July 29, 2014

The Value of Failure

Signpost of "Success" and "Failure" with text: Don't Be Afraid of...

I’m back from the RWA National writing conference but still feeling rather zombie-like. Mix an introvert into an extroverted (2000+ attendees!) situation, add tons of great workshops to stretch her brain, and subtract decent sleep for the week leading up to the conference and continuing through the conference, and you have a mess. That is, you have me. *smile*

I want to thank Mary Buckham for going above and beyond with her “takeover” of my blog last week. She did a phenomenal job answering questions and replying to comments—in addition to her great posts on improving our setting descriptions through deep point of view and anchoring our scenes. And congratulations to Amanda and Serena for their wins in Mary’s giveaways. Yay!

My workshop went well and I attended several fantastic sessions, so I’ll be sharing additional thoughts in the upcoming weeks. But for now, I need a topic I can fake being coherent for in a short post. *grin* Then I can return to being brain dead for another day or two.

Perfectionism and Fears

My regular readers know I’m a perfectionist, as I’ve mentioned it many times, but I try not to let it hold me back. After all, logically I know perfection is impossible. So every week I manage to publish blog posts and share my work with others despite its flaws.

However, facing various choices and issues in my writing career has forced me to recognize that sometimes I do suffer from a related fear. And that fear does hold me back.

  1. I’m a perfectionist.
  2. The drive for perfectionism can trigger a fear of failure.

I would bet that I’m not alone with this dual whammy of issues. While I don’t let my perfectionism hold me back in day-to-day life, I struggle when facing choices: What if I choose “wrong”?

This might not be the typical “fear of failure,” but I think it is related. Whether we call it failure or not, it’s a fear of doing something “wrong.”

In writing, it might be a fear of writing our genre wrong, or writing the wrong kind of character. Or maybe we worry about whether an agent or contract is wrong for us. Or maybe we fear the publishing path we’re on will flop or that we’re too late to the game to find success.

In short, this fear of doing things “wrong” can paralyze us from making any choices at all. That paralysis is what’s really wrong.

Failure Isn’t the End

Bestselling author Sylvia Day was the Keynote Speaker at the RWA Annual Conference, and one of the themes of her talk was the danger of failure and fear. She pointed out that not only does fear of failure hold us back, but it also prevents us from learning from our mistakes.

Sure, we might choose “wrong,” but very few mistakes in our life won’t come with a lesson we can take away for the future. With each new book, we can experiment with our writing techniques. Maybe an agent is “wrong” for us, but we can change agents. A “wrong” contract doesn’t prevent us from writing new stories for new options. Self-published authors can change books covers and blurbs if they turn out to be “wrong” for attracting readers.

Even a choice of a publishing path doesn’t have to be permanent. Plenty of authors have gone from traditional to self-publishing and vice versa—or found a middle ground with hybrid publishing.

If we make a choice and it turns out to be a mistake due to one thing or another—and we learn from that mistake—is our choice really a mistake?

The problem isn’t with making mistakes. We all make mistakes every day and can’t avoid that fact. Living life without mistakes is just as impossible as living life perfectly. The problem is only if we don’t learn anything from our mistakes.

Failure Is a Learning Experience

It’s only by “failing” to receive “everything is perfect” feedback that we learn how we can improve our writing. It’s only by receiving rejections that we learn which agents aren’t a good fit for our work. And it’s only by trying that we’ll learn what doesn’t work.

We see this in the rest of our life too. We often need to date several “not right for us” people to learn what we don’t want in a life partner. Or we might have to try a class in school to learn the subject isn’t nearly as interesting to us as we thought.

Writing isn’t any different. It’s only by “failing” that we learn.

But that truth means failure has value. If failure teaches us something, it’s not strictly a bad thing.

If our goal is not to “succeed”
or avoid failure or mistakes,
but to learn something,
we will never fail.

