I finally heard back this week on a big writing contest I entered. I worked hard on my story for almost 6 months, revising and getting feedback from friends. I didn’t think it was good enough to win, but I thought it might be good enough to make honorable mention. I got a very cordial email saying my story did not place in the contest, which was a very nice way of saying: REJECTED!
I was a little bummed about it. I had a hard time writing the next day as I was trying to process how I felt. Later that night, I happened to be going to a book signing by one of my favorite authors: Brandon Sanderson. He gave a short talk at the beginning of the signing about failing as an author. He talked about a book he failed to write and ultimately scrapped this year. It was encouraging to me to see that even an extremely talented professional occasionally has to throw in the towel.
As I was pondering his words, I realized that the rejection was a direct parallel to a story concept I have been practicing. In stories, characters often get what they need, but not what they want. For example if the character desperately wants a pony, but ultimately needs to learn an important life lesson about humility, the best storytelling will give them one or the other, but not both.
What I wanted was to enter the contest and win. Instead, I got what I needed. I think I still need to learn to fail. It is something I haven’t had to deal with a lot in my life because I hate it so much. I am naturally good at a lot of things. And the few things I have failed at haunted me so much that I avoid putting myself in similar situations. I still remember a massive failure when I tried little league baseball. I’ve generally avoided sports ever since because I never want to feel that way again.
But here’s the thing. Maybe I am missing my purpose in life because I am too afraid to fail. When I was first experimenting with the idea of writing more, my wife asked me a really fascinating question. She asked me what I would do if I knew I couldn’t fail. Without a second’s hesitation I said I would become an author. That means that the main thing that is holding me back is a fear of failure. So even now, over a year later, I am still bumping up against that same fear. I wanted to win a contest and kick off my writing career as a published author. But if I had won, I would be missing out on this important opportunity to get what I needed: the ability to fail.
If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do? The answer to that question may point you in the direction you should go, failures included.