why you should fail at things a lot

My little brother didn’t get a summer job he interviewed for. He really wanted it. He kicked butt in his cover letter, and he was at his best in the interview, too. Afterwards, he didn’t want to talk about it, and I didn’t know what to say. It’s a weird thing, when you’re like, “give me more responsibility. I want to work all day instead of being a kid,” and the world is like, “Too bad. You have to stay a kid.”

I was worried he’d blame himself.

I’d really wanted him to get the job, because I really didn’t want him to learn to stop trying. That’s what happens sometimes after you get turned down enough. You throw up your hands and you say, “Whatever!” and whatever you decide to do next after that “whatever” is usually not anything worth remembering. It usually involves a lot of TV shows that you’ve already seen and weren’t totally crazy about the first time but this time they feel a little more nuanced. Unless you have incredible fortitude of spirit, and honestly, I’m not even sure what that is. I may have just made it up.

I felt called to say something. The way that I feel called to write to A.O. Scott and tell him that his review of Snow White and the Huntsman was really, really wrong. She is not a feminist symbol. She barely even talks. But maybe even more than that. So I sat my brother down, the way I thought a good big sister would, and I said, “Um, so, I thought that—well, I wanted to talk to you about something,” in my confident, charismatic way. He looked at me blankly. I said, “I want to talk to you about failing.”

And then I told him about how I didn’t get this internship that I applied for in grad school, even though my competition was probably nineteen-years-old and the position was basically that of an unpaid secretary. I did three rounds. To not be paid. And then I got rejected. But that wasn’t really a big deal. That was just the warm-up. I told him about how, for over a year, when I started writing almost fulltime (although with two part time jobs to keep me making some money and feeling some legitimacy), I did nothing except for fail. I mean, in addition to working. I received a constant string of rejection letters, and that was when I was lucky. Most people I pitched ignored me completely. Even the bloggers I tried to form connections with often ignored me. I wasn’t big enough, and I had no idea how to get there.

When I decided to be a writer, you know, as a real thing, I was about to enter a very dark period of total failure. I didn’t know it then, but it would last for well over a year. Which is a long time to be totally failing. (Although, if you want to get technical, I’m probably still failing now, in plenty of ways.)

But there’s a hopeful message here, I told my little brother, who was laughing at me a little, looking slightly confused.

That whole time, that I was failing and being depressed and stuff, I kept on going, doing the thing that I knew I loved. I chose my thing. And I did it in my own way. And I kept doing it, with my teeth gritted and my fingers stuck to the keyboard. I kept writing until people read me. Until they told their friends. Until someone finally wanted to publish something I’d written. Until someone else did. It was not luck or magic or great/any connections, for what felt like forever. It was just me, doing it anyway. Resolute and miserable and fiercely determined and totally unprepared and earnest and helpless and tiny.

And if I can do it, Gabe, so can you. For sure. With all of your talent and your quick brain, and your brilliant wit and your natural ease with people. You can do it even better. I am this awkward, anxious, uncertain person. You make people laugh uproariously with one sentence.

If I can do it, it is definitely doable.

But I think it’s better, when you begin, to know that you will fail. Not just a little, but constantly.

And I think that if you have even the smallest opportunity to do what you love anyway, you should take it. Because that’s what makes it worthwhile. Doing something that you love for itself, and not for the things that it might or should or someday probably will get you.

So don’t wait for someone to accept you. Do something you love anyway. I mean, keep sending in those applications, of course, but at the same time, if you possibly can, try to find a thing that you can work on just because you like the way it feels to get better at it. Just because you feel that you know yourself a little better the more you do it. Just because you are already pretty good at it. Chances are, it relates to your dream job anyway. Think of it as an investment in your future. And then, when you fail, keep going. That is absolutely the only way to get to success. And actually, I think it’s a kind of success itself.

I told my little brother that when I think back over the things I’ve done (in my long and almost certainly esteemed twenty-six years of life), I am mostly proud of one thing: not giving up.

It’s a pretty typical thing to be proud of. I’m not claiming to be original here.

