Like all creative types, we writers have a pretty hefty fear of failure. We fear that we’ll never get published, that we’ll never be able to write a second book. We fear our sales will tank, our reviews will be brutal, that we’ll never have enough readers to build a career.
Even “fear of success” is really the fear that we will fail at success, that we won’t be able to rise to the occasion.
We’re bashed about the head and heart by our fears so much so that it often paralyzes us.
But it is possible to happily embrace failure and even make peace with it. Because sometimes with failure comes the freedom to soar.
The reason we fear failure is because our egos are fragile like spun glass. We fear, not the act of failure, but how it will make us feel about ourselves. Or how it will make others feel about us, which will, in turn, affect how we feel about ourselves…because most of us judge ourselves through the eyes of others.
Unfortunately, by avoiding failure, we’re doing ourselves a huge disservice. According to Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., in The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life, our self-image actually suffers if we try to avoid failure:
“If we avoid hardships and challenges because we may fail, the message we are sending ourselves is that we are unable to deal with difficulty — in this case, unable to handle failure — and our self-esteem suffers as a result. But if we do challenge ourselves, the message we internalize is that we are resilient enough to handle potential failure.”
If our self-image is that of thinking we’re lousy writers, avoiding the possibility of failure actually reinforces that negative self-image. We don’t think we can handle failure, so we make sure it doesn’t have the opportunity to happen to us. We don’t write. We don’t submit. We stick to safe, boring ideas instead of that spark of brilliance that’s just waiting to burst out of us.
In her Harvard commencement address in 2008, The Fringe Benefits of Failure, J.K. Rowling said of her life before Harry Potter, which had included divorce and living on welfare, “Failure meant stripping away of the inessential…I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea.”
It was only when Rowling felt like a complete failure in her life did she finally take a chance on that big idea. She realized that failure hadn’t killed her so maybe, just maybe, she could handle taking a chance on her boy wizard. She was able to soar because failure had given her freedom.
Surely you’ve failed at something before, too. Haven’t we all? Think back on your biggest failure. Did it completely ruin you? Are you a broken, beaten-down human being? Or did you bounce back?
I’m betting, because you’re here, you did a bit of bouncing. You’re thinking about writing as a career. You have ideas and words and characters in your head. Which means you aren’t a hollow shell of a person incapable of surviving failure.
We have all succeeded at beating failure of some sort in our lives. Which means we could survive it again. We just have to be willing to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt that we could not only survive failure but thrive.
Here’s an exercise for you to try: Think of your biggest failure, writing or otherwise, and write it down. Explain what happened, how you felt about it, how you got over it. Did you learn anything from your failure? If so, what? Get it all out on paper. You may be surprised to find that it looks much different from the perspective of time and a little objectivity.
It may actually show you that you have the resilience to handle anything.