I hate failing.
Have ever since I was a kid. When I’d do something wrong, even something as small as a couple wrong answers on a spelling test, I’d get this horrible sinking feeling in my gut and it would just sit there like a lump of coal. I’d go to bed that night with the terrifying certainty that I would be forever judged by that failure. We’re sorry sir, I’d imagine a faceless personification of the future telling me, people who don’t score well on spelling tests aren’t allowed to go to college, or get good jobs, or ever have fun again.
If I could just figure out how to be better at things, I thought. If I could just figure out how to never make mistakes or do anything wrong, why, then I could be a success. Because that’s how successful people did it. By being perfect.
So there you go. Want to do well at life? Just never do anything wrong. Ever.
Then something funny happened. I started to learn more about these successful people, and I discovered that not only did they fail, they often failed repeatedly. Spectacularly. Sometimes even disastrously. See, I was missing a key thing. Failure, as painful and un-fun as it is, is also immensely educational, often more so than success. The pain and self-reflection that failure causes can lead to personal growth that we’d never have experienced had we only succeeded.
I learned this first hand in a big way when I failed quals in grad-school. It felt like the path I’d been on my entire life had abruptly ended in a cliff. But what I learned from that experience, about myself, about how I best work, about what I need to be happy, has allowed me to take life in an entirely new direction. I never would have gotten my current job without that failure, nor would I have tried my hand at writing. You see, I always assumed I’d fail as a writer too, but after grad school, I figured, why not give it a go?
I see the same thing in writing. Failed scenes germinate the seeds for great scenes. Ideas from failed novels become the bones for great novels. Heck, the first draft of this blog post was an incoherent mishmash of thoughts that I hated so much I wanted to cry. But I’ve started to realize how necessary all these failures are. I want to be a great writer someday, and every great writer I know failed a lot. (Just ask best-selling author Kevin J. Anderson about his “Writer With No Future” award.)
It’s the start of a new year, a time to think about our goals for 2014. I know so many people who only pick goals they know they can achieve. I used to be one of those people. But we can’t let the fear of failure stop us from striving for great things. So I say this: Set goals that are hard, daring, goals that might even seem mildly insane. Goals you may very well fail to achieve. And that’s okay, too, because this is as much about the journey as it is the result.
My goals for 2014? I want to finish polishing my first novel into something people will both love and remember, self-publish it, and convince thousands of people to buy it. I want to write the first two novels of a new seven book fantasy series that will be even better. I want to enter and place in the Writers of the Future contest. I want to outline an epic series that will rival Sanderson and Rothfuss’s best work.
I’ve got to be honest with you. As a poker player, I wouldn’t recommend betting on me pulling all this off. Setting daring goals doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be realistic about the outcome. But what I do firmly believe is that trying to do all of this won’t hurt, that even if I don’t sell thousands of copies and don’t finish as many novels as I want and don’t come up with a great epic fantasy outline, I’ll still learn a ton and I’ll end the year a better writer than I started. And hey, maybe the stars and planets will all align and I’ll surprise everyone, including myself.
I still hate failing, but these days, I’m less afraid of it.