But I will say this for myself: I have gotten a lot better at failing. I am no longer crushed by a rejection letter. I knock them back like tequila shots. Ooh, it burns for a second. Ahh.

(No, but really: I can’t do shots, I’m a baby about them.)

I am thankful for little steps forward.

But most of all, I know something really important about myself: I am the kind of person who won’t go away. Who won’t shrug and leave. Who isn’t going to shut up. Who ultimately believes that she has something to offer. Who is on this private mission to write things she finds worth writing, and who can’t be stopped from writing them. Who, though tremblingly insecure at times, must still have this secret fortitude of spirit, because otherwise, why keep going?

That sounds like a person I’d like. Which is cool.

So that’s what I wanted to say about failing. It’s a great feeling, to know that you can fail and keep going. It’s worth a lot of failing to get there. So go ahead and fail! Do it some more! Do it lavishly! Try everything you want to try! Put yourself on a path with a view you really like, and start walking and then– just walk some more.

*  *  *

What have you learned from your failure?

Unroast: Today I love the way I feel when I really nail the ending of a piece. I’m not sure if I did it here, but sometimes I really do.

P.S. My latest column, about not wearing a bra, because of the heat. This happens to me every summer, and then during the winter, I forget.

This piece also appears on the Huffington Post here.


Kate on July 11th 2012 in family, fear, life, uplifting, work, writing

38 Responses to “why you should fail at things a lot”

  1. lik_11 responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 1:09 pm #

    You totally nailed the ending! Good big sis talk, even better blog.

  2. Kate responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 1:12 pm #

    :-) Thanks!! Phew.

  3. Melanie responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    This is my favorite post you’ve done in a while. So true! And such a great perspective. You are a great big sis. I had to learn to fail. I didn’t take it so well for many years. Now I just get up, brush myself off, and keep going. I used to be BAD at failing. Now I don’t do it any less, I’ve just gotten better at it. I think people who never fail don’t truly appreciate how great it is when you actually succeed.

  4. Kate responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    YAY! Melanie’s in!
    And yes. It’s taken me a long time to get here, and I’m still failing left and right.

  5. katilda responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    don’t even worry that i’m a little teary eyed right now. a) because i can relate to the writer analogy so well, because that’s what i do for a living…and rejection is something you have to learn to deal with, so true! b) i have had THE WORST luck dating lately, with boys who start dating me and then drop me willy nilly. Oy. i hadn’t thought about the parallels between writing and dating and not giving up, but…i needed to hear this! i didn’t quit writing because I REALLY WANTED TO BE A WRITER, and eventually, it paid off. i know i really want to be w/ a decent, classy man who treats me well and loves me and if it takes some rejection to get there…i can do it! thanks for this pep talk :)

  6. Kate responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 1:31 pm #

    I HATE that this is the case with dating. I don’t get it. But it’s definitely the way things seem to work. I’ve watched friend after awesome, smart, beautiful friend deal with boys who just vanished after three dates or treated them weirdly on the first date or did something rude and wrong. And really, it is just a matter of time. One of my friends who had gone through a really long bout of this just met an incredibly kind, amazing guy. It was sort of shocking to her. But there it was. I hope that happens for you soon.

  7. Katherine responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    I’ve been “failing” a lot recently, and learning from it of course. I always wanted to be a teacher, but when I tried it, I didn’t like it at all. Couldn’t handle our school system. I’d always wanted to live in Seattle, and when I moved there, I found out I really, really, really don’t like big cities, even beautiful eco-friendly snow-capped-mountain-surrounded ones.

    So is it failing or not when you live out your dream and then realize you were wrong? I did the things I put my mind to. And then found out I was wrong to put my mind there in the first place. It’s a different kind of disappointment. But I guess all you can do is learn more about yourself and then try something else. I just never realize how little I knew about myself :)

  8. Kate responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 1:47 pm #

    This is so interesting. Honestly, I can’t help but think it’s at least a little cool to get to the end of your dream. Some days, I’d love to get to the end of mine. And then start again and try something totally different and end up surprised and happy. I love that you gave these dreams a shot. Now you know yourself a little better.

