Life is full of failures. The only way you can avoid it is to never risk, never try anything, which in itself is a failure of epic proportions.
I blogged last month about the importance of a life well-lived, so this post is just a little different. Today I’m talking about failures, rejections, regrets, and why they’re not necessarily the bad things everyone seems to think they are.
We’re taught – especially in American culture – that if you can’t finish first you shouldn’t bother. If you’re not the champion, you’re the loser. That celebrating “second place” is a useless endeavor because you weren’t in first.
On the one hand it’s a good thing. A drive to succeed can push us to accomplish greatness. It can make us ignore the self-doubt and the naysayers. It can make us work harder than ever before.
But on the other, it can make us view failure as a death knell. As a reason to quit, to give up, because why bother with it if we’re not going to be champions?
As a writer, you encounter a lot of failure. Rejections abound all the way up to the point of publication, and then afterward, there will always be people who don’t like your work. Books that you love will tank, and tank hard, sometimes dying before you ever finish pitching the idea to your agent/editor. It’s just the name of the game.
Last Friday, as I was hip deep in final preparations for competing in Tough Mudder (a 10-mile, 25-obstacle course billed as the “toughest event on the planet”) I came home from work to find a rejection letter in the mail. Worse it was from an agent I’d desperately wanted to work with, and I’d been waiting a long time for a response.
I was devastated. When you’re closest to success is when failure hits you the hardest. I’ve been on the journey to publication a long time, and I’ve come a long way. Now, it seems, I’m dancing on the edge and that tends to be the point where one’s ego is the most fragile.
After some sympathy from friends and a few sage words of advice, I put the letter away and set my focus back on Tough Mudder. That was the present obstacle to conquer.
On Saturday morning I joined several friends/family and a few thousand strangers for a brutal 10-mile run through crazy territory. It was pretty immediately apparent I hadn’t done nearly enough cardio training, but I did manage to bring along my nearly indestructible Taurus stubbornness for the event.
We crawled through mud, through tunnels, swam under barrels in freezing water, ran (or dragged ourselves) up the mountainside, climbed over walls, got shot with firehoses, fell into muddy pits, and got zapped with 10,000 volts of electricity before stumbling over the finish line.
It was epic. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. (The average success rate for these events is about 70 percent.) There were times when all I could do was focus on my feet and keep putting one in front of the other, when it was just a matter of getting through this one obstacle.
I saw people in similar straits, gasping for breath at the side of the road. I saw people running effortlessly by me. I had complete strangers pick me up out of the mud and tell me to keep going. I encouraged others in the same way.
And I crossed the finish line with the second half of my team four hours and 40 minutes after we’d started. It wasn’t the best time by far, but it wasn’t the worst either. I did it. I succeeded.
Many others didn’t, including one of our teammates. And that, for me, means I failed a little too. Because one of the central tenants of Tough Mudder is teamwork, and by leaving a teammate behind, I feel like I didn’t complete part of the challenge. I know it’s been hard for her and that she feels like she failed utterly…
But I don’t think so. I think that the attempt means just as much if not more than the finishing. That to put yourself out there, be it for a race, or with your writing, or any endeavor where you might possibly fail is worth more. Sure it is great to finish, and it’s great to succeed, but without the attempts and the infinite number of failures we all experience every day?
In this, I think Yoda was wrong when he said “try not.” *grins* I say – Yes, try. If you fail then try again, and again. Keep trying. One of these days you’ll realize that all those failures, all those “try agains” have gotten you to the top of a mountain, and you can turn around, still gasping for air, and see the most glorious sight.
(all photos by Don Branum – for more muddy photos go to his FB page PhoenixBlue Photography)