I know. It’s weird to think that failing can be one of the best things that happens to us as we pursue our dreams and goals. Most of the time, we’re extraordinarily focused on one thing: achievement. We have planners and calendars, reminders and apps, all helping us to keep on task, to do the next step, and then the next, until we reach whatever goal we’ve set. And it seems logical, doesn’t it, that we do it this way. After all, most people don’t want failure.
But the thing is, failure is going to happen. If you never fail at anything, ever, then you haven’t set your goals high enough. If you can easily achieve what you set out to do, then you aren’t challenging yourself, and pretty soon, you’ll be in a rut. Challenges, though, mean that it won’t be easy.
There’s risk for anything we try that’s outside our comfort range–risk of failure, which might mean embarrassment, shame, guilt, frustration, and fear. Pile too much expectation on the outcome of whatever task you’ve set in front of yourself, and then fail? And you might find yourself derailed into a paralyzing state of fear and depression, too afraid to try again because risking yet again and having to suffer failure yet again is the heart-stopping equivalent of jumping off a cliff without a parachute… and it’s a long long long way down.
I understand that fear. I’ve had failures in my life, suchspectacular faceplants, both career-wise and personally, that I understand being immobilized with the fear of trying again. Or pushing a little harder to do a little more. I was recently talking about this with my friend, CJ Lyons, who’d undergone some of her own difficult times in her life, and I asked her about that. Now, keep in mind that CJ hit the NYT at #2 and the USA Today at #4 — and that was for all books, print and ebooks, just last year. Prior to that, though… well, here, let her tell it:
“By many standards I’m a failure.
Although I’ve been a writer my entire life, I didn’t sell a book until I was 40.
Although that first book was a hardcover, pre-empt deal, and earned cover quotes from a dozen NYT Bestsellers, including Sandra Brown, it was pulled 90 days prior to publication because of cover art issues. That’s right, my dream debut was never published.
After 17 years of practicing medicine, I’d left to write full time, and suddenly had no book, no contract, no career, leaving me unemployed for the first time since I was 15.
My agent for that first book left me high and dry. I had to scrape up the money to buy the rights back to my own book even though the reason it died such a lonely death had nothing to do with me.
I got a new contract from a new NYC publisher and the first book (my “real” debut) was a bestseller. But the second in the series, a year later, had a drastically cut print run, a major book chain’s computer “lost” it in their system, and the print runs for each subsequent book were slashed to the point where it was mathematically impossible for more than 10% of the people who bought the first book to ever, ever buy the finale of this award-winning critically acclaimed series.
Or that I’m now busier than ever writing books my fans are clamoring for.
Or that by the end of this month, I’ll have sold a million copies on Amazon alone.”
I met CJ about the time that she was scraping up that money to buy back those rights, and I’ve gotta tell you, she had a lot of obstacles stacked against her, and a tremendous amount of obligations encroaching into her time. It wasn’t easy. The one thing that I’ve admired from the start is her determination to keep trying. If A doesn’t work, she’ll try B. If B doesn’t, then C. Then D and E and on and on until something works. Because stopping isn’t the answer. Letting herself be beaten isn’t going to happen because she keeps trying new things. Eventually, with that kind of perseverance, something’s gonna work.
What an amazing trait to have.
I asked her about that, and she said:
“That doomed first book got the attention of my second publisher. And while fighting for my rights back, I wrote the book that made me a NYT Bestseller. Plus, I’ve gone on to publish that first book and its sequel myself and have earned back five times the money I was originally offered.
That doomed series, sliced and diced by computer generated print run decisions, earned me a group of rabid fans, several awards, critical acclaim, and caught the attention of a celebrity, one of my personal heroes, who I co-authored two new books with.
Working with that celebrity gave me new insights into my writing, gained me national media attention, and gave me the financial security to give my indie publishing venture time to take off. Leading directly, six months later, to a banner month where I hit the New York Times list at #2, made the top five on the USA TODAY list, sold 150,000 books, and earned more in one month than traditional publishing had paid me the previous year.
This has led to two new contracts with NYC publishers and over a dozen foreign publishers, the start of two new series, speaking engagements all over the world, and having seven books hit bestseller lists in a single month.”
It’s normal to want to stay down for a while when you’ve been knocked down. I’ve done it. I’ve done it recently. It’s hard to have something not work the way you want it to and to let fear crouch on your shoulder and tell you all the ways this next thing probably won’t work. But ultimately, failure is a tool. That’s all it is: a tool for learning.
Edison famously took something like a thousand tries in order to invent the light bulb. Someone asked him once how he felt about failing so many times and he said (and there are so many variations on the quote), “I didn’t fail. I simply found 1000 ways not to make a light bulb.”
And you know, from that perspective, everything changes. Sometimes, we’re not going to find the right answer first. Or even fifth. Or tenth. Sometimes, the right answer won’t appear until the 25th try, or, God help us, the 1000th. But stopping means there’s absolutely no possibility for success.
Failure is simply a tool. We can use it by looking at it objectively and dissecting what didn’t work: if it’s something we have control over, or if it’s something beyond our control. We can choose not to make ourselves crazy by acknowledging what it was about that event that we couldn’t control, and letting go of that–we can’t have anticipated it or changed it? then let it go. Beating ourselves up over something that we couldn’t have affected the first time out is not only a colossal waste of time, but it just exacerbates the loss and we end up sinking more time into something that’s already over. So we fail more. However, when we dissect the failure, we can look at the variables that we do have control over, and start experimenting there. Maybe it’ll be big leaps of faith, or maybe it’s simply fine tuning our methods, but we can try again. And again. And again. Until we succeed.
So how about you? Do you have something in your life that you want to pursue, but fear of failure has held you back? Or have you got good advice or a good anecdote of a failure–or a success–that you can share? We’d love to hear.
(Meanwhile, check out CJ’s latest — the revamped and new version of her bestselling book, Blind Faith. I know you’ll love it!)