  9. Melanie responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    I can SO relate. I was dating the past three years and I was home in tears more often than not, wanting to give up. I FINALLY found someone I have been waiting for a long time. Don’t give up. They are out there. It’ll happen when you least expect it. I was SO CLOSE to just throwing my hands up. I’m really glad I didn’t.

  10. Ashley P responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 4:08 pm #

    I really connect with this post- such fantastic advice. I’m in the middle of some serious life failures right now (job loss, divorce, and moving back in with parents) and this was definitely something I needed to hear. The other thing I’m trying to remember is to be kind to myself about needing to regroup after failure. Even if regrouping takes me a year.

  11. Hannah responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 6:39 pm #

    This is amazing. And I’m grateful that this week, I could read it and nod and get teary-eyed in acknowledge of our fortitude and resiliency and faith. Because had you written this last week, I think I might have just cried and tried really hard to believe you, but I might not have succeeded.

    And it’s funny how life can turn itself upside down in a few days and then turn back right-side up only a few days later. Today is totally in up-day, and I think tomorrow’s going to be one too, and that’s the best of all kinds of up-days.

  12. Sarah the Violinist responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 7:56 pm #

    Wise, wise words, Kate (coming from an expert at failure — I AM a musician after all!). Thank you.

  13. Mariko responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 8:30 pm #

    Thank you so much for this piece. I can’t even tell you. I literally started my own blog 2 days ago, and have been publicizing it on FB, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. but not counting on people to read it. I love to write and it’s one of my passions in life, so I’m going to try to remember that “rejection” in whatever form it comes, isn’t going to stop me from trying to put my writing out there. I’m getting more experienced at failure, too, last semester I failed my college calculus class (who needs calculus anyway, except for mathematicians!) but I grit my teeth and passed it the second time.

    You are a great inspiration to me as a young writer, please never stop doing what you do!

  14. Maya responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 9:05 pm #

    This was the perfect thing to read, just now. I’m on the internet to distract myself from what feels like my utter failure to progress at learning Talmud and halakha the way that I want to (and of course, comparing myself to my husband, who’s been doing it for years longer than I). Nothing happens overnight, and it’s easy to mistake slow progress for no progress.

    Thank you for the reminder, and reassurance.

  15. KateQuinnS responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    Hmm…it truly is a Kate thing….been wallowing in the failure blues myself lately…and I’m the only one standing in my own way!

  16. sami responded on 12 Jul 2012 at 12:42 am #

    I feel motivated, reading this! But I have no talents or passions and so I have nothing to apply the motivation to :’( but I am glad you wrote this post. It will help people, I am certain of it. I admire your tenacity and spiritual fortitude (which is now totally a thing! Even if it wasn’t before).

  17. Christine responded on 12 Jul 2012 at 12:57 am #

    Oh Kate, I had to abandon my lurker tendencies for a moment to tell you how much I truly appreciate this post. It’s like you’ve put my last year of life experiences and learning into far more beautiful words than I could have ever found.

    This just resonated so much with me, and reminded me of so many important truths, so thank you so much :) .

    Also, can I mention something I often think when I read your blog posts? I know pursuing writing comes with a lot of obligatory failure, but I really, really would love to read a non-article or non-blog post by you someday. Very, very much. I’m so curious how your writing style/tone/etc… would appear in other genres. So when that success does come along, as I’m certain it will sooner or later, do share please.

  18. LeeH responded on 12 Jul 2012 at 6:33 am #

    I know one person I will send this to who really needs this pep talk. YAY! Then you’ll have one more reader. Yes, you nailed it.. just keep walking. When it’s a great view, it’s all good. Thanks Kate!,

  19. May responded on 12 Jul 2012 at 8:57 am #

    This column made me feel kind of good and kind of bad. Good, because I love the spin you put on failing- that you can actually get really good in it, and that’s a good thing.
    Bad, because I really don’t know what is that thing that I’d like to try and try regardless of failing. I really envy you that you have that, but sometime I wonder whether that’s just not true for everyone- maybe some of us don’t have this all-consuming dream, but smaller dreams, or dreams that are not so specific, like being happy. This is a totally different issue, but this post just got me thinking about how sometimes I feel this pressure to have a dream, which makes me almost ashamed that I don’t have one.
    Despite this, I really do love your take on failing, and this column made me happy!

