Today I'm writing to everyone who has experienced the sting of failure at something that mattered to them.
You had a goal, maybe one you set for yourself, maybe one assigned to you by an authority figure (a boss, a parent, a teacher), and you were determined to fulfill it to the best of your ability. You knew it would be tough, but you rolled up your sleeves, pushed into the fray, and gave it your all. You put in that overtime, you eliminated distractions, and you pushed past every obstacle that tried to get in your way.
You did your absolute best to ensure that the product of your labors was the pinnacle of perfection...
...and it wasn't. Your essay came back with an undesirable grade stamped at the top, your boss told you to scrap the project and start over (or even fired you), or you created something and put it out into the world only to discover that no-one enjoyed or got anything worthwhile out of it. And in that moment, when the adrenaline rush of having completed your task spiraled down into a sick feeling in the pit of your gut, you had this thought at the forefront of your mind: "I had one job, and I failed."
This letter is for you.
As with many of my posts (of which I know this is the first in a very long time), I'm writing this from a place of experience. As many of you know, in late 2016, I published the third book in my fantasy series, 'The Sehret Chronicles: The Survivor'. And then in 2017, I pulled it from the market and announced that I intended to rewrite it and publish the new edition at an undefined later date.
Those of you who know that much likely also know that at that point, I essentially dropped off the face of the earth as far as writing and blogging were concerned (though, let’s be honest – I’ve never been good at blogging on a regular schedule). What you might not know is why.
When I finished writing 'The Survivor', I faced a rather challenging situation -- where with previous books, I'd been able to recruit more objective third parties to help look over my work and point out problem areas/tell me when I needed to work on something, I faced what one might call a "beta famine". Others were willing to look the book over for me, but found their schedules too busy to allow them to get through the giant of a manuscript I'd sent to them (upwards of 140K words in its first draft form). No matter how many I asked, and how many (I'm sure) fully intended to be of help, I got hardly any feedback, and my self-imposed deadline for publishing the book I'd spent three years writing and editing loomed menacingly.
I had to make a choice -- push back the deadline until I could get more substantial, objective feedback (probably the most sensible option), or rip into the manuscript based on my own judgment and what little input I'd managed to glean from others and publish the book "on time".
And I made what was admittedly a rash and incredibly risky call: I chose the second option. I combed through the book, chopped scenes relentlessly, tuned up as much as I could, and with much terror and stomach-twisting, I uploaded the manuscript and hit 'Publish'.
And it tanked. I mean absolutely, spectacularly TANKED.
This could have been partially due to my subpar self-marketing skills, but I largely blame myself for failing to hold out for better feedback and rushing to publish something that clearly was not ready to be released into the world. Beyond mere low sales figures, the only reviews I got on the book cited a plot in shambles, characters who didn't seem like themselves, and a message that was confusing and, in some places, actually disheartening.
When the first review came in and pointed out these glaring issues, I went to my parents' room in the middle of the night (yup, I'm a low-energy Lymie and still live at home), told my mom about the review, and cried my eyes out. My depression/anxiety/OCD/etc. kicked into overdrive, and my headspace got unspeakably dark. This was my primary method of ministry, of contributing to a world I was rarely able to reach otherwise, and instead of helping my target audience, I'd produced something disappointing and potentially discouraging. I wanted to pull the book right then and never publish anything ever again.
But years of talking to other indie authors have taught me that sometimes a few one- or two-star reviews are mere flukes, and that you shouldn't act on them unless they become a trend. I did not feel the review was malicious or even necessarily incorrect (I take reviews very seriously, especially when I can tell the reader is sincere), but as it was only one, I made the decision to leave the book on the market for a while and see what happened.
And then it came -- the second, lengthy and painstakingly detailed review, relating not only every single thing that I'd felt insecure about during the process of writing and editing the manuscript, but also concerns for aspects of the story with which I had been happy, or felt I'd done well for once. And I cried again. My stomach roiled. I felt like I'd failed utterly, like I could never recover from having thrown so much time and effort and passion into a project for three years of my life and produced a result as catastrophic as this.
This left me with a decision. From my perspective, I could have done one of four things:
1. Left the book on the market, accepted that it was the "black sheep" of the series, and tried to make up for my mistakes with the next installment,
2. Take it off the market and pretend it never existed, either proceeding with a new, completely different book or just leaving the series as-is,
3. Take it off the market and never publish anything again (something I seriously considered more than once), or
4. Take it off the market and try again.
After consulting trusted sources close to me (including an old writing buddy who was invaluable in providing feedback for the first two books), I chose the fourth option. I swallowed my pride (most of it, anyway), unpublished 'The Survivor', and posted my apology to the world, along with the promise that I would undergo a rewrite, and requested prayer, as I'd never done something this drastic before and knew that I would struggle once the euphoria of having a second chance wore off. (It was stressful having something on the market that I felt might not be good enough, and I gleaned some measure of relief from the knowledge that it wasn’t available to potential readers anymore.)
It's been seven months since I made that announcement, and the manuscript for said rewrite is still at... *checks current word count in Scrivener* ...6,587 words.
Yup, you read that correctly -- seven months, and the current version of the rewrite doesn't even contain a thousand words per each month I've been working on it. Granted, this is partially because I've made several attempts and, upon being unhappy with some of them, pulled scenes that would have added onto my measly word count. In any case, rewriting this book has been possibly (I daresay almost certainly) the most difficult thing I've ever done as a writer.
