Monday, December 10, 2012

Sharing Failure

A while back, the New York Times ran a piece by Sarika Bansal titled "The Power of Failure." The idea that we learn and grow from failure is certainly not new, but something Ms. Bansal said resonated for me. She was quoting a woman who runs a nonprofit:

“Not talking about [failure] is the worst thing you can do, as it means you’re not helping the rest of the organization learn from it. It gives [the failure] a power and a weight that’s not only unnecessary, but damaging.”  

This was on my mind as I was thinking about several friends who've enjoyed phenomenal success this year, hitting major publishing milestones that have made them the envy of the book world. Only because I know them personally am I aware that in every case, they struggled and suffered mightily along their path. To a one, they became so demoralized - by poor sales, dropped contracts, caustic reviews, professional jealousy, etc. - that they considered quitting. Series ended; proposals were rejected. In short, before they succeeded, they failed spectacularly.

Their stories are not mine to tell. But I have wondered how many discouraged authors would benefit from hearing that our idols did not experience unfettered ascent to fame and fortune.

The New York Times article suggested an interesting resource, a blog called Admitting Failure. You can read others' stories here or add your own. But I advocate starting smaller. Pick a trusted friend and talk about your failure experience, resisting, if you can, the urge to edit or put a positive face on the event. Talk about how it made you feel in the moment - and how you felt about it several days or months or years later.

What I've discovered is that the more hurtful, embarrassing, and even shaming a failure was in the past, the prouder I feel of having endured and survived it now - and the more likely I am to have learned from it.  Naturally, that feeling is heightened if I later succeeded in a related endeavor - like finally publishing after being rejected many times - but it's also true even if I never succeeded.

For instance, I was never a good manager of people. I tried - I tried with a lot of heart, I must say - when I managed a small technical group at Northwestern University many years ago. But where others lead with intuition and grace, every conflict and disagreement felt acutely painful to me, and my efforts to resolve them clumsy. I did my best to learn and apply techniques of good management, but I have to believe that everyone was relieved when I finally gave up that role.

Still, when I think of the most difficult moments - performance evaluations where I spoke truthfully and was not supported by my superiors, disciplinary measures that resulted in acts of defiance, an accusation of racism against me, and - memorably - an occasion when an employee of mine told me that I reminded me of the nuns in the orphanage where he grew up and asked me if I had bugged his phone - I am proud of myself for having tried. I just wish that I had felt more comfortable talking about those experiences with others.


sari said...

I think this is true personally, as well. I know as a parent, even though I have three amazing children, pretty much every day I have to force myself not to focus on the things I think I've done wrong. Especially in this age of Facebook, where everyone is putting up really only the good stuff, it's easy to feel like you're the only one who can't cook a good meal or that has a messy house or that doesn't do this or that right. Overall, yes, I know I'm doing a good job, but it's hard to not beat myself up.

Terry Shames said...

Singing my song, Sophie. My biggest problem with failure is that long after the fact I can still have low moments when I think "If only I had..." (Fill in the blank--everything from "tried hard" to "thought of the right words" to "taken a different direction." In the moment it can be self-defeating, but then I remind myself that I learned from the experience and vowed to do better next time.