Success through Failure

Denisa is teaching a class this semester for first year students, all about how to succeed in college. Today, she’s asked me to come speak to her class all about failure. “I was the first person to come to mind, huh?” I asked her. She gracefully dodged the question.

In all honesty, however, I do know a lot about failure, and I’m looking forward to talking to her class about it. Failure and success are completely interlinked, in my book. You almost never have success without failure first, and even once you have success, you will inevitably also have failure. It brings to mind the famous Michael Jordan quote:

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

The thing is, I didn’t always know nearly as much about failure as I do now. When I was going through high school, the times I really failed at something were few and far between, at least on a stage where it mattered. I applied to only one college, and I was accepted and given a full ride scholarship. I was the valedictorian. I missed out on a few auditions, which I looked at as failures back then, but for the most part I breezed by everything without too much effort.

My first real failure was when I applied to PhD programs in English. I thought I’d done everything I needed to be accepted. I felt confident. I was going to be an English professor. No doubt. And then I was turned down by all of them, one after another. That was pretty jarring. Suddenly I found myself in a new landscape. I didn’t have a backup plan, and I had to really scramble to figure out what I was going to do with my life.

Thankfully, things worked out. I bounced back from that failure, pivoted toward library science instead of English, and I’ve been very happy with that change. (So much so that I really feel like those rejections were for the best.) But ever since that huge failure, I’ve always been working on having backup plans, and backup plans for the backup plans. I never want to be caught in that situation again, where I’m so flat footed, and I’m left staring at my life wondering what in the world I should do next. (And even with all those backup plans, I realize sometimes I’m still going to be stumped by life. Thanks for the reminder, COVID.)

The same holds true with my writing. I finished my first book back in . . . 2001? 2002? Something like that. And when I was done with it, I kept revising and revising. Polishing. I wanted that first book to succeed, because I’d worked so hard on it. Finally, my creative writing professor (Louise Plummer) told me I had to start on a second book. “The first one’s done. Move on.”

Of course, now I’ve written 18 novels. Two of them have been published professionally, one self-published, and another one is set to come out next summer. If I’d always stuck to that first book, insisting it had to become a success, I never would have gotten to any of the others. Some of the books have done well, and some not nearly so well. But I’ve learned from all of them, and the successes have been built on the failures. I keep trying new things with my writing.

(I suppose in many ways I could trace some of that back to another failure that slipped my mind until now. My eighth grade English teacher didn’t want to recommend me for honors English in ninth grade. The reason? “I don’t think you’re a good enough writer.” I had to push through his resistance and enter Honors anyway.)

Anyway. It should be an interesting discussion. Would it have helped me to hear it back during my freshman year of college? I don’t know. Some things have to be learned on your own, I suppose. Maybe someone tried to teach me those lessons back then, and they just sailed over my head. Wouldn’t be the first time . . .

But hey: I got there eventually. Success through failure!


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