How You Fail Determines How You Succeed

A meetup group I help organize - this week we talked about RISK.
A meetup group I help organize – this week we talked about RISK.
“Even if you have something really good. Even if people really like it. It takes so much MORE in order to succeed.”

These are words from my friend Andrea, at a meetup I helped run last night that brought together local creative professionals.

The group shared stories of their own journey to craft a creative life & business, and observations from friends and colleagues.

Andrea shared another quote, from a local shop owner who, after opening her doors and struggled to develop a clientele:

“I didn’t realize how hard it would be to just bring in $100.”

This is akin to an author dreaming of their book launch, and wondering how many hundreds or thousands of books they will sell, and plateauing at 75 books sold.

It is so difficult to write a book, and to then publish a book, that the concept of developing an audience and selling books can be downright paralyzing to any reasonable author. (luckily, most authors live in a dreamworld, to their credit!)
:)

There is so much risk in choosing to write and publish a book:

  • Risk to one’s identity (or perceived identity)
  • Risk to one’s social standing
  • Risk of losing money (or opportunity value that comes with money)
  • Risk of feeling foolish by wasting one’s time

Just to name a few. The discussion last night, luckily, also touched upon success that comes with risk as well. That failure is part of a PROCESS to success, not an ending. A comma, not a period.

EG:

“I released a novel last summer, and no one bought it.”

vs

“I released a novel last summer that sold 75 copies, and my follow-up is due this June.”

One of these sentences requires a tissue. The other starts a conversation.

Our conversation last night hit upon four ways of moving through risk and failure:

  1. That, by risking, you are inherently pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, and in the process, developing new skills. These are akin to survival skills that can be used again and again.
  2. You develop processes for fixing your mistakes. Part of this is accepting that mistakes WILL happen – you can’t prevent that. Learning how to make things better is a big part of not letting mistakes stop you, and this leads to personal and professional growth.
  3. Establishing processes for dealing with failure on an emotional level. In my experience, people avoid taking POSITIVE risks towards things they really want because their emotions stop them. They stay in the safe confines of their comfort zone where no one will judge them, instead of pursuing their dreams. Many successful people I know describe the roller coaster of emotions they go through on a near daily basis as they take risks to find success. Despite this, they step on the roller coaster each day, not because they no longer fear it, but because they have learned to better manager their emotions, without leading to paralysis.
  4. You learn to trust yourself more when you have experience with risk. This one came up in conversation a lot last night, from topics of signing leases to business partnerships, sales and store openings. For myself, I am amazed that I no longer get nervous with public speaking. In fact, I enjoy it. That took YEARS to happen, after dozens and dozens of sweaty-palmed panic attacks moments before going on a stage to talk to a group of people or give a presentation.

Another risk that is often overlooked is not planning for success. An easy example is signing a 1-year lease for store you are opening instead of a nice long 10-year lease. Clearly, the person who signs a 1-year lease is limiting their commitment, and in their mind, limiting their risk.

But what happens if their store succeeds? If they develop a customer base, sales come in, and they are personally satisfied? And then, after a year or two, their rent goes up dramatically because they didn’t lock in a lower rent in a long-term lease. Or some other factor pushes them out of that storefront because they had no legal commitment to it. Suddenly, their success is in jeopardy because they didn’t adequately prepare for it.

This is a favorite quote that I have found to be true in my own experience:

“Being brave isn’t about not having fear; it is having fear and moving forward anyway.”

(versions of this quote seem to be attributed to many different people)

I have written recently about my work with one author whose novel launches soon. As we move towards her publication date in mid-May, it is awesome to see how much of her time is spent working on her NEXT book. That her focus is to develop momentum as a storyteller, even as she feels the excitement (and pressure) of realizing the dream of the current book.

The conversation I had last night with local creative professionals is part of a monthly meet up series called “Momentum.” My friend Scott and I started these meetups last year, because that is the word we found so many people were looking for in their lives: MOMENTUM.

That, for an author, perhaps the goal is not to be a bestseller. But wouldn’t it be nice to be viewed as a vibrant storyteller.

Someone whose next story is something to look forward to.

And that the biggest risk is not in “only” selling 75 books, but in allowing a failure to become a conclusion, instead of a process toward success. And that the thing to be avoided at all costs is not low sales, but this internal narrative: “I only sold 75 books. I failed. I suppose I’m not a writer after all.”

How do you approach and work past RISK in your life as a writer?

