Sunday, 18 September 2011

The continuum from failure to success

A while ago Sarah Duncan blogged about the struggle many writers have with failure. (You can read her interesting blogpost here. And do trawl the rest of her blog for useful writerly things here). She started me thinking.

I struggle with the term 'failure'. It suggests we can divide endeavour into those who achieve, and those who do not. Some years ago I tried to climb Kilimanjaro. I was within six hours of the top before giving up. Was that a failure? Surely even trying was something to be proud of. And altitude sickness had stolen my appetite, so I was unable to consume the 4000 calories a day needed to keep myself warm and carry on climbing. Although I drooped with disappointment at the time (even, at one point, forgetting how grim it was and wondering if I should try again), looking back it doesn't feel like a failure. I didn't do badly, given that I was fifty at the time, and my fellow 'failures' included a marathon runner and PE teacher.

I wonder if it all begins in school. Teachers smothered my sums with red crosses; I believe I'm hopeless at maths. We had terrible 'team-choosing' times for games, with the sporty girls as captains selecting equally sporty friends to join them leaving the lumpy and unco-ordinated (me) to be one of the last. (Tell me they don't do that any more?) Failure had a very public meaning then.

Is writing, or learning to paint, or taking exams, or playing golf - so very different? Okay, there are pass marks, there is evidence of not doing so well, but I don't think we can separate ourselves so crudely into those who achieve and those who fail. There are degrees of not doing well, of not really trying, of being defeated by circumstances. And sometimes there comes a point where giving up is the sensible, realistic, or timely thing to do.

Surely what's important is to try, and to enjoy the trying.

And, as for the writing - like most, I could paper the bathroom with rejections. This is not, I would argue, evidence of failure, but rather than I carry on trying. That, I hope, is something to be proud of.

Or do you see it differently? Does the idea of failure leave you weeping? And how do you define success?


  1. I totally agree with you. To resubmit after a rejection is certainly not failing and in my book even thinking about climbing Kilimanjaro would be an achievement so well done for getting within spitting distance of the top. I used to hate school team selection methods too. I was always the one no one wanted!

    I would define success as doing what you enjoy. In our case it's writing so we're all a success, right!

  2. Sadly, yes they do still do that in P.E at school, as my twins (one sporty, one not) can testify.

  3. Jo, thanks so much for this. I have a bad tendency to think I'm failing at something, and completely forget about the trying. The trying is so important. If you don't even try, you're never going to get anywhere. You achieve something just by trying. I needed this post to remind me of that.

  4. Absolutely! How would anyone dare suggest that your Kilimanjaro experience is a failure and therefore the same as someone who'd never attempted to climb it (e.g. me!)?

    It's cheesy but true that the only real falures are those who don't even try. If writers quit after a single rejection - or even multiple rejections of a single MS - think how few books would exist!

  5. Thank you all - glad I'm not the only one who clings to a distinction between failing and never trying in the first place.

    And CD, I'm glad this post was timely - hang in there.

  6. I do like these provocative questions. Is there a distinction between trying and not trying? Is there any glory in trying if there is no despair in failure? Isn't failure when you don't try and does it matter if you don't try at all or only try a little bit?

    I think if you don't try to achieve what you want to or stop trying to achieve what you want to its all failure.

    On the other hand, you don't always have to achieve what you set out to to be a success. You are allowed to re-evaluate and decide that what you have achieved by trying is enough even if it isn't what you set out to achieve. You can even decide on a change of direction. You can only do that by trying.

    So it seems to me that if you are happy to have achieved so much by getting so close to the top of Kilimanjaro then it was a huge success and an amazing achievement. But if you still see it as a failure, if you still havn't achieved what you want to, then perhaps you should give it another go. (Don't tell your daughter I said so)

  7. Mark - I think we are saying more or less the same thing. It's the 'not trying' that is worse than anything. And re-evaluating success over time means that it becomes a flexible - dynamic - concept that is allowed to adapt to circumstances, additional learning, etc.

    Ah - not getting to the top of Kili - yes, I was pretty gutted at the time. And possibly, 10 years ago, if I had taken diamox and shoved unwilling calories down my throat, I could have done it. And maybe it was an important lesson - there are some mountains I just can't climb.

  8. I think it's easy to feel like a failure once the brown rejection letters start rolling in, however it's more complicated than that. Not trying at all is definitely the biggest failure, because you're not even giving yourself the opportunity to succeed. However, while I may not see myself as a failure if I don't achieve everything I want to, not sure I'd see myself as a success either. Perhaps there's some kind of middle ground between failure and success?

    Hated that 'pick me, pick me' PE thing too. I detested sports at school, so was never first in line in anyone's team. Can't believe they still do it.

  9. Helen - yes, I think presenting success and failure as opposites helps nobody. They lie on a continuum - and maybe we slide up and down the continuum during our writing efforts. But labelling ourselves as a failure when the brown envelopes plop through the door doesn't help - we tried. That's more than many people do.

  10. I don't like this word... "failure." I usually think about it as unfulfilled expectations. It is easier that way because when some expectations are unfulfilled there is always something else that might be be fulfilled. Hope it makes sense.

  11. Marina - yes, thanks, it makes perfect sense. I also think 'failure' is such an unhelpful word!