Monday, March 12, 2012

Letting Yourself Fail

I've been mulling over the idea of failure a lot lately. It's a concept I'm okay with in theory, but when it actually happens, I find I'm not all that okay with it after all. And for a while, the sting paralyzes me a little. Have you ever had that happen?

In November I had to write a short story. I had just a week to come up with an idea, put it on paper, revise it, and turn it in. It wasn't enough time to think clearly or worry. I decided to just have fun with it, try something I never otherwise would, take a big risk. I loved writing that story.

The thing was, I knew it was a risk. When I turned it in, I said, "Everyone in the workshop is going to point out this flaw and this, and they are going to hate this," and there was a whole list of things I purposefully did that I knew everyone would think I'd done by mistake.

And I was right.

As I sat listening to everyone discuss the flaws in the story, I smiled because it was like they were falling into my trap. I wanted to shout, "Mwahahaha!!! I did on that on purpose, for a reason!"

And then, about two hours later, I realized that even though I knew what the reaction would be, at least in part, and I'd done most of those things fully knowing that I'd done them, it still hurt to hear it flailed. And then I realized it hurt, because in part, they were right. No matter whether I'd done it knowingly or not, it didn't work.

It stung a little less when my workshop leader (and soon to be advisor) pulled me aside and told me it was good to fall on our faces every now and then, that we need to take risks and try new things and, yes, even fail. He insisted he's failed much bigger, fallen much flatter than I, although I doubt that because I still think he pretty much walks on water. But it was good to know he didn't think less of me.

And yet, when I got home, I found it hard to write. I've been frozen under that fear of failure. Part of that is a need to prove to my advisor that I really can write. It's one thing to fail once; it's another entirely to fail every time you turn something in. Every idea now needs to be perfect; every sentence needs to be beautiful and concise and necessary and full of tension.

I agonize for an hour over one word.

It's getting painful.

And I can't say I think my writing is better for it.

Today a fellow student passed on this video made by a friend of hers. It's funny, but also incredibly wise. Her advice, especially the example she gives at the end about filming a scene in a movie, resonated with me, and so I'm passing it on to you. It's well worth the six minutes!

Let's take the teeth out of the shark today, shall we?


  1. It absolutely amazes me how much our psyche can manipulate us. And that's really what it is - manipulation. Yet it comes from the same place that our creativity comes from - which makes it even more bizarre. Two forces that spring from one source are working against each other.

    Whoa. That was really deep for a Monday...

  2. I remember riding horses, and my instructor would tell me - you have the skill, all that's holding you back is your brain . . .

    I never knew quite how to take that, lol.

    I can't imagine the pressure and the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy I KNOW I would feel if I were in the program you're in.

    You'll get that easiness back, it just might not happen until you've finished with your program.

  3. " that if I fail now, I will not fail forever..."
    Something I wrote when I was 16 yrs old and it still resonates with me now. Trust yourself, trust in the gift God has given you, and His corrections, and you will flourish even more than you are now.

  4. Hello Heidi:

    I follow your blog on and off. This entry in particular resonates with me. I'm a writer and I write a lot, to exclusion of most other things. I rarely get to read books anymore, I'm so busy writing. Yet when I do come across something good, my first reaction isn't hey this book is great and rush to congratulate the author, no its a wave of self-doubt, that I really have no business writing. The psychopathology of this is unsettling, as I have invested lot of effort to become a writer/author (not on any professional level though), and I need that status for my own self esteem.

    You don't learn from success, you learn from failure--the mantra we all grew up with. It doesn't take the sting out of failure, but it does put it into perspective. I think the real damage from failure comes when you settle for it, and do not try again.

    So then, failure is an alternate door to success. It forces one to look into the mirror, to reassess oneself, to bring the inner and outer (public) self into alignment. To find the limits of oneself and look (and find a way) beyond them. Not to fail, is somehow like living in a bubble.

    Paul Tee, alive and well at

  5. Thank you Paul. You are pretty elegant yourself in expressing the upside of failure.

    I do think failure is important. It teaches us lessons we'd never otherwise learn. And it keeps us humble. :)