Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Failure

Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Failure

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Since I’ve been dealing with setbacks, I suppose I should go all the way, and talk about failure. Failure isn’t something I’m fond of, but not for the reason that you think.

I happen to believe in failure. I think that we learn by failing. Watch any child learn how to walk and you realize that it’s all about failure. No child gets up and walks the first time he is set on his feet. Children pull themselves to their feet, then fall on their butts. Then they pull themselves up, take a tentative step, and fall.

We as adults know that it’s only a matter of time before the child starts scurrying across the living room toward the collectible books (better move them to a higher shelf now), but the child doesn’t know that. Still, he tries, and tries, and tries.

I’ve watched my siblings and my friends raise their children. I’ve seen a lot of kids in this stage, and I’ve noticed something. The parents who comfort the child when he falls especially if he’s not crying actually impede his development.

One afternoon in the early 1980s, I was at my grandmother’s house with my mother and a cousin who had a year-old boy. (I think it was my cousin; it might have been a neighbor. I’m hazy about whose child I actually was watching that day.) The boy was pulling himself up and then falling, and he was making his way around the dining room, standing, taking a step, falling; standing, taking a step, falling.

My grandmother had a non-intervention policy with her children and her children’s children. She gave her opinion when asked, but didn’t volunteer much. Or maybe she did, but certainly not in front of others. When I got married the first time, she supported me. When I got my divorce, she was there for me (even though she was getting frail). When I met Dean (my current husband, whom I’ve been with for 23 years now), she pulled me aside and said, “This is a good one. You keep him.”

Not only was that the best advice she ever gave me on my personal life, it was one of the only direct pieces of advice she ever gave.

So what I’m about to tell you remains clear in my memory because of my mother and my grandmother, not because of that little boy trying to walk.

We four women were talking and keeping an eye on the boy, when suddenly he pulled one of the chairs over. It knocked him down, but didn’t hit him. He sat in the middle of the floor, unhurt but startled, with that lovely expression startled toddlers get: Do I cry? Should I cry? Did this really bother me?

He had already decided it didn’t bother him and had reached for the next chair to help him stand up as my mother ran to his side, checking in a great panic to see if he was all right. The boy’s mother, seeing my mother react, hurried to the boy too.

The boy started to cry. He didn’t just cry. He wailed and sobbed and it took them nearly fifteen minutes to calm him down.

When the drama was over, my grandmother looked at my mother. “Marian,” my grandmother said, “if you had left that boy alone, he wouldn’t have even noticed that he had fallen.”

“But he might have been hurt,” my mother said.

“He wouldn’t have noticed that either,” my grandmother said, and then changed the subject.

I was startled at two things. First, that my grandmother had spoken up. As I said, she had a non-intervention policy. But second, her insight from (by that point) almost seventy years of child-rearing and child-watching struck me as true.

Children, raised in loving homes with parents less nervous than my own, fail easily and rarely notice. They take spills, and then they get up. They drop a ball, miss a catch, or trip over a crack in the sidewalk, and they laugh as they try again.

We let toddlers do this. In fact, we let children do this up to the age of three or so. We know that the try-and-fail method works, and that the child will eventually speak and walk. We gently guide our children by telling them no when they get near a hot stove, by steering them away from an aunt’s favorite cut glass vase, by holding their hand as they cross the street.

But we accept the try-and-fail model.

And then the child goes to school.

I don’t know when this happened, but it happened after I graduated from college but before my friends started sending their children to school in the 1990s. Suddenly, everyone got gold stars and encouragement. Kids didn’t fail classes and rarely got Ds.

College professors I know started complaining about this, because these kids often got their first D in college. Or, god forbid, their first F. And you’d think the world had ended.

My sister, a professor, visited me in Oregon last year after her semester ended. A few nights into the trip, she was still dealing with a student who was protesting his less-than-stellar grade, a grade she said he deserved. (And I believe her. She’s the tough but tender teacher who taught me how to read and gave me some of my most favorite novels.)

Why am I going on about this? Because failure is something we need to practice. Handled well, failure leads to success. In fact, I know of no long-term successful business person who lacks a failure in her background.

Don’t believe me? Check out this very short video on YouTube. Still don’t believe me? Then look at this even shorter video (you have 30 seconds, right?).

If you’re too lazy to click those links, let me give you a few heads-up. Henry Ford went bankrupt five times before starting Ford Motor Company. Walt Disney’s first cartoon studio went bankrupt.

Read the biographies of successful people. Some of these biographies will focus on the failures, and show them for the learning experiences that they were. The show Biography on A&E skips over the failures by mentioning them and then saying, “Five years later…” or placing a commercial break between the failure and the next success. Your job, as someone who studies how successful people do things, is to find out what happened in those intervening five years and figure out how that person who is famous enough for A&E to waste an hour of airtime on them turned that failure into a success.