Why? Because every time I open that document or someone asks what I'm working on lately, I'm reminded that the whole reason I'm still working on this book is because I failed. As even one of the aforementioned reviewers acknowledged, I threw my heart and soul into the project and tried my best to make it everything it could and should have been, but still it flopped profoundly.
So every time I try to get back to work and make progress towards what I hope will be a better and more worthwhile result, it feels like I have someone leaning over my shoulder, continually whispering, "You failed. You failed at this once, and you'll fail at it again. You are a failure."
But I’d like to draw your attention to an important element of this post’s title: It is addressed to “Those Who Have Failed”, not to “Those Who Are Failures”.
It is crucial to draw a distinction between the two, and to understand that failing and being a failure as a person are two entirely different things. Everyone fails at something eventually, and while the consequences vary in their nature and severity, we (and especially the perfectionists among us) can all relate to the crushing discouragement that follows, and thus may glean much from the following one-liner that you’ve probably heard a million times:
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
But why should we “try, try again” when another attempt brings with it the potential to fail again? Would it not be safer to give up, to run up the white flag of surrender and save ourselves the heartache? Why should I put in another several months/years into rewriting a book from scratch when it brought me such agony last time despite everything I put into it?
As to the question of whether it would be “safer”, I would have to say that yes, from the perspective of a fearful human being, the idea of holding back from attempting something (especially something at which you've previously failed) would feel safer. After all, it's difficult to make the same mistake twice if you never make a second attempt at the pursuit in which the mistake was first made.
To the question of whether it would be better, though, my answer would have to be… maybe not.
The reason I say “maybe” instead of “definitely” is because sometimes there are things we are truly not meant to do, either because they are not worthwhile pursuits or because they’re simply not part of God’s plan for us. So the first step following any failure should be to ask ourselves (and, more importantly, God) whether what we failed in doing is something we are meant to do.
If the answer is no, the next step should be to let go – there’s no point to continuing in something that wasn’t meant for you, and neither is there anything to be gained by holding onto guilt and regret over falling short in the pursuit of something that you weren’t meant to achieve. It’s okay. You’re allowed to not excel at some things, and you’re certainly allowed (and I would encourage you) to step away if you feel that what you are pursuing is getting in the way of something more important. God is the ultimate giver of second chances, and you can always seek Him and pursue His will anew, even if you find you've strayed from it before now.
If the answer is yes, then that’s when you really need to buckle down and get brave. Because with every new beginning, there is risk. There is the potential for stress and failure and heartache, and there’s no way of knowing what lies on the road between where you begin and where you’re trying to go.
But is the risk of embarrassment or a temporary emotional low really worth turning away from something God has set before you to do?
This is where my answer has to be a resounding NO. And let me tell you why.
First off, if you’ve already consulted God (through prayer, the Bible, and the input of godly advisors) and determined that the seemingly failed pursuit is one you’re meant to undertake, nothing else matters. Nothing. Not fear, not shame, not any insecurities you might have (remember, Moses had speech difficulties and thought he wasn’t worthy of speaking on God’s behalf because of it). If God has set you on a path, He has a purpose for it, whether you see it or not, and He will bring you through it, no matter how many times you think you’ve faltered or even fallen along the way.
“Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.”
- Philippians 1:6, KJV
"Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths."
- Proverbs 3:5-6, KJV
Second, if what you’re doing is for God and backed by His will, you can bet that any doubts and fears that might arise are not from Him. After all, if God is with you in your pursuits, then who are you doubting when you think things like, “I can’t do this”? It would be understandable to doubt yourself, as a fallible human being, especially when the Bible explicitly says that “without [God], ye can do nothing” (John 15:5, KJV). But if you’re doing God’s will and leaning on Him for the strength to follow through, then to doubt your future is to doubt Him. And that is an entirely different matter.
If we truly trust in God to direct our paths, we have no reason to fear, because He knows the way and is infinitely capable of getting us to the end of the road, regardless of our own inadequacies.
“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God;
Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.”
- 2 Timothy 1:7-9, KJV
Third and finally, anything done for God is done with eternal benefits in mind, and thus, continuing in a difficult task when God is in it will ALWAYS be better and more worthwhile than anything we might lose in the process (time, energy, comfort, pride, etc.), and is certainly well worth the risk.
This is why, despite how atrociously behind I am in my writing goals, no matter how badly I feel about myself as a writer or how much I would like to throw in the towel and give up trying, I refuse to give up. This is not out of pride or stubbornness (although I'd be lying if I said those never play a role in my decisions or my resolve), but rather because I believe God has set this task before me, and even if I failed the first time, I have to believe there was some purpose to my efforts (even if it was just to teach me a lesson -- for example, not to rush to publication like that again), and that what God has in store for me is worth pursuing. Because while I may have failed, and may often think of myself as a failure, God is not and has not, and I can trust Him to do His will through me regardless.
I just have to press on, keep a stiff upper lip, and trust that the infallible God I serve will use even my stumbling efforts to His glory.
If God is in what you're doing, then even your failures (crushing as they may seem at the moment) will lead to a greater victory in Him. This is our hope and our promise in the face of even the most devastating failure.
“Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,
I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you.
Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing.”
- Philippians 3:13-16, KJV
Rejoice in the Lord (a cappella) - Hamilton Family