Thanks.
-Dan

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About Dan Blank

Dan Blank is the founder of WeGrowMedia, where he helps writers share their stories and connect with readers. He has helped hundreds of authors via online courses, events, consulting, and workshops, and worked with amazing publishing houses and organizations who support writers such as Random House, Workman Publishing, Abrams Books, Writers House, The Kenyon Review, Writer’s Digest, Library Journal, and many others.

Comments

  1. says

    As a poker player, one of the first things you learn is EV or Expected Value.

    It essentially a way of viewing risk not from the point of view of what you have to lose, but instead from the point of view of what you have to gain.

    When I write and take risks with my work, I try to set aside the worries about what I may lose (may lose face, money, or simply my time) and focus instead on the value of those things I stand to gain (a new readership, renewed enthusiasm for my work,

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    • says

      Thanks Katherine. Hmmm, this should be an article: “A Poker Player’s Guide to Writing.”
      :)

      My gut is that this approach takes a lot of discipline. Have a great day!
      -Dan

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  2. says

    I hadn’t really considered writing books in terms of risk. I’d always seen it as a long term investment in my time, combined with a compulsion to tell stories. Something I was going to do, regardless of success or failure, so that financial success was seen as a bonus.
    Of course, it is a risk: in the sense that I could have been putting my talent and time to something more conventionally rewarding. But, for me, the risk would have actually been that which entails submitting to the perceived need to confine myself as a writer to a specific genre in order to develop a following. For me, such restriction would, I am certain, have driven away my creative spark. I work in an intuitive fashion, allowing my stories to determine genre only when completed. This means I have no sales or marketing plan when I start out writing. But it also means I remain true to the requirements of the story and to my own artistic goals.
    I suspect my journey as a writer will prove long and may only be financially rewarding after I’ve travelled a good many miles, if at all. But that’s the risk I prefer to take, rather than the alternative, of risking my creative spirit by submitting to market forces.

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  3. says

    This was probably one of the best pieces I’ve read about failure vs success, Dan. So much out there on the subject boils down to pep talks that we’ve all heard before. I like how you’ve opened the door to the smallness of selling 75 books to recognize it as a foundation for deeper meaning to create more books. I’m with Stuart in that I’ve not “looked” at my writing as a risk; writing for me is like breathing, inhale and exhale the fragrances. Besides my novels, I write short stories and submit to magazines regularly so rejections are the wound. In order to not let that wound infect, I keep sending the story out again and again. And it can get weary! But your advice in not letting the negative be the conclusion is certainly golden. Thank you for your insights.

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    • says

      I agree, Paula, we must always keep positive. We’re all rejected, but we know we’re in good company – the writing world is full of tails of the famous and popular being rejected. All we can do is write what we must and keep sending it out there. Someone somewhere will like it, as long as it’s good.

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  4. says

    I make a laundry list of my fears: 1,2, 3. Then, I go back and write I have to gain by NOT doing whatever 1, 2, 3, then what I have to gain by DOING whatever. This helps talk me off the ledge of fear and risk pushing my dreams forward. Thanks, Dan. Great post!

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  5. Denise Willson says

    Love this post, Dan. Life is all about perspective, isn’t it? I mean, the guy that rolls out of bed smiling, saying “I’m gonna have a good day,” is more likely to, you know, have a good day. :)

    Enjoy the journey, my friends. The destination is a subjective slippery slope anyway. Be in the now. And smile. You’re gonna have a great day. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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  6. says

    “I only sold 75 books. I failed. I suppose I’m not a writer after all.”

    This is pretty much where I am at the moment. I have halted work on a new novel I realized was coming out very muddled, and I am finding it hard to restart. I have no fan base clamoring for the next story. Combined with other life-issues, it’s easier at the moment to look at my non-existent sales and wonder what the point is.

    So I am bookmarking this article. Every so often I need a reminder that risk and failure are part of this business. Thank you.

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    • says

      Douglas,
      Thank you for sharing that, that in and of itself is REALLY important. Sometimes it comes down to establishing small habits where the goal is not to question “WHY!?” each day to but to simply say “did I put 500 new words on the page today?” Likewise, some of this is best done in groups – with a writing group, a developmental editor, etc.

