Friday, March 7, 2014

Facing Failure

A couple of weekends ago I was in New York City at the SCBWI winter conference. (If you don't know about SCBWI, I will happily explain it to you.) One of the most memorable talks for me was Kate Messner's examination of the power of failure.

We writers are certainly familiar with failure. How many rejections have you received? How many revisions have you had to make? How many published books failed to sell out? It happens.

What Messner
encouraged us to do is to change our perception about failure. Instead of looking at failure as a negative, she suggested we look at it as the fastest and best way to achieve our goals. In fact, she said, we should be trying to fail as often as possible.

Okay, I know it sounds counter intuitive. Shouldn't we be aiming for success, after all?

Here's an example she gave. A study divided a group of artists into two groups. Let's say they were making pottery. The first group was told they would be graded on achieving one really excellent pot. They did not have to worry about how many pots they made--just one really good one and they'd ace the class. The second group was told to produce as many pots as they could--the more they made, the higher their grade. Quality was irrelevant.

At the end of the study, a panel examined the pottery samples to determine the best ones produced by both groups together. What the observers found was that the group that made many, many pots also produced the best pots. Why? Failure. They produced one pot after another after another. And they learned things. What worked. What techniques produced a stable pot. How to make the pot symmetrical. And so on.

This pretty much applies to any endeavor really. I know dozens of writers who are so concerned about producing the perfect manuscript, that they never produce another. I knew a man in a workshop I attended who had been working the same novel over and over for 20 years.

When I wrote my first novel, I was guilty of this. It took me about ten years of working on it (granted, sporadically, as I was also raising children) to get it "good enough" to start submitting. It got a few positive rejections. Failure.

Since then, I have written several more novels and half a dozen more in my brain. Once I let go of that one needs-to-be-perfect manuscript, I was able to forge ahead and produce many  more, all of which are infinitely better than that first one. In fact, (surprise, surprise) each one is better than the last. What if I just kept writing as many as I could and never stopped. I'd produce a lot of failures. But I'd also produce a few really good books.

I liken this to shooting darts at a dartboard. The more darts you throw, the more likely your chance of hitting a bulls-eye. Right?

So as you start this new week, look for ways to fail. Embrace it. Do it some more. And learn.

If you'd like to explore the topic more, see Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win, by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz.

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