Shoot for the Moon – Why Romanticizing Failure Doesn’t Equal Success

“Most people fail in life not because they aim too high and miss, but because they aim too low and hit.” – Les Brown

I started thinking about this during a time when the #100rejections hashtag had really taken off among the writing community on Twitter. According to those who were taking part, you should aim for 100 rejections a year because, according to the source, “if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too”. The person cited apparently got numerous places in residencies, won a prestigious fellowship and an astonishing number of publications.

In other words, set yourself up for disappointment and when success does inevitably arrive, you won’t really have lost anything if you start to see each rejection as another tick against your 100-long list.

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In the recent research I’ve been doing into creativity in the workplace, this idea is also celebrated in the way so many talk about aiming to fail in order to succeed. While I agree that failure is necessary in order to improve, what sits uncomfortably with me is this idea that we should strive to fail from the outset. In an article I came across in my reading for work, the message is that “actively seeking rejection means you’re learning, adapting and getting that much closer to your destination.”

It’s not the learning and adapting that I disagree with. When learning to speak as children, we mispronounced words as our mouths tried to master and mimic the things our parents tried to teach us. We flipped porridge onto the kitchen tiles and got spaghetti hoops in our hair as our hands clumsily tried to grip the cutlery and manoeuvre it into our messy mouths. We learned. We adapted. But as children, did we set out to complete the task with the aim of failing?

No – we remained determined to succeed. We only saw the end goal and persevered until we got there. While we encountered failure, over and over, we were giving it our best efforts from beginning to end; the failures didn’t matter, but we never lost sight of that end goal.

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This is why the idea of “actively seeking rejection” just doesn’t convince me.
When we seek rejection, we come from a mindset that says:

  • “I’m not good enough.”
  • “I don’t expect much.”
  • “Rejection hurts. I’m going to try and make it hurt less.”

All of the above come from ego-based fear rather than a place of empowerment, as the #100rejections seems to me to try and imply. Rejection hurts. When it comes to work, we know we should look at it objectively and not take it as a personal attack, but when we’ve poured our heart into a project only to have it knocked back, we’re often left reeling. Which brings me to another belief that I’m seeing being promoted: if you believe in that work, keep submitting it. Over and over and over. For example, I’ve seen tweets along the lines of:

“I’ve sent this same piece of work out over and over for the past five years. Today, on the 40th attempt, it got accepted! #NeverGiveUp”.
While this does often ring true in the case of writing submissions – after all, writing is subjective and it is very likely that what feels like a polished piece of work to you could have just reached the wrong editor or the wrong judge at the wrong time – it runs the risk of making us lax when it comes to editing, improving and developing.
To see what I mean, dig out an old set of notes from when you started your career and were only just learning the ropes. There may be ideas there you thought were genius at the time, that you thought nobody could possibly reject, but which make you cringe now. I know I’ve done it. Only the other day I came across a notebook full of poems I drafted when I was just starting writing my debut poetry collection. At the time, I thought these were stuffed full of raw emotion and Plathian imagery but in reality, looking back, they could have been written by Kevin and Perry. And one day I’ll probably look into my current notebooks and think the same.