      Thanks.
      -Dan

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  7. says

    I suppose I view risk as a necessary function of a happy life. The only way to be risk-free is to never leave your bed (and I believe Mark Twain harpooned that theory as well). I know people who do their job, go home, watch TV, go to bed, and do it all again the next day. In fact, that probably describes 99% of Americans. Most will live a relatively stress-free, and risk-free life. Boring. That’s not living, it’s existing. If I didn’t try to do something that forces me to stretch my limits, I’m sure I’d be a miserable SOB to live with (as opposed to the ray of freaking sunshine I am now). So I guess what I’m struggling to imply here as that risk is not a negative aspect, but an energizing element, as necessary as desire or affection. Without it, we simply stop moving forward. Thank God for risk. Beats the alternative any day.

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    • says

      Ron,
      Very smart. The funny thing is that most folks are stressed REGARDLESS of whether they take big risks or not! Human nature, maybe? Not sure. Anyhow, thank you.
      -Dan

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  8. says

    Earlier this morning, before I’d read this thoughtful and inspiring post, I was thinking about how tired I am. Deciding to commit, to take the risks associated with writing full-time, often leaves me weary due to the fear I must keep on a leash and the obligations that drain my energy. A moment later, though, I reminded myself that I’m finally taking a risk, not because I’m faced with a great crisis in my life that I must overcome, but because I’m taking on the dream I’ve long held dear and which will fulfill me as nothing else will, win or lose. Your post reinforced my thinking. Thank you.

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    • says

      Christina,
      Love that way of thinking, of not taking a risk when you are backed up against a wall, but when you decide to step closer to the ledge.
      Thanks!
      -Dan

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  9. Anne Buzzini says

    I haven’t published a book yet, and I am mentally surrounded by my training in business to look at risk, opportunity costs, return on investment, etc. Fighting through the negative results of objective measures sucks the life out of my writing at times. But I write another chapter, another page, another word. Then revise…

    Not doing it is another set of risks. I’d rather be bold than boring any day.

    You’re perspective gives me ammunition against all that. Thanks for the boost.

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  10. says

    This is a realistic and good way to frame both success and progress, I think. Thanks!

    I have been writing a long time and this is my only job so results matter. But the joy of writing, of getting to live other people’s lives, see into the future of the characters, etc…is an amazing journey and I LOVE my job. That counts, too! I wake up every day excited to go to work.

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  11. says

    ” … the biggest risk is not in “only” selling 75 books, but in allowing a failure to become a conclusion, instead of a process toward success.”

    Dan, powerful stuff in confirming that our minds are so often the biggest obstacle to overcome in moving forward in our writing life. I’ve had so many self-boxing bouts where I looked at stuff I’ve written and said, “This is crap—why bother to continue” and then look at it fresh and say, “Hey, that’s not so bad. Maybe I can make it better.

    Same writing—just the monkey mind monkeying.

    I have difficulty with momentum, because I write in lurches and spasms, and then the body is lies in state until provoked again by the pen. But at least I mostly have a sense of moving forward, even if in fits. (Until that monkey mind comes back to pitch the poop.)

    There’s an old Zig Ziglar quote that works with your notion that failure isn’t a conclusion: “Remember that failure is an event, not a person.” Thanks!

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    • says

      Tom,
      Love that quote! And like you, I have found that there are blog posts I write that I almost can’t push “publish” on because I just don’t think they work, and then they end up getting loads of attention and conversation. I have learned that I am not always the best judge of my own writing!
      :)
      Have a great day.
      -Dan

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  12. Robin Yaklin says

    Great post! I agree that most of the information written for us is peppy. That gets old, especially when you are in the midst of analyzing why you’re stuck. When that happens I read blogs, books, articles for concepts that will help, usually finding the stuff bores me because it’s a re-treading of old news. My best help is a detailed goal that asks you to look at the hurdles and come up with ideas to get over them. This is a technique I learned from a great manager when I worked at the ‘real’ job. Sorta like the response here about listing the pros and cons. Combine that with writing out a goal and listing all the people you will ask to help you and you’ve pretty much got it. But be sure to look at the negative side, the why not side. Face the emotions there and you become in control. With that comes momentum. It’s worked for me. I hope that my description helps someone. Again, great post.

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    • says

      Robin,
      Thank you! It also makes me think of the value of no-rules crazy brainstorming to get one unstuck. That the process of looking for solutions, even by stating the CRAZIEST ideas can help better understand the challenge, and provide realistic possibilities that were hidden before.

