just publishing that's fickle and arbitrary. It's all of life. We're not owed anything, ever. I can't speak for everyone, but I think the important thing—the thing I would tell my kids—is that you must KEEP GROWING. Sure, effort without growth is wasted. You're right about that. But growth ... this requires being open to what's possible, open to the process, open to becoming better than we are because we're willing to risk the parts that hurt the most.

People who are actively engaged in this kind of growth never benefit from giving up, because this kind of growth carries profound rewards of its own. Can it guarantee that a book will get published, or that you'll cut a hit single? No. Of course not. But I firmly believe that, in the end, the value we take away from this arbitrary and fickle life is in direct proportion to how much of it we are willing to let inside.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Failure is just one of the challenges we face. We all have them. I sat in on my kid's conference last night and his teacher basically said, "This is hard for you. It's not about 'it sucks' or 'why me?' We all have our challenges and this is yours."

I, too, use a time limit. A day on short stories. Longer on novels, if I really wanted it. But I try to keep a lot of stuff in circulation. That helps the bite a lot.

Erica Orloff said...

Lurker . . .

Your comments to Jude are pretty much mirrors for how I feel. I would also say . . . that publishing is fickle and arbitrary, but as has been bandied about on THIS site and others, there's a bar and a standard that is LESS arbitrary. I might not be able to tell you why something great doesn't get published, as happens. Or why something I personally don't like DOES. But I can tell you very clearly why a hundred or a thousand or even ten thousand adequate or meh things DON'T get published. Why they just don't "quite" make the mark, or why they are not special enough. It's not entirely a bar without reason.

LurkerMonkey said...


Me too ... I keep enough irons in the fire at any given time that it lessens any particular sting. Actually, I'm about to finish this novel and I'm already looking forward to querying it, but I've also got partials and fulls out to agents for another book right now and a NF book proposal at yet another agent. So you never know what'll pop.

LurkerMonkey said...


I know! And it irks me sometimes that there's a whiff of elitism when anybody points out that the NY process is difficult precisely because it weeds out thousands and thousands of blah manuscripts ... no, there is a difference between books that have been worked over by multiple publishing professionals and ones that were merely printed. The few exceptions on either end aren't enough to move the needle ...

Jude Hardin said...

Personal growth is always a positive thing; but, if chasing a dream is doing your life more harm than good, then stepping away from it might be the wisest course. It doesn't necessarily mean that "all you'll ever know is failure." Maybe by stepping away you'll experience growth, and success, in another area.

Merry Monteleone said...

I've been paging back and forth between your post and Erica's last two, which 1) kind of makes my head want to explode but in a good way and 2) makes me really grateful that you're both blogging.

Nathan Bransford did a post maybe a year and a half ago. He asked the hypothetical question: "If God came down and told you you will never ever publish." And there was no exception, no way around it, it just was a fact and you knew out of the gate your writing would never be published, would you stop writing?

More interesting than the question was the response. Hundreds of commenters waxed poetic about how they couldn't breathe without writing and how no one could tell them they'd never publish. Most of them would not allow the thought even in theoretical discussion.

And all I could think was, "If I knew for sure my writing would never do anything but sit in boxes and on hardrives, I'd find something else to do." Which many would say makes me not a writer. But I think it makes me a realist more than anything.

I would write in some form or fashion but I definitely wouldn't do all of the research and work end of things you have to do when you're aiming for publication. But even in that theoretical scenario, I wouldn't consider my writing time as a failure. You learn something, get something, have something from everything you do and all of the things you've learned can be translated into other parts of your life.

Failure isn't about rejection, or not getting published. Failure is quitting. Laying down in the dirt and not taking anything away from your experience. I think that applies to failed businesses and marriages and any other thing society would call 'failure'. Not achieving a goal can mean you weren't destined for it or that you haven't worked hard enough yet... but the only way that becomes true failure is if you won't use the lessons to propel yourself on to something else.

We all like to put a destination on our dreams. When we're not published, it's getting our book on shelfs, or maybe it's the best seller list if we're really optimistic. But you can hit those goals and still fail after that. Look how many great movie stars and exceptional talents get to the heights of their career and wind up broke and down a few years later. It's not about the destination... not matter how far you get, you determine your own success or failure and it's in the journey, not the final stop.

Paul Greci said...

Hi Lurker Monkey,

I've always been a believer in staying in the game if that's what you want to do. Most of us aren't going to stand on the podium with a medal around our neck, but when you stop moving forward you have no idea where you may have ended up.

The first two rounds of rejections on my novel made me dig deeper and push the story in places I thought I'd already pushed it.

And, yes, moving thru all the emotions that come up w/failure is key. Feel them, let them pass thru you, and then move on, or use them as fuel, whatever your process is.
Thanks for a thought provoking post.

