According to last week‘s responses, failure is the number one fear that writers face. It manifests in different ways:
- “I’ll never finish this book.”
- “I’m not good enough to write this book.”
- “No one will like this book.”
Failure is a funny thing. It manages to be both specific and vague; it manages to be far-off and imminent; it manages to be both an ending and the beginning of the rest of your life. Maybe we’d better start by defining it.
What Defines Failure?
I went and looked this up.
- An act or instance of failing or proving unsuccessful; lack of success
- Nonperformance of something due, required, or expected
There are two keys in that definition that can help you avoid failure as a writer: defining success and defining expectations.
Key One: Defining “Lack of Success”
This is surprisingly difficult because “failure” tends to be either weirdly nebulous or else too precise.
Too nebulous: The problem with nebulous goals is they can never be achieved.
“Not good enough” doesn’t mean anything. It requires comparison to even be valid. Good enough compared to what? Does “good enough” mean writing as well as your favorite author (who, by the way, has been writing for twenty years longer than you have)? Does “not good enough” mean you lack natural talent and can’t improve, no matter what you try? Does it mean something completely unrelated, involving how you generally view yourself in all of life?
Too precise: The problem with precise goals is they’re static—and writing is a living, changing thing, never static.
Tying your fear to one exact moment is a recipe for failure. If you’re a “failure” as a writer because you didn’t win a particular contest, or finish your book by age twenty, or some other one-time static goal, then you’re done. Tying them to one moment in time is analogous to saying if you can’t play the cello like Yo-Yo Ma after a month of playing, you’ll never play the cello well.
Your goals, to be healthy, must be flexible; things that don’t change or grow are dead. So the first step toward conquering your fear of failure is to tackle what “success” means to you. Avoid nebulous definitions; avoid too-precise moments.
Key Two: Defining “Nonperformance of something due, required, or expected.”
That word “expected” is absolutely crucial.
The crazy thing is this: what you want from writing probably isn’t the thing you may think you want.
What you want—what you expect—is more likely an effect you’d get from what you think you want.
Let’s look at those three fears again. What do you actually get out of them? What’s the effect?
- “I’ll never finish this book.” So then what do you want? Simply finishing the book? Or do you want the satisfaction, the validation, the empowerment that comes from knowing you can take on something that big and complete it? You can finish that book and earn that feeling of accomplishment. Even if it takes years, you can finish that book.
- “I’m not good enough to write this book.” What’s the real goal? To give the kind of joy and insight your favorite authors gave you? To inspire other people? To receive approval and praise from others so you feel valued? If you’re asking, “Do I have the talent,” you’re asking the wrong question. You can always get better as a writer. Keep writing. Keep reading. Writing is not dependent on talent, but on dedication. It’s is a moving, living, specific goal. You can always improve.
- “No one will like this book.” Again: what do you get if people like it? A feeling of safety? Of value? Validation of all your hard work, and what you’ve been through? Respect? Money? You will never get everyone to love it—but you will find someone who does. You’re not an alien. You have human feelings and thoughts, and other human beings can and will relate to that.
And let’s be fair; not even Shakespeare is universally loved.
The second step toward conquering your fear of failure is figuring out what you expect from success.
I’m not just saying things here to make a point. I’ve been through this. Tomorrow, I‘ll share with you some of my own personal journey through writing failure and success.
In the meantime, I want you to apply what you’ve seen here.
- Take your fear. Dissect it until you see what the goal really is. Be specific, but not too precise (“I haven’t won a Hugo” is too precise). Be flexible, but not too vague (“I’m not good enough” is too vague).
- Take your fear of failure and ask yourself what you actually expect from that success. What’s your real goal?
Reply in the comments. Work it out; you can ask me to help you work it out, too. Answer the two questions:
- What is your specific but flexible goal?
- And what do you expect to get from it?
Once you know the answers to these things, you can approach your goal in new ways—ways without walls, ways without expiration dates. You can do this.
Let’s tackle your fear together.