I have a writing friend who is in the throes of submitting a manuscript to agents and is pretty depressed. Although she’s had plenty of success—lots of requests for fulls and partials of her manuscript—she’s also gotten a healthy amount of rejection and she feels like throwing in the towel.
I think the mistake my friend is making, the mistake all of us make from time to time, is assuming that failure is the opposite of success. But wait a minute, you say, failure is the opposite of success.
No, it’s not.
I like symmetry as much as the next person: hot and cold, day and night, big and small. But failure and success aren’t true opposites and I think we short-change ourselves when we think of them that way. Failure isn’t the enemy of success, failure is a huge, important part of success.
I would argue that calling failure and success opposites makes about as much sense as saying that going into labor is the opposite of holding a newborn baby. We might scoff at that comparison because we all know that even though labor is painful and difficult and agonizing and holding a baby for the first time is warm and wonderful and life-changing (believe me, those two moments couldn’t be more different) it’s clear you don’t get one without the other.
But when it comes to other things where the connection between the work and the reward isn’t as clear, we’re quick to label any setback, any hard stretch, any sadness on the journey to our goals as failure instead of what it really is–just the less enjoyable part of success.
When I was in the query trenches trying to get an agent, I remember reading a quote attributed to Thomas Edison during his quest to build the light bulb. He said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” I have to admit, when I read that quote I was more than a little annoyed. First of all, I didn’t want to find 10,000 ways that didn’t work, I wanted to find one that did. And secondly, those 10,000 ways that didn’t work were failures. Anyone who said differently was trying to sell some kind of rah, rah message I wasn’t interested in buying.
However, I missed the point entirely. The point wasn’t “keep trying and maybe one day you’ll finally make it.” The point was that Edison’s success would not exist without those 10,000 other attempts. Each attempt built on the next, step-by-step, and those steps had a destination. The 10,000 failed attempts were not the opposite of the light bulb. They were the ingredients that made the lightbulb possible.
It wasn’t until I sold my book that I fully understood how many of my “failures” along the way were baked into my success. Detailed feedback in rejection letters that shaped the characters in important ways, kind words from a successful author on a previous manuscript that changed how I approached writing this one, a revise and resubmit request that gave me valuable insight into how the book could be better. Each of those failures changed the book in small, but significant ways and I can categorically say that I would not have sold it without them. Can we really call that the opposite of success?
I think this is true in other areas of life too. I recently had an experience with one of my children that felt a lot like failure. He was struggling and I kept trying to help, to no avail. There’s not a more helpless feeling in the world than seeing your child suffering and being unable to fix it. I talked a lot and he didn’t seem to absorb anything I said. It felt awful.
And then a few weeks later, things started to improve. Gradually, he returned to his cheerful self. I didn’t know what had finally helped him, only that it hadn’t been me. And then one morning, I was sitting in my office writing when our wireless printer roared to life. (It had been on the fritz and sometimes wouldn’t print things until days after an attempt.) Assuming the document was one of mine, I snatched it off the printer and started to read.
It was my son’s English assignment—a letter written to himself five years in the future. I probably shouldn’t have read it, but by the time I realized the document wasn’t mine, I was already sobbing. My son talked about what a hard year he’d had and then the things that had gotten him through. There were my words in black and white. All the things I thought he wasn’t hearing. All the words of wisdom I thought had fallen on deaf ears. When he came home from school, I told him what happened and we had a good talk about it. I hadn’t failed to reach him. I just hadn’t succeeded as quickly as I’d hoped.
The opposite of success is not failure (at least not the way we label it.) The opposite of success is quitting.
So my advice to my friend who is looking for an agent and my friend who wonders if she’s doing a good job raising her kids and my other friend who is trying to finish her degree with small children at home is this: don’t quit. Just stay on the path. If you hit bumps and boulders and obstacles, don’t throw in the towel and say you can’t find the path or it’s clearly the wrong path or maybe you’re not good enough to be on this particular path. The obstacles are the path. They aren’t the most fun part, but there’s no way to avoid them if you want to reach the finish line.
So just keep going. As long as you’re still trying, you’ve already found the path to success. Now you just have to be brave enough to stay there.