This is the second in a series of blog posts inspired by my friend and colleague Marcus Rimboch, who asked me to respond to a series of ten questions originally posed by Tim Ferris in his book Tribe of Mentors.
Question #2: How has failure set you up for later success?
Ernest Hemingway viewed life as a game in which human beings are ultimately defeated by death. Failure, then, is every person’s mortal end. Along the way, we all experience and endure numerous “little deaths” in preparation for the failures of the heart and brain that await us at life’s end. What matters, therefore, is not that we often and ultimately fail; that much is a given. What truly matters is our response to those failures.
The literary critic Irving Howe remarked that the typical Hemingway hero is a man who “finds a remnant of dignity in an honest confrontation of defeat.” I very much like and agree with Howe’s sentiment that there can be dignity in defeat. In fact, I would argue that it is in response to one’s failures that dignity or the lack thereof is most prominently on display. Even more so, as Ferris’ question implies, failure can serve to “set [one] up for later success.” A wise person recognizes failure as an opportunity rather than as a defeat.
In the aftermath of my many defeats and rejections, like a stream whose route is blocked, I’ve learned to reroute myself and either continue toward my original destination down a divergent path or in some cases to set my sights on an entirely new end.
For my entire life, the fear of failure has been a powerful motivating factor for me. As a child, I desperately desired the approval of my difficult-to-please father, especially as it related to my performance on athletic fields. As I was, at best, an average football player, an only slightly-better-than-average baseball player, and I didn’t play basketball beyond junior high, I mostly fell short of his desires for me. I believe this failure to please him is at least partly why I entered the coaching profession. It was a second chance to prove myself successful in his most beloved arena.
For a while, it worked. I had a fairly successful run as both a baseball coach and then football coach at my and his alma mater, winning several conference championships and making a few deep runs into district, regional, and state playoffs. My first encounter with abject failure as a coach occurred after leaving my first head coaching position for one in a larger school district. My initial success in coaching had convinced me that coaching would be the ladder I’d climb to increasingly better positions in both coaching and teaching.
That ladder, however, came crashing down when over four years I won a measly 5 football games while losing 35. I managed to lose 23 straight games, which for a football team is nearly 25 months between victories. By the end of my tenure, I was an emotional wreck, my self-confidence was shot, and I had lost my definition of who I was and who I was planning to become.
It was time for a reboot.
After resigning as head football coach, I convinced myself that, like Thoreau leaving Walden Pond, I had other lives to live. Besides, with my record, the odds of being hired as a head football coach at another school were pretty low. Therefore, I determined it was time to chase a different dream, one I’d harbored since childhood: to be an author. At the time, I didn’t know how small the chances were of ever having a novel purchased by a major publishing house. According to publishers themselves, they accept 1 to 2 of every 100 manuscripts they receive. Had I known the long odds, I may have never started to write.
However, start I did. I completed my first attempt at a novel just prior to the proliferation of the internet, which led to literary agents accepting queries through email. Therefore, I printed ten copies of the manuscript and mailed them all off to my top ten agents. Over the next three months, each manuscript returned home to me. Some were worse for the wear; others bore not a single sign of having been touched by their intended recipients.
I was bowed but not broken.
I almost immediately began work on a second novel. Within a year’s time, it was ready for submission. By then, the majority of agents were accepting email queries, which meant the process of submission had been streamlined. It was simpler and quicker, and an author had the ability to submit to a large number of agents simultaneously. For me and for the most part, it only meant that the torture of waiting for what began to feel like inevitable rejections was made shorter, but the number of cuts to my thin skin increased exponentially.
My saving grace was that one — just one — agent took the time to write a complimentary note regarding my novel and to encourage me to keep writing. Encouraged by the promise she saw in me, I tried once more, and a year-and-a-half later, I procured an agent, who fairly quickly thereafter sold my novel So Shelly to Random House. It would be the only novel I would publish with them, but to this day, it thrills me every time I receive a royalty statement or an email addressed to me as a Random House Author.
Since Shelly, I have written something like 6 complete novels and two partials, only two of which I’ve published through a small hybrid publisher. If you’re counting, that’s 3 out of 10. That’s not bad for a baseball player’s batting average but a lot of failure for an author.
So, to answer the question, I’d say, for me, failure has proven Alexander Graham Bell to be correct: “When one door closes, another one opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.” As Bell advises, after each failure or rejection, I try not to dwell on them. Instead, I look for new opportunities for success. If my Heiler (my maternal grandmother’s family) blood has taught me anything, it is that life is for the living and much too short to dwell on anyone’s passing or the “little deaths” of failure along the way.
I’ve long advised my children that “If you work hard and believe in yourself, good things will happen. They may not happen exactly how and when you want them to, but they will happen.” I have to believe that or the most fundamental definition of myself will be erased, and I will disappear with it.
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