LurkerMonkey said...


Failure isn't about rejection, or not getting published. Failure is quitting. Laying down in the dirt and not taking anything away from your experience. I think that applies to failed businesses and marriages and any other thing society would call 'failure'. Not achieving a goal can mean you weren't destined for it or that you haven't worked hard enough yet... but the only way that becomes true failure is if you won't use the lessons to propel yourself on to something else.

Beautifully put ...

LurkerMonkey said...


Thanks for stopping by!

I don't know if you're a fan or not, but as I was writing that part, and I was reading your comment, I was reminded of the Bene Gesserit Litany of Fear. It has the same cadence:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain

Ashlynn Pearce said...

I love this post. It's a mantra I tend to live by.

One of my favorite sayings is -- You don't have to be what your past makes you.

In a nutshell, it means don't let past bad experiences create you. Use it as a jumping point on to something bigger and better.

I had a very shoddy upbringing (probably putting it nicely) but I never wanted that to rule my life. I wanted to do better, bigger & greater things. I wanted a better life. I firmly believe that is what got me where I am. Had I wallowed in self-pity...I would still be in that horrible place.

Here's to people who rise above it all! *cheers*

E. Flanigan said...

What really blows my mind about resilience is that science is finding genetic and neurobiological markers for it. So your ability — or inability — to keep going in the face of rejection, failure, etc. is partially preprogrammed. Environment is part of it, but some of it is the package you're born in.

That's why each of us has our own issues with experiencing failure. It takes a while to even figure out what's going on in your head, in your habits, in your attitudes and assumptions. Once you figure out how you're set up, you can try and work with it.

In working with young kids, I do a lot of tasks to identify their learning styles. Give a 2-year-old a set of stacking cups, or colored chips to sort, or a box they can't open, and you'll be amazed at all the variations in how they solve the problem. Some kids will try to fit a large cup into a small one repeatedly for 15 minutes without recognizing that it isn't working, that they need to try a different strategy. Some kids give up so fast, they never even figure out what the task was about. They throw it down and move on. And everything in between. Are we really so different???

I do believe there IS such a thing as failure .... not just when people quit or give up, but actual failures where you try and don't succeed. When I throw a gutter ball, it's a failure. Yes, you could say I had fun, or maybe I will learn something from it. But there's no denying that on the objective measure of knocking down bowling pins, I failed. We all fail. It's OK.

That's why the real question always is, what should happen next? And depending on how you're built, the answer changes.

LurkerMonkey said...


I like that ... we aren't what we were.

If we were, then I'd probably be in trouble :)

LurkerMonkey said...


Yeah ... what you said. If only there was an easier way to figure out what works individually when it comes to overcoming.

Jude Hardin said...

Is Harper Lee a failure because she quit writing?

What level of success must one attain in order to walk away and not be deemed a failure?

Quitting writing (or whatever) doesn't make anyone a failure. It just means s/he has decided not to do that anymore.

Paul Greci said...

Thanks for the cool poem. I wasn't familiar with The Litany of Fear.

LurkerMonkey said...


It's from Dune ...

LurkerMonkey said...


You are free, of course, to interpret quitting however you like :)

And Harper Lee didn't quit writing after TKAMB. She just didn't publish anything else because she was never satisfied with anything else she wrote.

Jude Hardin said...

Hmm. In an interview one time she said she never wrote anymore because she'd said all she wanted to say with TKAMB.

Anyway, this was a very eloquent and thought-provoking post, Jon. You obviously have some passion for what you're doing, so you should definitely keep doing it.

LurkerMonkey said...


Check it out:

I don't mean to impugn Lee, who wrote an amazing book, but I think her issues with TKAMB fame are fairly well-documented. Perhaps the biography is wrong, but then again, we'll never know because she won't talk about it.

Erica Orloff said...

I think it's impossible from the EXTERNAL to know why someone quits. For one person, they may quit because they have simply had their fill, it's not a passion any longer, they have a new passion, whatever.

For another, they may very well quit because they are, in a word, afraid. Maybe of rejection, of the hard work that comes with really mastering something (whether that's obtaining a black belt or getting published), of exposing themselves (if I TELL people I want to be published and then don't achieve it, people will see me as a failure), whatever.

EVERY person has the dark night of the soul for whatever it is they have to face. We CAN'T know. But I think Jon's post was really an eloquent defense of not letting conventional failure and fear stop you. Of sucking it up and moving on.

I love Camus's quote . . .

In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer. ~Albert Camus

Jude Hardin said...

But I think Jon's post was really an eloquent defense of not letting conventional failure and fear stop you. Of sucking it up and moving on.

I agree.