That’s why I was initially reluctant to title this post “failure.” I don’t believe in failure. Not really. I know it happens. I know that it’s part of life. But I also know that failures are opportunities.

Opportunities to start over. Opportunities to make changes. Opportunities to learn.

And that’s the key. Like the toddler who has fallen on his butt, you could sit there and cry and wait for someone to pick you up. Or you can reach for the next chair, haul yourself to your feet, and stagger forward.

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me if I made a mistake when I married the first time. I startled him by saying I didn’t make a mistake at all.

Now, knowing that my first marriage ended in divorce, you’d think that I would acknowledge the failure and say that I shouldn’t have married my first husband at all.

But I would have lost so much. I would have lost several good years of a friendship I valued. I would have lost lots of learning experiences (some of which I’ve mentioned in the guide), and I would never have walked the road that led me to this moment, to this part of my life.

Joyce Carol Oates writes in her essay “Nighthawk” about her failure to qualify as a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin. The essay is a rumination on failure and its importance, but also on the opportunities that it brings.

Most things that people identify as failures aren’t failures at all. They’re setbacks, which I dealt with in the previous three posts. Setbacks turn into failures when you let them defeat you. When they crush you and keep you from achieving your dreams.

That said, I have failed many times in my life. I’ve been failing for the past month. I’ve been trying to write a novella that I have had to restart four times. That’s right. I’ve failed at writing this damn thing four separate times.

But is that going to stop me? No. I’ll keep trying until I get it right.

That’s a small failure. But I’ve had larger ones. I’ve gotten divorced, and in the process hurt the man I loved enough to marry. I’ve been fired. I’ve had two businesses fail. I’ve had two separate people embezzle from me. I’ve had two people whom I thought were close friends actively try to destroy my business.

I count all of those things as failures. I’ve responded well to some of them, and terribly to others. I’ve survived them all. I’m sure I’ll survive many more.

Because that’s the key to failure. Unless the mistake(s) you made actually kill you, you will survive. Whether or not you live with those mistakes is your choice. Whether or not you use them to better your life is also your choice.

In her essay, “Nighthawk,” Joyce Carol Oates says that had she gotten that PhD, she wouldn’t have written the work that has made her one of our most distinguished artists. If I hadn’t gotten the divorce, I wouldn’t have started Pulphouse Publishing, edited The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction or written one-tenth of the stories I’ve written. Because my husband, Dean Wesley Smith, has been beside me in all of those ventures, and sometimes he’s the one who has dragged my very best work out of my closed fists and given me the courage to mail it.

Did that toddler fail when he pulled the chair down all those years ago? No. He learned that chairs aren’t as stable as he thought and that they could be dangerous. (He also learned that if he gives women of a certain age a watery startled look, he’ll get hugged [whether he wants the hug or not]).

As tough as it is, we all have to learn how to accept failure in our lives. For some of us, we have to bring it back into our lives.

How do you deal with failure? Honestly, that was what the previous three posts on setbacks were all about. At the time it occurs, a setback is a potential failure. It becomes a failure if you never move forward.

As I prepared to write this section of the guide, I looked up the word “failure” in the indices of my business books. Most avoid the topic altogether, which is a shame. Only one deals with it at all.

That single book is, believe it or not, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Rich by Larry Watchka, published in 1996. Watchka has one paragraph on failure.

He writes, “Fear of failure will kill your business. You should always ask yourself, ‘What is the worst thing that can happen?’ Next, you should ask yourself, ‘Can I handle the worst thing?’ If the answer is yes, then don’t worry about it any more. Make plans to handle the worst thing, and then eliminate the fear.”

It sounds so easy, but it’s hard. Most of us had the fear of failure pounded into us. We’re supposed to “get it right the first time.” We should “avoid mistakes at all costs.” We’re supposed to be perfect.

As if perfection is even possible. It’s not. We all know it—at least when we’re watching toddlers. We know that they’ll try and fail. Just like we know that they’ll eventually succeed. Because, unless they have serious health problems, all toddlers learn how to walk eventually. You just have to give them the time and the breathing space to do so.

You have to do that for yourself as well. You have to expect the mistakes and expect the failures. Plan for them, just like I mentioned in the last three posts.

Then change your attitude. You could focus on the failures. I didn’t have to marry again. I could call myself a loser because my first marriage failed. Or leave publishing because my first publishing company failed. Or quit writing because my first novel got rejected (many, many times).

Instead, I deal with the failure, call it a setback, and move on. That’s why I hate the word failure. It has such finality to it. A failure is only a failure if you let it become one. Otherwise, it is an opportunity.

Or, as Winston Churchill once said (Churchill, who lost most of his fortune in the Crash of 1929 and had to go back to work), “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

Yep. And if you do lose your enthusiasm, you struggle to regain it. I’ve had that happen too.

