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In Praise of Succeeding

Torture irons on the ship SUCCESS (LOC)

Torture irons on the ship SUCCESS (LOC)

Last weekend on Twitter I saw a post:  “Tell me your favorite books on failing and failure, especially as it relates to innovation and leadership.”  I responded with this comment: “another blog post I don’t have time 2 write: how failure is overrated, & often confused w iterative design.”

I got up a little earlier than usual this on Monday (thanks to a cat who was licking my face) and decided to see if I could succeed (as in, not fail) at a 20-minute post on this topic. Cindi Trainor does a good job of capturing some of my thoughts, but I wanted to paraphrase/amplify, if only in the spirit of chiming in. I’ll use my writing experience to add crunchy bits of flavor and texture.

I know the conversations about failure are intended to get us comfortable with owning up to the idea that we don’t always succeed, and that if you don’t break a few eggs, you’ll never make an omelette (or something). That’s terrific. But let’s be clear that succeeding is personally and professionally more rewarding than failing. The delta is the difference between how I feel when I get a rejection letter and how I feel when I get that magic email or phone call that an essay has been accepted for publication.

Furthermore, claiming you’re comfortable with failure is dangerous if what you’re really doing is being uncomfortable with iterative design and group input. Don’t give up too early in the design process, and for God’s sake, set your vanity aside and let others help you. A good idea may need tuning; it will nearly always need iteration, particularly after it’s been tested in anything like a functioning environment.  If you love your idea, if you think it’s valid, you owe it more than one try.

(I cannot tell you how many times, late in the survey design process, I have to insist that yes we DO need to test the survey one more time–and I’m talking about surveys I’ve designed, not others. You don’t get a do-over once you launch a survey, just like you get one chance to submit an essay to a literary journal. That last 10% of effort separates good from great.)

Invention usually comes from individuals (a point Roy Tennant has made more than once), but it takes a village to bring ideas to life. One phenom I’ve observed in work organizations here and there is discomfort with feedback, coupled with the mistaken idea that input on a design immediately voids the value of the original creator’s effort. My guess is this stems from how we approach higher education these days, which is to emphasize individual achievement–a very artificial model.

I have heard workers say, “Well, I can’t take credit for this idea, because others helped me.”  I acknowledge all the people who help me with my own writing, but in the wee small hours of the morning, it’s me and my keyboard, revising my essay. It’s still your idea, even if someone told you it would be better off purple, not green.

I’ve also observed workers losing interest in an idea once they received feedback on it. Absolutely we want to acknowledge people who participated in making an idea come to life. But it doesn’t negate the value of the original idea.

My first semester in the MFA program, back in 2004, I observed one very smart, skilled writer dropping out of the program within weeks of starting. My take then (never voiced, just pondered) was that this  person could not cope with the very radical level of feedback provided in the workshop environment. This writer liked the idea of “succeeding,” writer-style — to see a work improved enough to be ultimately published — but was not able to handle what success actually required.

My suspicions were further solidified several years later, when I was running a writers’ workshop in Florida and two new members were introduced who unsettled the group for several months through their discomfort with feedback. Needless to say, neither would-be writer had much success getting anything published. But their unhappiness with anything less than glowing confirmation of their writing skills translated into disruptive behavior that threatened the very core of the group. Fortunately, this kind of person is at heart a quitter, and quit they did, before we had to take the final steps to “evict” them.

Are you declaring failure too early  because you’re pain-averse? Almost never have I observed a writing workshop where feedback was intended to kill a writing idea, but the best feedback is necessarily painful–excruciating, I-hate-myself, I-suck, I-am-not-a-writer, pound-the-steering-wheel-all-the-way-home painful.

A writer submitting a manuscript to her peers believes deep down that this will be the time when the other writers say, “This work is perfect.” A writer needs to think that this response is possible; it’s what forces you to give your all to a manuscript for hundreds or thousands of hours upon end only to share it with other people whose role it is to tell you what works, but also, what doesn’t work. A writer may spend thousands of hours on a manuscript only to be told by trusted peers that it needs overhauling top to bottom, or hundreds of pages need to be tossed, or that second-person-omniscence really isn’t working, or magical realism doesn’t belong in a recipe collection. But a writer who wants to succeed will subject herself to the process willingly, fully aware that pain lies ahead.

By the way, if you think most good ideas, or literary works, are extracted in the space of a long afternoon, think again.  Most writers have to curl their hands and breathe shallowly when people say, “Oh yeah, I keep meaning to take a day and write a short story,” and only fantasies about this person’s comeuppance help us survive these moments. (Anne Lamott said it better in Bird by Bird, which should be required management reading; note that her subtitle is Some Instructions on Writing and Life). A long afternoon is about how much time it takes to produce five paragraphs, four and a half of which will soon end up on the cutting-room floor, with or without your workshop’s help (since the purpose of a workshop is to gradually build the governor in your brain that does their work for you), so that the remainder can be revised ten times over.  The same is true of the execution of nearly any good idea.

Finally, the failure may not be in the idea, but how it is introduced and managed. A good idea needs curation: coordination, timing, communication, care and feeding, iteration. Someone tweeted Lombardi’s truism that winning isn’t everything, it’ s the only thing. I don’t buy that, because I’ve learned a lot from good ideas that I couldn’t bring to life (and also because it’s heartless). But you can’t win/succeed/not-fail if you aren’t willing to accept that the response to your great idea may be that it can’t be executed the very minute you think it up and without any modification or coordination. In an organization with the resources to execute ten good ideas, the eleventh idea either has to bump something else off the table, or it will have to wait.

Patience, grasshopper. “Not now” is not the same as “no.”  Sometimes a great idea needs to wait its turn; sometimes it is simply precocious, and in a year will be timely. Other times, a great idea has lost its prime moment and needs to be left behind on the altar of things that could have happened in an alternate universe. You’re all the better for having had a great idea; there will be many more.

Yes, winning is part of it, but learning how to win is even bigger. I didn’t complete this post on Monday; I had to get to work, and it wasn’t done. It was better to let it marinate a day while I forged on to other things. It’s still not much as far as writing goes–it’s a hasty blog post, not an essay in the New Yorker, and my expectations for it are low.  The essay I worked on for an hour and a half early this morning, on the other hand, will take many more hours to reach its first draft, and I will willingly break my heart ten times over, shredding the essay to pieces, reconstituting it, spending sunny days staring at a screen, to see it succeed.

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