Learn to Fail

I get asked a lot about what advice I have for beginning writers.   I’ve been thinking about this question a lot: there are so many ways to answer it.  There are so many things to say.

But lately, I’ve decided that I think one thing is more important than all the others.  This is my one piece of advice, the thing I think everyone going into the arts needs to do:

Learn to fail.

That sounds stupid, right?  Any idiot can fail.  And that’s true: any idiot can do work that yields bad results.  But to fail and keep trying–to fail and learn and grow–is a skill.  If you want to be a writer, or any kind of artist, or maybe any kind of person, I would suggest that it’s a skill you should learn.

People get really uncomfortable when I talk about my failures.  I can’t use that word without watching people squirm.  Then come the excuses.  You’re not a failure!  they exclaim.  Don’t say that!  It makes me angry, actually.  I don’t like it when people try to take my failures from me.  I worked hard for those.

Let me tell you fact: if you can only be happy when you are rewarded by resounding success, you are not going to be very happy as an artist.  No artist I know–not even the biggest, most successful, most lucky artist–succeeds all the time.  If you have to succeed all the time to be happy, don’t go into the arts.  In fact, you might not want to go into this life thing, because life is full of failure.

It’s okay not to win.  It’s okay not to do well.  It’s okay not to get what you want.  It’s simply not true that you can have succeed at everything all the time.  That’s not the way it works.  There’s no shame in working hard for things that never come to fruition.  There’s no shame in saying the wrong things, doing the wrong things, messing up everything.

You don’t have to be perfect.  Successful people are the ones who aren’t so afraid of failing that they don’t try.  Successful people are the ones who fail, and after they have failed, they figure out what went wrong and try again, doing things differently this time.  And sometimes they fail that time, too, but they keep going.

Happy people aren’t people who don’t fail.  They’re people who know that their own failure is not reflective of their worth, of their goodness or value as a person.  They are people who know that everyone makes mistakes, that performing badly at first is a part of learning.  Happy people know that we’re all always learning.  Happy people are people who allow themselves to fail, but don’t let that failure haunt them or define who they are.  Because they’re allowed to fail, they aren’t afraid to try again.

Don’t try take my failures away from me.  I won’t let you have them.  I value them more than I value my successes.  I don’t get to decide most of what happens to me.  Really, everything I control about my life comes down to one thing: I get to decide what I will try.  That’s it.  The results are, for the most part, out of my hands.

Do results matter?  Yes.  They matter.  They matter for lots of things–feeding your family, maintaining relationships, contributing to your community.  Does effort matter?  Of course it does.  Results are about other people, but effort is about you.   You matter.   Your development matters.  You will get better at things you practice.  At first you will fail.  Later, you will fail some more.  You will finally succeed, only to fail again.  And it’s only when you turn around and look back that you will discover that the failures taught you as much or more than the successes.  And with what you’ve become you can turn around and deliver results–maybe not the ones you tried and failed at, but good, meaningful ones that will be beneficial to other people.  Results and effort are not a binary.  They have a reciprocal relationship, and always, always, they dance with failure.

Learn to let yourself fail.  Fail at that.  Try again.  When you’ve mastered it, learn to let yourself fail and be happy.  Fail at that.  Try again.  Finally achieve it.  Then, learn to let yourself fail and be as happy as if you had succeeded.

And on that day, you’ll be the bravest artist who ever lived.