If you’ve ever looked at a recent project, creative attempt or – hey, let’s be honest – scale and thought to yourself Why bother? I’ll never amount to anything anyway …
Then you’re not alone. In fact, you’d be on an island if you hadn’t had those thoughts.
Because we all have: the thick, icky glom of shame that comes with failure, and that seems to reach its grasping Gollum-y fingers far past the failure itself, and into the rest of your life.
Telling you you’re worthless. Telling you it was all pointless.
You know it does. Whether you’re a writer, artist or just plain Person Who Wants to Accomplish Things, this feeling is basically as normal as breathing. Because we fail. Plain and simple.
Now it’s time to discuss how we should experience that failure. Because it is inevitable, and it will come.
Now, you’ve heard this advice before about how to further your writing career. “Fail forward!” they say. “Experiencing setbacks is the only way to learn!”
Yeah, I guess. Mostly, though, when I hear advice like that, I want to punch someone in the throat and then go set fire to my latest manuscript/painting/Instagram staging area. For lo, I do not want to fail forward or in any other direction. And while I do want to learn, why is it so bad if I learn from, like, epically succeeding the first time around?
These are questions you doubtless ask yourself, and like me, you have doubtless become frustrated at points with the seemingly pat response given by the blogosphere as a whole.
Because basically, it’s crap. Failure isn’t incredibly valuable because it teaches you what not to do next time. Sure, that helps. But iteration for its own sake isn’t painful, so majorly missing the mark isn’t necessary in order to get better at something.
When working to further your writing career, failure is valuable for a different reason, and one that most people miss: Each and every time you mess up, let yourself down or fail to accomplish a task you’ve set yourself – publicly or privately – your brain learns to accept those feelings as reality. You teach your fragile brain, “Oh look! The sun’s still coming up!”
This is a hard lesson to learn. We instinctively shy away from doing wrong or looking small in the eyes of others. If we have even a whiff of a hint of a suspicion that we might muck it up, we experience strong urges to run in the other direction. A trajectory that, hopefully, contains comfort items such as dogs and fleece blankets and earbuds to block out the imagined sound of mocking laughter.
Stop lying to yourself. You know that direction is your favorite direction. (Or at least, it’s mine.)
Here’s where you get to make a choice. A choice between actually taking that path and recognizing that the path is there but ignoring it.
The truth about that path is that, too often, what lies at the end of it is not temporary comfort or recuperation from your recent experience, but total abandonment of the dream that led to the failure that led to The Fast and No-Holds-Bar Flight from Your Latest Venture.
As I say, not a good path.
The better path is just as painful but contains buried treasure at the end.
So here’s another story. The story of when I hit absolute rock bottom in my personal and creative life.
Not my work life, you understand; my creative life.
This particular failure is one I discuss in Get the Hell Over It: How to Let Go of Fear and Realize Your Creative Dream. It sucks so bad I’m writing about it twice, in the hopes that you can – contrary to the spirit of this chapter – learn from my missteps in this one area, at least.
I’ll recap quickly:
I’ve always wanted to author young adult fantasy books. As it happens, I now self-publish, but at the time, I was dead-set on getting a traditional publishing contract. After penning a 90,000-word manuscript, I headed to a literary conference to find an agent.
And I did. I was over the moon on signing the contract. My parents took me out to dinner. It was all falling into place …
… Until it turned out she wasn’t happy with the book, and three rounds of edits didn’t change that, and I was forced to walk away. It was the worst thing that had happened to me to date, creatively speaking. I almost gave up on the whole creativity thing entirely, except instead, I pivoted. I started writing copy to further my writing career, and found I was actually pretty darn good at it. I then did a brief stint as an unsuccessful designer, but soon enough I was back to the copywriting … and I’m still here.
The experience was worth it, and then some because I was forced to ask:
Do I want to be a writer for a specific kind of accolade, or do I want to write so that I can write all day?