Image of "never fail" quote(Like this quote? )

I’m going to try to apply this perspective to my writing life. If I can stop stressing about “doing something wrong” and instead focus on “learning to do it better next time,” I might be less intimidated by decisions. Maybe I can stop being paralyzed when faced with big choices so I can move forward.  Someday, I might even look forward to the opportunity to make new mistakes. *smile*

Do you agree that a fear of doing something wrong is related to a fear of failure? Do you struggle with the “what if I do something wrong” style of fear of failure? Can failure have value? Do you think it’s always possible to view failure as a learning experience? And if not, what makes that attitude difficult or impossible?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Rhenna Morgan

A great post, Jami! I suffer from the same fear of making a wrong decision. I want so badly to “get it right” that I ping-pong myself back and forth between options…and likely drive everyone around me crazy in the process. (I seem to recall chatting your ear off a time or two last week.)

My motto after last week – The key is the write the best book I can, put myself out there, and learn. Everything else will happen as it needs to.


I agree with your statement that a fear of doing something wrong is related to a fear of failure. That can be stifling and put you on a never ending circle. I try to take the path of courage and am thankful for the cheerleaders I find on the sidelines.

Thank you for a wonderful post.

Priscilla Verdia
Priscilla Verdia

You must have been picking up my vibes when you wrote this one. I have been writing-ah-hem, rewriting the same novel for longer than I care to admit. Going back and changing the beginning, changing the premise, changing motivations. I’ve changed just about everything in the story except for the characters’ names, and I’ve been tempted to do that. It is the fear that I have chosen the wrong starting point, or the wrong situation, or the wrong anything that has muddied my once coherent, if imperfect, MS and changed it into a tangent- filled non-cohesive stack of ideas. I promise myself that I will pick one major dramatic question for my over arching dramatic plot and commit. If the readers don’t like it once I’ve finished and I feel that I’ve done a good job, then so be it. I’ll write another story and move on while growing as a writer each time. Thanks, Jami for your consoling post.

Dani Harper

Wow, you sure got my number on this one! I’m my own worst enemy, and it’s not uncommon for me to work myself into a state of total paralysis from fear of making the “wrong” decision — especially in my writing!

Carly Compass

I have just experienced all of this in the past 4.5 months while building my writer’s platform, first choosing a blog post or a website, feeling like if I make the wrong choice, I will lose my domain name and most recently what to post. The list is endless and in the end, mistakes are correctable.

As a writer we expose our hearts and minds to the public and it can be a very daunting task. We have a skull to protect our brains and bones to protect our organs physically, but when we reveal our inner most thoughts the skull and skeleton will do little to protect our spirit.

Gratefully, though, we do learn from mistakes, as long as we can push past the paralyzing fear. In the end if you do and you make the mistake, you can laugh, because it is never as bad as you imagine.

For being exhausted after your conference, I’d say, you’re still batting 1,000! Always a pleasure Jami Gold!

Sara Ryan

Yipe, Carly you got through it, it sounds like what I’ve been doing–agonizing over whether to blog, what to blog, where to blog, and I needed to: do it anyway advice from Jami Gold. Maybe I can move forward now, she says, peering around to make sure no one is watching . . . .

Loni Townsend

I have a terrible fear of failure to. I notice it more when interacting with others. I’m afraid I’ll disappoint them. I usually can’t stop the “sorry” and uncertainty until it’s already out.

But you’ve got a good attitude about it. Can’t fail if our goal is to learn.

Lucy Lit

Before I started writing, I used to tell my business clients if they weren’t failing, they weren’t living and their business venture would die anyway. Now when I fall into the same mindset regarding my writing, I stop, take a deep breath and repeat, “I am learning and my writing will be better as a result”. Yesterday, I asked a colleague for a critique on my WIP. She ripped pieces off like a starving T-Rex, then asked if I was okay while apologizing for her harshness. I was fine – and grateful – because she was correct in her assessment. Now I can move on with clarity. It’s not failure when you’re learning. Thanks for another great post!

Anne R. Allen

I love your quote! And congrats on surviving the conference. It takes so much out of an introvert to go to one of those things. Especially if you have hyper-sensitivity, as many writers do.

I love the fact that Al Yankovic has the #1 album right now. I used to listen to him on our local college radio station when he was a geeky college kid. He was so strange, people started calling him “weird Al”. He loved it, owned it, and put “Weird” right there in his name. And the rest is history…

There is no such thing as perfect. There is only the best YOU that you can be. That is what success means. Great post.

