But What if My Ship Doesn’t Come In?

I’ve been thinking a lot about failure lately and I’ve come to the conclusion that failing may be the great American taboo.  People will go on television and talk about their sex lives, their medical problems, their psychological traumas, but they will rarely speak or be invited to speak about their failures unless it is in the context of how they overcame them on the path to success.

I wanted to read a bit about failure and almost all of the books I could find on the subject are not really about failure at all.  They are about failure as a stepping stone to eventual and inevitable success.

Now all of this may simply be a question of marketing. It is easier to sell people a book that says they will eventually and inevitably triumph (and here are five simple steps) than to sell them one that says they may not.  But the idea that you can count on avoiding failure if you remain optimistic and work hard is deeply ingrained in our culture. We believe in our own power, not in outside circumstances that are beyond our control.  The best the fates can do is temporarily blow us off course.  (Stay tuned for an article in this space on The Prodigal Son which will have more on this cultural bias.)

In fact, yesterday night as I was thinking about this and flipping through channels I came across and interview with Oprah Winfrey on Bravo.  “There is no such thing as failure” Oprah said. (for some reason I want to call her “Oprah” and not the more formal “Winfrey”) “It is only God’s way of telling you it is time to change direction.”

That is a fair enough way to rationalize failure after the fact, I suppose, as a message from the gods to change direction.  But the fact is, failure happens.

Because we are loathe to admit this, we have an absolute dearth of instruction on how to deal with failure– not delayed success– failure.

The paradox is that The United States may have more failures than any other nation.  We are a culture that prizes lofty goals. Failing to achieve what you set out to do is a common feature of having lofty goals.

When it comes to arts careers, failure is absolutely the norm. (See also my post The Joys of Failure.) There is the failure to make a living wage for one, the failure to achieve stability, falling short of artistic goals, failing to find the time to develop all of your ideas and concepts, the failure to achieve recognition, and finding that one career success does not necessarily lead to another.

For every movie star there are thousands of out of work actors who may have every bit as much potential to be a star but who never came across the right casting agent for the right part at the right moment.  For every best selling book there are thousands of potential literary stars who didn’t manage to persuade the right publisher to push their title in the right way.

The aspect of our culture that says that anyone can make it (to the top) with enough work, talent and faith is probably not true in any career field.  It is especially untrue in the arts.  Not everyone who tries gets to be prima ballerina or first chair.  There are not enough of those seats.

So what do you do in our culture when you come to the realization that the kind of success you imagined as a student may well never come in spite of your best efforts?  Sit with that question for a moment, because your instinct will probably be to avoid that thought at all costs. “Of course, I will succeed, it may just take longer. I may need to tweak my plan.”  “Don’t be so down on yourself.”  “Don’t be so negative.”

It feels dangerous to embrace the notion that you could fail in spite your best efforts, doesn’t it?

It is also the truth.

You could do what Oprah Winfrey does at such a moment and redefine success in order to preserve the notion that you did not really fail (you are just on the path to succeeding at something else).  That is one way to cope with the space between your ambitions and your daily life.

I think “success” and “failure” may be the wrong lens all together.  When I get frustrated that my work as a writer is not yielding the results that I would like– for example when a magazine decides to pay a kill fee instead of running the article I wrote and suddenly cuts my expected income by 75%, or when my heavily promoted novel gets great reviews and only sells enough copies to count on one hand, or when agents and publishers reject a series of proposals with “we like it… buts”– I’ve started to train myself not to ask if I am “succeeding” or not.

Realizing that I have a limited time on Earth, I ask this: “What do I want to fill my life with? Am I doing that?”

When I pose the question that way, I find that the answer is “yes.”

I could take the next big American step and say that this makes me a “success.”  But that leaves one leg in the success/failure trap.

It is hard to make a living at what I have chosen to do.  It is a lot of work.  There is much less recognition for my efforts than I would like. I may never find any of that easy.  Who said it was supposed to be?

My “ship” may not come in.  Struggles and all, I am filling my life with what is most meaningful to me.


  1. Realizing that I have a limited time on Earth, I ask this: “What do I want to fill my life with? Am I doing that?”

    I am sometimes a bit Oprah when I teach my writing classes. I spent a dozen or more years restlessly moving from one creative endeavor to another before I tried writing and realized that this was what I was meant to do, and would do for the rest of my life, no matter the level of success. I tell my classes that if they find that writing is ‘too hard,’ or not what they expected, not to consider it any kind of failure. To consider it one ticky mark off a list, and closer to finding what it is inside them struggling to be free.

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