I’m proud to tell you that I’m a failure. Because on the other side of failure, is success. I wasn’t always proud to say it because I didn’t set out to fail.
As school children we learned how to read and write while teachers and parents said, “Reach for the stars.” What they never told us was there would be many failures along the way. And from those nonstarters, losses, and setbacks, you will learn.
From a very young age, many children are taught to set their sights on a future with questions like, What do you want to be when you grow up? Admirable choices abounded: firefighter, nurse, or doctor. A mother or father. A builder or mechanic. No one suggested starving artist or struggling novelist. I wonder why?
My parents were not the goal oriented types to pressure me into a career. They were hippies and only wanted me to be happy. So I chose a path that –looking back on it—set me up for failure from the starting line. I attended Berklee College of Music. A college that accepts no credits from any other college or university. A college for jazz and modern music. (Whoops. I grew up playing classical piano and never once had I improvised or jammed with other musicians.) Berklee College in Boston, in a city so unlike my midwestern roots made me long for a tree to climb or a blade of grass to whistle between my thumbs.
I attended three of four years then went home, intoxicated, and sickened by my failure. And yet, I learned more about myself in those three years than I would have if I’d attended a regular university. I learned that I love to create things of beauty, whether it’s with words, music, or something tangible. And I learned how to fail.
Many years later, I drew on that experience to strengthen my resolve as I dove into a new career. I wished to publish a book I’d written and set about learning how. I learned about agents and publishers, traditional and independent publishing. And the deeper I dove, the more I failed. I sent queries that failed to get noticed. I pitched to agents who said definitively, “No.” I rewrote and revised that book more than twenty times. It—and I—failed. Unwilling to give up, I saved the file and archived it.
Swivel, tilt, and spin.
What I learned is, failure isn’t about losing. It’s about what you do when you fall. Sure, you may cry a little, or even a lot. You may drink a bottle to drown your sorrows, and you may throw that manuscript, method, or project in the garbage pail. All viable options.
But by all means, pick yourself up by your bootstraps and keep working on your craft.
Here’s what not to do: stop trying.
When I was growing up, my family spent summers at a lake house owned by my grandmother. We swam in the water, boated, and learned how to water ski at a very young age. My mom and dad both skied. All the aunts and uncles skied. As if it was in the family genes, we were expected to carry on this family trait. When I was eleven, it became time to learn to slalom on a single ski.
In my family, there was only one way to accomplish this daunting feat. Get up on two skis, signal the boat driver, then while speeding across the surface on two narrow planks, drop one ski. Try to stay balanced while the spray from the speeding boat knocks your bare foot around. Now, slip your foot into the back bootie of the slalom ski.
My generation had four new learners. I was among the eldest, so the younger boys went first. Both dropped skis and stood on one in under five attempts. My turn.
I dropped a ski and fell. Dropped a ski and fell. I’d seen the adults slalom ski and none of them ever dropped a ski. They all pulled up from the water or dock-side. “Let me try it that way,” I said. Not a chance. Eleven-year-olds don’t make the rules. They dragged me behind the boat, cheered me on, and I fell again. And after so many attempts that my whole body ached from hitting the water, I was in tears.
“One more chance. Please,” I cried. “I want to start with both feet in the slalom ski.”
“No one in the history of learners has done it this way.”
“We’ll give you one chance.” The adults finally conceded.
I skied the length of the lake on that one ski.
What I learned? When something isn’t working, pivot. Dip. Dab. Try something new.
I revel in my process now. Looking at failure as a steppingstone helps me to keep moving forward. Aware of my process, I now notice signs of struggle and learn new ways to pirouette around a perceived collapse. It means I’m still moving forward.
That manuscript that no one wanted remained on the metaphorical shelf while I wrote another mystery. I took a new direction. And with the shift came success. Crooked Lane Books saw my twitter pitch and published Best Kept Secrets. That book is still receiving four and five star reviews.
Still wondering about that first manuscript? After twenty seven revisions, two developmental editors and three copy edits, I independently published it under my pseudonym, Karissa Knight. You can find five-star-rated THE CLIENT on Amazon.
How do you face failure?