Mary Anders
Mary Anders

Your post couldn’t have come at a better time as I am tearing my hair out feeling like I need to build a website and a social media presence for a new pen name pronto. Sometimes in our rush to get to the destination, we forget to enjoy the process =) Great post! Your blog is an invaluable source of information and support for writers of all levels. Can’t wait to hear how the conference went.

Raven Clark
Raven Clark

Oh boy, does this post speak to me! I think I suffer more the fear of getting things wrong than I do the direct fear of failure. LOL. It’s why it takes me forever to write books. Thank you for this inspiring post, Jami!

Also, you are SO lucky you got to see Sylvia Day speak!!! *Sob* I’m a huge fan of hers!

Love Anne R. Allan’s comment. So true.

Deborah Makarios

What scares me is the idea of putting so much time and effort into a book and having it turn out to be rubbish. Yes, you learn from it, but it takes so long! But then I ask myself, what else am I going to do?

Julie Musil

Jami, what you’ve described about yourself describes me perfectly. No joke. It’s weird because I’m totally fine with the “failures happen” part of regular life, but I stress more about it with my writing life. So many choices to make, each with their own consequences. But you’re right…we can learn from failures. Nothing is wasted, even the wrong decisions. Welcome back! Now get some sleep 🙂

K.B. Owen

Learning. Always learning. I have to keep reminding myself of that being the most important part. Thanks for the fab post, Jami! Glad you had such a terrific experience at RWA. You were rockin’ that blue dress, btw! (at least it looked blue in the pics; could have been a bit purplish…not sure). 😉

Kassandra Lamb

Wow, Jami, if this is the post you knock out when you’re brain-dead from fatigue… Just wow! I pinned your great quote!!

You might find this post interesting —


[…] always fear failure. Jami Gold explains the value of failure, The Magic Violinist says that failure IS an option for writers, and Jody Hedlund tells us how to […]

PJ Friel

Wow. I thought it was just me. I’m terrified of “doing it wrong” in regards to writing. I’ve written two (and a half) books and decided that they’re all rubbish. I’m currently working on “redeveloping” the world for the 2nd one because there just “wasn’t enough opportunity for conflict. “(Pretty sure I would have found another reason to start over if it wasn’t for that one.)

THANK YOU for reminding me that I need to just DO IT. I’m not getting any younger…which brings up a whole other fear that I’m not gonna examine too closely. 😉


[…] Conference (partially because it helps me remember them too *grin*). So far I’ve covered Sylvia Day’s insights on failure, RWA’s new stance on self-publishing, and Liliana Hart’s publishing […]


This post came at just the right time for me! I’m a huge perfectionist too, only this year I’ve just realized and put a name to some of the things that I do and the way I think. I’m still struggling to not let the perfectionist side of me get in the way of daily life, let alone writing. I love how you said that if we learn from a choice, then it isn’t really a mistake.


Sometimes, the fear of failure is greater, because some people find their self-worth in their talent, looks, etc. And when you write something that publishes, but is destroyed by critics and sells little, you can’t exactly rewrite it. This is sometimes very much a problem of striking out and not getting to bat again. Although I suppose some writers shouldn’t be too attached to a single book or series. Although I imagine being attached to a series is more understandable.

Pat Ireland
Pat Ireland

Wonderful post, Jami. I’m sorry for the late response but I just *had* to chime in here, because this post describes me perfectly.

It also made me think of a quote from hockey legend Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” (That was also how he played. He didn’t hold back, waiting for the “perfect scoring opportunity” before taking a shot. He took a lot of shots: good shots, bad shots, crazy shots, impossible shots, and he actually missed many of them. But he didn’t let that stop him from trying again the next time he had control of the puck, which is part of the reason he became such a powerhouse on the ice.)

Maybe my WIP isn’t the perfect story idea, and maybe this isn’t the perfect time in my life to be writing a novel. Maybe a lot of things aren’t “perfect.” But if I wait until everything is “perfect” before I start, then I’ll never get started at all.

Maybe it would be safer that way. But how unsatisfying a life that would be.

I need to keep reminding myself that the only real failure is the failure to try. But I think I like your quote better. I hope you don’t mind if I download it and use it for my desktop background?

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