Monday, March 12, 2012

“Failure is Always an Option”

A few years back a family friend attempted to set me up with “the perfect guy for me.” On paper he sounded great. He had a good job, owned his own house, was sweet and polite, and he was looking to settle down. The one problem: He lived several hours away so meeting in person was going to be a challenge. So my friend suggested introducing us through Facebook. I didn’t have anything else going on at the time, so I agreed to a first “date” via Facebook chat and waited for “Randy’s” friend request.

Turns out Randy worked in insurance and where I was just planning on having a casual conversation, he had a list of questions he was determined to get through. I tried to answer each question thoughtfully and quickly noticed his answers were of the one word variety, which I just passed off as nervousness on his part. After our fourth or fifth conversation following the exact same format (including questions on my driving record and everything but my weight), I started wondering if he was interested in me as a person or as someone who fit his list of qualifications.

One of the questions he asked was “What is your greatest fear?” I had to think about that a minute before answering and in the years since I’ve realized it hasn’t ever really changed. My greatest fear is disappointing others; more specifically, it’s the dreaded word FAILURE.

“Do. Or Do not. There is no try.” 
For as long as I can remember I’ve been terrified of messing up. Growing up, I stuck with as many of the rules as possible because I didn’t want to reflect badly on my family (and being so uptight did cost me some simple and non-life-damaging fun). After switching my majors in college I was terrified of running into people from my science classes and my time volunteering at the hospital, because I didn’t want them to think I just couldn’t hack it in the medical field. And now as a writer, I face that fear every time I sit down at my laptop.

I turned 30 last week. My sister, wanting to do something incredibly special, got in touch with everyone I knew that she could find contact info for and, with their help, raised the money to send me to a writer’s conference in Mt. Hermon at the end of the month. It’s a conference I’ve wanted to go to, but just had no means to do so. I’d completely put the thought out of my mind, so this weekend when I opened the envelope with the airline tickets and conference registration all I could do was stare. I was touched. I was excited. And then the panic set in.

“All these people put in the money for this trip and I’m going to go and I’m not going to sell anything and I’m just going to have wasted their money and disappoint them!” was the first thought in my mind. I was (and am) incredibly grateful for this sacrificial gift but the churning in my stomach was threatening to spill over in my eyes. As my mother and future brother-in-law reminded me later on, they didn’t do this so I could sell a book, though that would be awesome! They did it because they wanted to do something special that would show me how much they love and appreciate me. The concept of Success and Failure didn’t ever cross their mind.

Insight from an iPhone App 
Late Saturday night came a “fortune” via my iPhone mahjong app: Failure is always an option.

The so-called fortunes are usually just something random and silly, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how true it is. When you allow yourself to fail, you free yourself to attempt the impossible. Yes, failing at something is disappointing, but it doesn’t have to hold the terror I give it. All failure means is that something I attempted to do didn’t turn out the way I expected it to. And I stress the word attempted.

Failure should be the least of my concerns. Doing nothing because I am too afraid to try is far worse. If I bake a cake and it falls flat I don’t throw the recipe out and resolve never to bake again. I use the experience I’ve gained and start at the beginning. Maybe I pay better attention to the directions; maybe I make a couple of new modifications. If all goes well, I have a dessert I can enjoy, if not, the birds do.

The same is true of writing. With each new draft I write, with each new story I share, I learn a little more. And as much as I hope others can one day enjoy my writing in a form other than a blog, it’s not just for others that I write. I write because it’s something I love to do. Whether my writing becomes a commercial success or commercial flop, it’s time to take FAILURE off my list of fears.

Now if I could only do the same thing with clowns….


  1. I love this post. I'm sharing it on my writing Tumblr. :-)

  2. Amazing, Jen. Thank you for being so transparent and sharing this. It's so true and something others need to hear more often. Allowing yourself to fail feels so counter intuitive but it works.

    I'm sharing this on Twitter. :)

    Ha, clowns! I fear clowns, too. I don't know why children are supposed to like them. They're so creepy and unnatural.

    1. Thanks, Jess! Let's just hope I remember my own advice over the next couple of weeks as I prep for the conference!

      And I don't know why kids are supposed to like clowns either. White face, red lips, dark eyes...speaks of death and terror to me! I was given a clown doll as a little girl and that thing stayed hidden in my closet. I was always terrified it was going to come get me (and I'd never even heard of the horror movies/stories in which that happened!)

    2. My friend Grace is terrified of clowns. When we went to Fear Fest at Great Adventure one year, we told every psycho clown we saw this this until she had about a dozen chasing her around the park at once.

      ... we're kind of terrible people. ;-)

    3. For some reason I just saw this comment. You are terrible people! (But it sounds like something I would do, too!)