The fear of failure plagues many people, and writers are not exempt. We like to dream big, which is awesome, but we sometimes put too much pressure on ourselves as a result.
We look up to authors who are successful in our eyes and make them our standard for success. “They’re the real writers,” we think. We wish we could be like them. We hope we could. We work hard, but if we don’t see results, our nagging doubt can descend into unshakeable anxiety.
“You’ll never make it,” a terrible voice whispers.
We fear that all our hard work will be for nothing. Destructive self-criticism and pessimism can lead to defeated morale, depression, or the worst creative tragedy of all: Giving up.
What can we do to prevent this harmful downward spiral? How we can keep the fear of failure at bay?
There are two fears at play here. They often mingle and look alike, but today we’re going to untangle them and deal with them one at a time.
Fear #1: I’ll fail in my career.
For one thing, we’re only setting ourselves up for harm when we think in absolutes, like those I mentioned in the first few paragraphs. Let me restate them here:
- Famous, best-selling, or otherwise “big” writers are the standard for success. They’re the real
- We’ll never make it.
- All our hard work will be for nothing.
Have you ever found yourself thinking this way? If so, I understand, because I still catch myself sliding into these thought patterns sometimes. But I’ve learned this isn’t healthy. Not only that, these statements are simply untrue.
I’m going to repeat that last bit. Let this sink into your mind. Meditate on it. Write some version of it on your wall, if it helps.
These statements are untrue.
Instead, let’s look a different way of thinking. I’ll pick apart each of these harmful statements in turn.
“Famous, best-selling, or otherwise ‘big’ writers are the standard for success. They’re the real writers.”
There are countless “real” writers who aren’t at J.K. Rowling status. We don’t need to be a so-called giant to be a legitimate, successful writer.
Here’s my challenge, friend: Redefine what success means to you.
Is it making a living off of your books? Is it making money of any sort? Is it being traditionally published? Is it being published at all? Is it seeing your novels in the bookstores? Is it hitting the best-selling lists? Is it having a passionate, though perhaps small, group of fans who eagerly look forward to your every release? (Side note: That’s my personal definition of success!)
Or maybe it’s something even simpler: If you’ve touched one person’s life with your story, will that be worth it to you?
Perhaps your definition of success is something rather common. Or maybe it’s extremely specific to you – some standard or goal that no one else shares.
Think about it. Dig deep. Challenge the cultural norm that has perhaps seeped into your way of thinking: the lie that says you have to be just like your heroes, or else you’ve failed.
I’ll say it again: There are many, many ways to succeed without being your heroes. And it’s up to you to decide what success means.
“I’ll never make it.”
Making it – once you’ve personally defined what that means – isn’t something that happens overnight. Most authors seem to have a good number of books under their belts before they finally write their breakout novel, or the novel they are most known for.
Their debut novel often isn’t The Novel.
Sure, there are exceptions – as with Harper Lee, whose first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, defined her craft and brought almost immediate fame – but that is not the norm. It is unreasonable for us to expect that out of ourselves.
Because of this, we never have the right to say those words: “I’ll never make it.” As long as you’re breathing and writing, you still have the chance of making it. No matter how many books you’ve written so far, no matter how poorly they’ve been received, you’re not finished until you say you are.
“All my hard work will be for nothing.”
Of course it won’t be for nothing, because – as we covered in the last point – every word you write makes you a better writer and brings you closer to your goal. But here’s a thing – and it might be scary at first to hear this, but hear me out – it’s also okay to not meet your goals.
If you enjoy writing, if it’s your passion, then it is a worthwhile way to spend your time, regardless of the outcome. (If you don’t actually enjoy writing, then you should reconsider why you’re doing it in the first place!)
But let’s not stop there. Here are three more reasons why writing, in of itself, is valuable:
Stories strengthen empathy.
Stories bring people together and make us more empathetic. Even if you’re the only one who reads your own book, writing a story in someone else’s shoes can make you better at understanding other people and perspectives. It’ll become easier for you to identify with people who are different from you. And if your book is read by a small audience, those readers will have a similar learning experience. You’ll be spreading understanding. Our world always needs more of that, even in small doses.
Stories are therapeutic for writers.
Writing is often therapeutic for the writer herself. You may find healing by facing some of your demons or fears on the page. You may also be surprised by just how much you’ll learn about yourself from your characters, as they reflect back on you, and how much you’ll improve yourself in the process.
Writing fosters personal growth.
Working on a challenging task like a novel can increase your work ethic. Finishing a novel, whether that be a single draft or the entire project, is pure euphoria. The powerful sense of accomplishment makes you feel like you can do anything. It’ll encourage and motivate you in the rest of life’s challenges and difficult tasks. That surge of confidence is worth all the hard work you put in, and then some.
I could probably write an entire blog post on why writing is beneficial. These three points are just the beginning. Already, I’m sure you can see that your work as a writer is never for nothing, no matter what professional or vocational results come from it.
Fear #2: I’ll fail with my current project
We looked at the first fear writers face: failure in their careers overall. This second fear is a little more specific and situational. Sometimes it comes up again and again, with each new project: The dread that this one is going to suck.
