Thomas Edison’s observation that he had not failed, he’d found 700 ways that didn’t work (or 1,000 or 10,000 depending on the source) is remembered because it is unexpected. Edison’s lesson from failure was to refuse to see it.
Most of us couldn’t endure finding 700 ways not to do something. Most of us get the lesson from failure much faster than that, and the lesson is “Don’t!”
Don’t do that again. Don’t try. Don’t be stupid. Don’t be naïve. Don’t trust. Don’t act. Just don’t.
“Don’t” is hard-wired into your brain. As I explained in another post, the lateral habenula reacts to potential failure or the likelihood of negative outcomes by inhibiting the release of dopamine. Because dopamine is the feel-good, let’s-do-that-again neurotransmitter, failure literally feels bad.
Fear of failure obliterates motivation. Your lateral habenula tells you “Don’t even think about it.” This is how your brain protects you from investing energy in behaviors that could be dangerous, ineffective or unsatisfying.
What does failure mean to you as a writer? Is it:
- Rejection letters
- Lack of interest in your work
- Losing a grant or award
- Not reaching a word count goal
- Bad reviews
- Criticism of what you write, how you show up to write or that fact that you write at all?
To paraphrase Edison, these are not failures. You may have learned 30 ways not to write a query letter, 50 ways to not engage readers, 10 ways to push a committee to select someone else, and so on.
The best lesson I found in failure is to refuse to call an unexpected or unwelcome result a failure. Negative comments don’t mean your writing is a failure, they mean that piece of writing is a nearling, as in nearly there.
Creativity in Business by Igor Byttebier and Ramon Vullings, defines a nearling as
“a positive word for something new that was done with the right intentions, which has not – yet – led to the right result.”
Seeing your writing as constantly evolving nearlings, instead off falling into the either-or trap of success or failure not only keeps your lateral habenula from putting the brakes on your motivation, it better reflects reality.
Success or failure is a digital perspective – one or zero. Switches are digital; they’re either off or on. Dials, on the other hand, are analog; there’s a multitude of possible positions in the circle. Writing is not digital, it’s analog.
Every draft is a new position on the dial, another approximation of our original vision. We hope each iteration moves the dial closer to “final” but there is no single right answer. We could tweak a piece of writing forever and never get it definitively “correct.” The trick is knowing when “not-yet-perfect” is good enough.
This is, by the way, why many people don’t know how to give effective feedback. They think digitally, that they’re supposed to find what violates the rules and tell the writer where the writing has gone wrong, where it is off. Thinking digitally makes it impossible to see how writing can be nearling, close to what the writer intended, but not quite spot on. Describing how the writing affected us as readers is far more valuable in helping the writer get the piece closer still, maybe even close enough.
The number one lesson writers can gain from “failure” is: “Don’t recognize failure. Don’t use the word ‘failure’. Don’t even think of writing in terms of failure or success.”