That’s why I insist you should only freelance at something you love. Because there will be times when the only thing that gets you through the day is the fact that you love the work. Not that you love the fame or the money or your co-workers. But that you love the work itself.

This post is deliberately short because I don’t like to dwell on failure. I like to figure out what went wrong, and then move right past the difficulty, heading to the good stuff. I reach up to grab the next chair so that I can toddle on my merry way.

So toddle on, my friends. If you keep that in mind, you will become a success.

You can now order either an e-book copy of the Guide or a trade paper copy of the Guide. It’s in slightly different format and has been organized, so that related topics are in an easily accessible place.

You can get the print version here.

For those of you who’d like to buy an ebook, here’s the Amazon link as well as the Barnes & Noble link. The e-book will also be available on all the other e-book sites. If you want it in your favorite format, and the book hasn’t yet been uploaded to your favorite site, try Smashwords. You’ll be able to download in a variety of e-book formats.

“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Failure” copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

8 thoughts on “Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Failure

  1. hi, Kris – another excellent post! I remember too well when I had to figure out how to handle the “failure” of a job layoff a few years ago, and turned it into an opportunity to start my own business. Recently, I’ve been turning the “failure” (really just a “setback”) of the recession into an opportunity to write and send out more fiction between client projects. Lots of bumps, bruises, and scars collected along the way, but I keep on getting up.

    Carolyn – Even though I’ve never been a big fan of baklava, I well remember the rejection-slip contest — and the fact that not only did Shayne win the contest, but he also sold a whole lot more than the rest of us did in those days. No matter how many rejections he got, he kept writing and sending the stories out. He turned those “failures” (the rejections) into new opportunities for success!


  2. I need to hear this every so often. It’s been my own guiding philosophy for years — ever since I simply decided screw them, I’m going to do it anyway after being bombarded with “you’re no good/you don’t belong/[insert negative]” messages for most of my life. It’s hard to ignore the opinions of others and trust in yourself, and I often backslide. So thanks for posting this; it’s really resonating today.

  3. Ah, Kris, this is such an important topic and you are right, failure can ruin your life . . . but only if you let it.

    When Don got his PhD in 1970, the positions for historians had gone from filling a thick booklet to a single page, yet he was one of the few, maybe the only grad student who secured a position–in West Texas. We cried on the way home from the interview, but he took the job and spent 14 years writing his way out. I wish you could see the large three-ring binder that holds the rejections he received from various institutions. But he kept working and is now a nationally recognized railroad historian with a vita so solid that his most recent Dean looked over a required list of attainments in the last few years and said to him in amazement:”You’ve been busy.”

    I,too, have failed as a teacher. I was called in after my first job and told that I would be rehired but with no raise. I lost a job that was to support us through Don’s graduate years because I was pregnant. I was punished by a principal who thought I complained too much by having every class I taught in a different room during the day. But an older, and one would hope wiser me, encouraged students to give “wrong” answers if they wanted to succeed. I have kept the letters and notes sent by those students who thanked me for something I gave them that helped them to do so. They are not many but they let me know that my percieved failures weren’t always failures. And I treasure them for that.

    Perhaps we should just banish the word “failure” and replace it with the awkward but more apt “learning experience.”

  4. Perhaps you should entitle this “Scars.” I used to love showing off my scars–the one on my eyelid from the blackberry bush I rode through on my minibike, the dog bite I got from an attempted band candy sale, stretch marks (need I say more?). They’re like trophies. They tell stories and prove that You Were There. It treats the failure as a success. I seem to remember one of the Lethal Weapon movies having a great scene using scars.

    In the author’s group Xenobia, we used a writerly way of turning failures into success. We had a rejection slip contest. The person with the most rejection slips in three months triumphed. M. Shayne Bell won that; he had about 150 rejection slips more than anyone else. Maybe it was because the prize was baklava. You never know. (My stories got published. That sucked.)


    Ah, memories…

  5. Excellent post.

    And I guess it was Thomas Edison that said he didn’t fail 10,000 times (or whatever it was) trying to get the right element for a light bulb, he just found out the 9,999 things that didn’t work.

    And Colonel Sanders supposedly got turned down over a thousand times on his way to being the kentucky fried chicken king.

    I have a sign on my wall that I can see from my desk: Success is a journey, not a destination.

    And I know that there’s always setbacks and detours on the way.

  6. Amen, Kris. Best piece of advice I ever received was a simple statement: “Happiness too is inevitable.” No matter how bad things get, no matter how hard your try, no matter how bad you screw the pooch, you will, again, be happy.

    Unless you’re dead. So, again, anything short of death is temporary. What today is perceived as catastrophic is merely setback painted in shades of disappointment and hyperbole.

    Thanks again for the guide.

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