How to be a failure

I talk with the authority of failure - Ernest with the authority of success. We could never sit across the same table again. - F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’ll be honest, I feel like a failure about 85% of the time. Whether it’s about exercise, eating sugar, or more generally and nebulously as a writer….it is a problem. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I firmly believe that, if you have a particular thing you want to achieve, and that thing is hard, then wrestling down your own self-doubt and fear and negativity is at least 50% of the battle. It’s as important as technique, maybe.

I’m also fairly certain that this feeling is fuelled by social media, where we all broadcast our best sides and nicest selfies and yummiest breakfasts (me too). No one Instagrams the Ginster’s you had in the M25 service station, or the way you look first thing in the morning, wild-eyed and facing yourself again in the mirror. I think the problem with social media is that it makes us feel like failures over things we didn’t even want in the first place. Feeling we lost a race we weren’t even running. Other people have houses and haircuts and holidays, so I do want these things? Or am I happy enough with my life as it is? It’s hard to hear your own internal voice over the hubbub.

One thing I would really like to change about myself is feeling like a failure, but also being so  afraid to fail. For many years I was so afraid of not succeeding that it stopped me writing. I knew this was what I wanted, and I was deeply resentful of other people who’d done it, but in my head I had already failed. Despite the fact no one had even seen my work! So lately I have been wondering about reframing this. What if, when we started out with writing (or whatever else it is we want to achieve), we built the failure into the plan? We told ourselves it would probably take at least two books to get published, or at least ten scripts to sell one, or that we’d have 153 days of feeling like running is going to kill us, and wanting to lie down and die on the road, before we get good at it. What might happen then? If it didn’t come as a shock when the ride wasn’t easy, but rather as an expected stop on the way?

To this end, I have started to collect failure stories. I’m reading Syd Field’s book on screenwriting just now, and it is very good. He includes a story about F. Scott Fitzgerald, who went to Hollywood in his latter years, broke and beaten-down. He tried for three years and got nowhere – only one small rewrite credit to his name. His last novel (Tender is the Night) hadn’t sold well either, his wife was deeply unwell. He may well have died feeling like a failure.

I also like JK Rowling’s Harvard address on failure (published as Very Good Lives), in which she describes her state while writing her first book: “I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.” She also racked up rejections for both Harry Potter and for her Robert Galbraith books, which she’d bravely sent out anonymously.

Another thing she says is this: “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.”

In other words, failure is a great opportunity to re-calibrate to that inner voice. I failed at something. It hurt. Do I still want it? Yep, still want it. And so you carry on, sure that the thing you want is worth it. So maybe instead of failure we need to think of it is ‘not quite there, not yet’.

Here are some more ‘failure’ stories that might inspire you (like did you know Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school twice?)- do you have a favourite one?



3 Comments Add yours

  1. Morag Fraser says:

    I guess i’m wondering how we recalibrate to accept failure when it doesn’t result in us going on to greater things; when we simply get it badly wrong and can’t recover anything from the situation. There will doubtless be a path to acceptance but how to feel better meantime…

    1. A good question…I have failed at several things irredeemably, but I usually came to see that I didn’t actually want them or they weren’t right for me in the longterm.

      1. Morag Fraser says:

        …and maybe the things we fail at can be things that we were once good at and may no longer be, for whatever reason

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