      -Dan

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  13. says

    Dan–
    Thank you for not going on at length about the old MBA shibboleth that insists every problem is actually an opportunity. Something, though, that gets little play (it’s easy to see why) is how important, not to say crucial is the role of luck in a writer’s life. Or for that matter in the life of anyone who steps into the unknown. It’s one thing to blithely say, “We make our own luck,” quite another know how often luck, both kinds, turns out to be essential.

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    • says

      Barry,
      Agreed! Luck is huge. Being prepared for taking advantage of when luck happens is a good skill to develop though.
      :)
      -Dan

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  14. says

    Thank you, Dan. As an aspiring author working on my first novel, this post is very helpful. I know that many novices have unrealistic expectations of their first book. I don’t. I’m not saying that I don’t have high hopes that it sells well, but I know that we all improve by doing, by practicing the craft over and over. I can’t expect my first book to be as good as my second or my tenth. So, maybe the 75 copy example is lost on me. I look at it this way: If I sell one copy, that is one more than I started with. Sure, 75 copies is not a large scale by any means, however, 75 people thought it sounded interesting enough to put their hard earned money down, and to take a chance on an adventure with a new author. It comes down to how a person defines failure. I define failure as not trying. Even if no one buys my book, I am still a winner. I didn’t give up. I gave it my all and believed in myself. That is the meaning of success to me.

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  15. says

    Thanks for such a WELL-TIMED article–for me. I believe that what you said is true: it’s what you do with the failure that determines your future success. And, I suspect, happiness. Always looking forward, always trying to find the positive, always trying to find a way to grow and learn from lessons learned all make for a stronger, better author.

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  16. Priya Gill says

    Thanks for the great post. Dan.

    I was talking to a friend at lunch (a non-writer friend, my little boy’s best buddy’s mom- if u are a stickler for details) about the progress of my book and she said “wouldn’t it be great if u make it big” and I thought about it and said, “it would. But this being my first book, I would be happy if a good agent represents my book and my book is published conventionally. And that at least a few people more than friends and family buy and enjoy the book. For me that would be a measure of success for my first book.” Then I came home and read your post. Made me smile. I was glad that my expectations of success was in the ballpark.

    It also made me think what would I consider a failure. And that answer is also clear. If I am put in a position that I can’t write anymore, that would be a failure for me. So there it is. Failing is something that is almost certainly under my control. As long as I am writing, almost every day, I am away from the zone of failure and charging down towards the zone of success. So totally under my control.

    And that made me feel good … For once I am in charge.

    Thanks Dan for making me stop and think about this.

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  17. Barbara Franzen says

    My success is how I feel about my contributions and personal satisfaction. I wrote a book, I blog, I write short stories, I do a considerable amount of poetry. I write for a magazine. I have a plan for marketing my book starting in Nebraska where I live. The fact that I have done this and continue to write and grow-for me this is success. Success for me lies in doing my best.

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  18. Poeticus says

    Are not success and failure the red-headed step children of heuristics: trial and error? Heuristic writing is raw draft writing, isn’t it?

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    • says

      Dede, have you tried Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artists’s Way’? It provides exercises designed to get over our fears. There’s a spiritual element, which as an agnostic, I found a little difficult, but she even has methods of overcoming that! It’s worth a go; you may well find that your fear of failure is, in fact, a fear of success; a fairly common hidden barrier among those who are creative.

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  19. says

    Risk accompanies every endeavour – but the risk level is comparitive. It’s less risky to write a novel than it is to embark on a new romantic relationship. It’s less risky to change retirement funds than it is to embark on an extreme sport event in unknown territory. It’s more risky to lend money to a friend than to buy a lottery ticket!
    What we invest in creative endeavours is however quite emotional. We put quite a lot of ourselves into writing. What we must temper risk with is level-headed expectation. It’s not easy to balance expectation, but it’s possible. Thank you for this blog.

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  20. says

    Great post! I started sending queries for my novel a few months ago and even though I knew to expect rejections, I felt embarrassed when they started coming in. Like they were confirming the fact that I “shouldn’t” write. Then I decided to see those rejections as battle scars. I have a piece of paper taped to my study wall, right where I can see it, and I have hash marks for all the rejections I’ve gotten. It’s oddly empowering.

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    • says

      Julie,
      I think people waste a LOT of energy avoiding dealing with problems. Taping something to your wall stops that energy drain. You just deal with it, and move on. LOVE that idea!
      Thank you.
      -Dan

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  21. says

    Thanks Dan:

    Your article gave me another perspective and encouraged me to continue on my journey. We can either learn from our mistakes and stay stuck at the same place.

    Thank you again!!!

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