If you guessed the latter, I owe you a drink. A virgin drink, that is, since I’m in AA and it wouldn’t be appropriate otherwise. (The whole rock bottom thing is starting to make sense now, eh?)
This stands of the rock-bottomest of all my rock bottoms, and I’m today, I’m so grateful for it. (The book thing, not the AA thing. Although getting sober is another of the best things that has ever happened to me, but that’s another story.)
I’m not the only one who thinks rock bottom is valuable, either. You don’t have to look far to find advice of this kind or this kind, crying the virtues of absolutely splatting on the pavement of this cruel universe. In fact, while many make the case for rock bottom in your personal or spiritual life, you can even find advice geared specifically toward entrepreneurs.
See, sometimes rock bottom pulls us out of a cycle we could never have broken on our own. I know that’s true for me, and I’m betting that in at least some cases, it’s true for you as well.
Even science says it’s true: Losing one identity can result in the positive generation of new and better identities through freeing you up to examine what’s possible now that wasn’t before. (Careful, though … if all you do is tear yourself down, you will receive none of the benefits of rock bottom.)
So, okay. I’ll assume you’ve now accepted that rock bottom is helpful.
But what is the mechanism by which you make use of it?
See, the question when looking to further your writing career is not, “Will I fail?” but “How will I choose to react when I do?”
And the answer is actually pretty simple: You must choose to transform your shame thinking into guilt thinking.
If your instinctive response to this is, “I’m sorry, you expect me to feel guilt for giving vent to my creative dreams and falling short?”
Well, no. I don’t expect you to feel guilt at all. But I know that you have some emotions, so I’m advocating that you transform the worst of them – shame – into the more useful feeling of guilt.
First, let’s distinguish between our society’s current perception of guilt as having done something morally wrong or blameworthy, and the true nature of guilt, which is far less … icky. The truth is that guilt as a feeling doesn’t have to be tinged with ugly motives. Guilt is just a feeling that we’ve done something we wish we hadn’t, and that emotion motivates us not to repeat our mistake.
Think about it: You can be guilty of overcommitting, poor planning or cavalier behavior. These are all areas where most people have experienced guilt without having to go to court over it.
This is really a different way of saying that you can choose to experience a failure (guilt) or be a failure (shame). Always choose the former, my friend. It’s much the better path through life.
Easier said than done, though, so here are a few tips:
Most importantly, remember that one failure is a terrible sample size. Frankly, so are five or ten failures. In the grand scheme of alllllll the things you do every day in life, one or two or seven missteps means basically nothing.
Think about having a bad date, or messing up a meal you cook or failing to please a new client.
Not only do these things become less painful the more often they happen (and you will have bad dates and meals and client experiences), but you become better at avoiding them. Personally, I’m not on the market romantically, but I cook meals and meet clients all the time. Mostly? It goes well. Sometimes? It goes wrong.
Or super wrong. Depending.
The takeaway, though, is that now when it goes wrong I shrug. A fallen cornbread just doesn’t bother me that much, because I will make more cornbread. A bad client interaction sucks and might even ruin my day, but it does not even touch my self-confidence because I have so many good client interactions to balance it out. I only get that balance through doing, though.
Celebrating rock bottom when you try to further your writing career does more than that, though. It enables you to learn from those mistakes by reinventing your failures as a good thing.
I realize how prevalent this advice is and how utterly ridiculous it sounds. I do. But it’s true. I can honestly say, in the last several years, that I have become excellent at zooming in on failures and asking questions such as: Why did this happen? What was my part? How can I stop it from happening again? What is the longest, slowest way to kill that person?
Then I take action. Maybe not on that last question (though I definitely still ask it), but on the rest of them for sure. The answers help me make right in the current situation, but also avoid future situations. Rock bottom, in other words, helps me further my writing career, create a better product, a better service, a better experience for my audience and a better life for me. Every shitty day I spent praying for it to end has the major silver lining of teaching me an invaluable lesson.
It will for you too … if you take the right approach.
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