Indirectly, I addressed much of this fear in the last section. As we saw, writing – particularly storytelling – is always valuable in of itself. And, if you’re a first time writer, we already established that the pressure to make your first novel perfect isn’t valid, because you always have the chance to write a better novel later. You shouldn’t feel like your first one must be a breakout success. Sure, it’d be awesome if that happened for you! But it isn’t necessary.
Despite these reassurances, however, some of you – if you’re at all like me – might hear these words, yet still secretly harbor a bit of pressure and fear. “What if I release my first book and it’s absolutely terrible?” you wonder. “What if it’s a complete flop, and I’m embarrassed in front of everyone?”
Or, if you’re already published, you may be wondering: “What if I release my next book and it doesn’t live up to people’s expectations? What if I disappoint my readers? What if I can’t recreate the quality of my last book?”
If these fears resonate with you, here are three truths I encourage you to let ruminate:
Perfection doesn’t exist.
For the perfectionists out there (guilty as charged), there is something critical we need to accept if we are to be effective at our work, and if we are to ever let our projects out into the world:
Our work will never be perfect.
No matter how much time you spend on a project, no matter how much heart and soul and hard work you pour into it, there will always be room for improvement.
Yes, you should make your novel as amazing as you possibly can. Yes, you should give it your all. Yes, you should be firm in your standards for excellence, and never compromise in terms of quality.
But there’s a difference between trying to achieve excellence and trying to achieve perfection: One is quite possible. The other is a fairy tale.
A huge part of creative work is learning to accept when your project is done, when it’s time to move on. There will always be one more thing you could tweak, one more detail you could change. But unless you plan to carry your manuscript to your death and continue working on it in the afterlife, sharing it a few thousand years from now with all your dead relatives and ancestors, you have to choose a time between now and then to let it go.
Failure isn’t… failure.
We often think about failure as if it’s this horrific end. But there’s a lesson we can learn from the startup world: failure isn’t something to grieve. Many times, it’s something to celebrate.
What on earth do I mean?
Let’s take a quick trip to business land. A “startup” can be defined as a young business that is building new kinds of products or selling to new markets. In other words, it’s a business that can’t rely on a tried and tested business model. Its founders don’t know if their product will sell, or how to sell it, because they’re trying something no one has done before.
In this kind of environment, there are many unknown variables. Many risks. So what do people in startups do?
People in startup companies are constantly trying new things, asking questions like: What if we made the product this way? What if we marketed that way?
Each time something fails, they don’t count it as a true loss, but as a necessary learning experience. They ask: Why didn’t it work? Like scientists in a lab, they take notes of what happened, change some variables, and try again.
Eventually, with enough failures under their belts, they learn how to do it right. They are finally able to build a stable business structure with the right product, right customers, and right marketing strategy. Cash flows, and the business grows. Cha-ching!
Remember what Thomas Edison said? “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
This mindset is well-known in startup culture. But what if we applied it to other creative pursuits as well? Like… writing novels?
For example, when beta readers don’t like your book, don’t be discouraged. Instead, think like a startup scientist. Ask: why didn’t it work? Learn from the experience. Let it shape how you improve the next draft.
Similarly, when a book flops or receives critical reviews, don’t be hard on yourself. Instead ask: why didn’t it work? Learn from the experience. Try something different next time in your marketing strategy or storytelling structure.
Allow failures to be a good thing. Don’t let them steal your motivation and resolve. Instead, let them spur you on to grow, learn, and do better next time.
But don’t just take it from me…
“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” – Henry Ford
“There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.” – Brene Brown
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” – Robert F. Kennedy
“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.” – Colin Powell
Improve by doing, not by waiting.
You’ll never create the novel you want – whether it’s your debut, a sequel, or a finale – by hanging back in fear and uncertainty. And if you’re not satisfied with your writing skills at the moment, you’re never going to improve them by beating yourself up and retreating from the task.
Instead, write the book. Make it the best you can. Give it to beta readers to critique. Listen and apply their feedback. Put your book through professional editing. Keep learning, improving, growing.
Again, think of your book like a science experiment. Does it work on readers? Does it inspire the kind of emotional reactions you were hoping for?
If the answer is no, wait for the sting of negative feedback to wear off… then get back to work and make changes. Test it again. Does it work now? Repeat the process until you’ve achieved the novel you want.
Friend, I want this to sink in deep: You can become the novelist of your dreams. You can achieve the quality you yearn for. But it takes work. It takes doing.
Endless, perfectionistic nitpicking that sends you in circles, constantly changing a draft but never really finishing it, isn’t going to get you there. Action, experimentation, and applied learning and growth will get you there.
Neglecting to pick up your manuscript at all because you hate the words flowing from your fingertips and you’re afraid you’ll never make progress isn’t going to get you there. Action, habit, and stubborn persistence will get you there.
It’s not enough to dream. We also have to do, and keep doing.
I hope all this has encouraged you. I leave you with these parting words: Remember, don’t be so hard on yourselves, friend. You can get there. Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid of failure, because it isn’t always there to harm you, and it isn’t always the end.
Have you ever struggled with the fear of failure? How have you handled it? Share in the comments below.
Photo credits: Pixabay, Unsplash.