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It’s only when you start looking back and comparing it to now that you start to see that development has taken place. What is it that’s shaped that development? Most likely, it’s a combination of feedback, failure, goal-setting, editing, reworking and continuously questioning and learning from others you admire. It comes from research, personal experience and taking constructive criticism on board.
Now imagine that you hadn’t let any of these things that contributed to your development happen. You were adamant that your ideas were right, that they couldn’t be improved, and that your work was perfect. If trying to pitch it to others meant getting rejected over and over and over, so be it. You set yourself an aim of 100 rejections. Somewhere, in that 100, there’s a chance of acceptance somewhere.
But, in years to come, would you be happy with where it was accepted? Did it really match your true vision of success? Say we have a writer, Harry, who has a book that he really wants published. He already knows competition is stiff and that only the very best ever win the best publishers over. He shrugs. He submits the work over and over, wherever he can. He gets rejected, as expected, and gleefully sticks his rejection letters above his desk to contribute to his aim of collecting 100. Out of the blue, within the rejection letter, one well-respected publisher offers him some useful feedback to improve his work. Harry brushes it off. He thinks his work is fine as it is and isn’t changing it for anyone. He’ll get that acceptance somewhere.
Eventually, a small vanity publisher accepts it and charges him an extortionate amount to produce a cheap-looking book on a small scale. Harry pays for the books and shows his friends. “There,” he says. “See? Persistence.”
Meera, on the other hand, wants to make sure she’s really done her very best to get the book she’s worked on for years to a reputable and well-respected publisher. She writes the book. She edits tirelessly. She shares it with a few people she can trust, takes their feedback on board, takes a deep breath and edits for another few weeks. She reads more books from writers she admires. She looks again at her work to see where the quality could be improved. Then she submits again. Not all at once, though. She has done her research and knows which publishers she wants. She wonders maybe if she’s dreaming too big, that failure is inevitable somewhere along the line, but she’s not striving for it. She’s striving to get her book printed by one of those publishers on her preferred list. If failure happens, it’s a learning opportunity that will help her improve, develop and try again with more chance in future.
Some feedback comes back from one publisher along with the rejection. The rejection hurts for a little while, but she revisits the book again and makes some edits based on publisher feedback. She reads more books in her genre by that same publisher to get more of an idea of what they’re looking for. In a month or so, she tries again.
Success.
Now imagine that both Harry and Meera open their notebooks again after five years. Who will have learned and developed the most?
Of course it’s Meera, who aimed for the top, worked hard and learned from the failure. Not Harry, who aimed for rejection and refused to make changes and whose work remains largely the same quality as it was five years ago.

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Going back to the #100rejections hashtag, I’ve seen some intelligent arguments for it. Some say it makes them write more to get the submissions out. Some, including Angela T. Carr, have even suggested renaming it #100submissions, which to me seems a far better idea : “Perhaps it is kinder to think of it in terms of #100submissions and let the cards fall where they may?” It already carries a positive connotation with it; “submissions” comes from a place of empowerment and is far more proactive than the more self-defeating “rejections”, which always conjures the image of someone shrugging and stuffing some half-hearted attempt at work into an envelope and glumly posting it off. Submissions encourage you to write more and actively send things out from a place of wanting success and wanting to improve. It says nothing about rejection at all – and perhaps what we need to do is shift our perception so that it’s the rejections that help improve the submissions, rather than aiming to be rejected until eventually it just gets accepted somewhere, anywhere, with minimal room for editing and improvement.
Before you decide to aim for rejection, ask yourself why? Is it so that you can learn and improve? Or is it merely to stumble upon an acceptance wherever that may be?
I know it’s something that continues to fuel debate, and that some may disagree with me. But I don’t believe in a “culture of failure”. I don’t believe our starting point should be rooted in negativity. Instead of trying to romanticize failure and rejection, perhaps we should just see it as part of the process in reaching for success without ever losing vision of that end goal – set the bar high, remember what success looks like to you and take any opportunity to improve your chances of getting there.
After all, your childhood self didn’t learn to use a fork by accident by actively aiming to hit anywhere but your mouth.

3 Comments

  1. Excellent piece on the creative process and the need for the rigour of self-editing. I think you may be a little harsh on the notes for your first collection. Certainly, the result is tremendously powerful. Reading your subsequent work it’s a privilege to watch your development, and increasing precision of work (undoubtedly the result of remorseless self-editing).

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  2. I completely agree! The 100 rejections trend has good intentions but it’s fundamentally flawed. There’s a lot of publications open for submission but arguably a small pool of reputable ones, supposing that the writer is looking to publish within their genre/style and not generic writer magazines. One good submission leaves an editor with a far better impression of a writer than one that’s been rushed to hit a weekly submissions target, even if that submission is rejected.

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  3. Completely agree with this Natalie. #100Submissions has so many more positive connotations! I think the ultimate goal should be to hone your craft and always strive to improve. I’m very much the same with looking at old (and even recent!) work.

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