How to Fail Successfully

I was recently asked to contribute to an article on “failing successfully.”

“I know you’ve been very successful and obviously have a great deal of experience,” the writer told me.  Experience in failing? Is that what she meant? I didn’t ask, because the truth is failure is a part of what I do, and that word doesn’t scare me, it doesn’t intimidate or embarrass me. It frustrates me sometimes, but it never holds me back.

But then I’m an artist. We’re conditioned to expect failure. We’re discouraged from entering our chosen fields by everyone from parents to teachers to friends. We’re told we’re going to starve, and for sure fall on our faces. We’re pummeled with discouraging statistics about how most artists never make a living from their work. In my world, only the brave move forward, the ones who say, “I’m not afraid to fail.”  Only the determined and self-assured succeed.

Whenever writers, for example, set out to write a book, we know from the start there will be a degree of failure. We romanticize it even; all those images of writers yanking sheets from the typewriter, crumpling them up, and throwing them on the floor.  All those stories about authors who were rejected dozens of times before their books were published. All those acceptance speeches citing ten years of sleeping on a best friend’s couch before finally making it big. We love those stories, don’t we?

But we feel differently when it’s our own projects that fall short. We complete a writing assignment or manuscript believing it’s perfect, but it fails to attract an agent or publisher. We publish our books, only to be met by scathing reviews. We announce our new titles just as a better-known competitor launches a book on the same topic. We do everything right, and the book still doesn’t sell in the back of the room.

In those moments, it’s hard to remember that failure is part of any artist’s journey, and from each failure we learn something that makes us better. We have to trust that there is no such thing as wasted effort!  Everything we try, whether it succeeds or fails, leads us on the path we are meant to take. Every rejection brings us one step closer to acceptance, and every failure brings us one step closer to success.

Do you know what failure really means to artists and creatives?  It means that unlike so many people who just dream of living their art, we are the ones doing it!