  20. TK responded on 12 Jul 2012 at 10:59 am #

    I think this is my actual comment here even though I’ve been reading for a long time. Great post. Thanks for it.

  21. TK responded on 12 Jul 2012 at 10:59 am #

    *first actual comment. Ugh – first comment and a big typo!

  22. Kate responded on 12 Jul 2012 at 11:11 am #

    Good luck!!

  23. Kate responded on 12 Jul 2012 at 11:13 am #

    Now I want to hear more of your story. First of all, I’m impressed. Are you training for the clergy, or just enriching your life?

  24. Kate responded on 12 Jul 2012 at 11:15 am #

    I was wondering about that after I wrote this. Sometimes I forget that I’m weird to care so much about this one thing. But also, then I remember that the one thing has wavered and changed over my life. It used to be music, when I was younger. What are you interested in now? Nothing wrong with pursuing several dreams at once!

  25. Kate responded on 12 Jul 2012 at 11:15 am #

    Thanks for commenting! And don’t ever worry about typos. It’s the internet. We can’t avoid them. I think every single piece I write has them.

  26. Marie responded on 12 Jul 2012 at 5:00 pm #

    Failure has taught me resilience of spirit! I have failed so much in my life already – in my career as a musician, in getting jobs I want, in hobbies, in a marriage. I am only 26. But what I do know is that there is UNFAILINGLY a win behind every failure, even if it’s just clarity of mind. It’s better to try and fail than not try, and I have come to learn that the regrets of not doing are far worse than the regrets of failure. Learning to fail has taught me to be able to say “well at least I tried” and move on, whether moving on means trying again and harder or trying for something even better.

    Kate, this is my favorite post of yours. You have impeccable timing. Thank you for this.

  27. San D responded on 12 Jul 2012 at 5:59 pm #

    Failure keeps you honest in life. What I mean to say is, up to a certain point you think all things are possible, because they have been. Reality is, yes all things are possible, eventually, but not up front, not immediately, and definitely not always on your time schedule. Rejection and disappointment only make those things we do accomplish seem much sweeter. All those sayings like “when one door closes, another opens” or “man plans, G*d laughs” or “if at first you don’t suceed, try try again” etc etc etc have tried to put perspective on failure. I know from failure and rejection. It took me 7 years to secure a teaching job that I held onto for 35 years. It was worth the wait. During those 7 years I held a variety of interesting jobs “in the real world” that informed my teaching career in ways that a college degree never could.

  28. George Jonas responded on 12 Jul 2012 at 6:23 pm #

    Why you should fail at things alot.
    What a great article. Thanks for putting what is so painful for many of us that it stops us cold from living life to its fullest. I wish I had a big sis like you years ago to guide me from the path of avoiding failure so as to numb the mind from pain. Your writing has the depth to touch the heart and mind and give the gift of wisdom way beyond your years.

  29. Kate responded on 12 Jul 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    I have a project in the works! I am not sure how much to share about it here yet, but I promise to let you know when it’s farther along. I am pretty touched that you mentioned this.

  30. Kate responded on 12 Jul 2012 at 8:46 pm #

    Thank you so much!

  31. Beverly Diehl responded on 12 Jul 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    Love this post. Sometimes how they say “losing is character building” and your team has just lost six games in a row and you wish you could build a little less character and a little more smug victory, just for once?

    Good speech – and more than that, good life lesson. Bravo.

  32. Haley responded on 13 Jul 2012 at 1:49 am #

    For a long time I thought I wasn’t any good at failing. I like to leave situations that are not working out. Don’t like your roommate, make a change! Don’t like your job, quit! Don’t like random activity, do the thing that it takes to make it go away! However, after I graduated college I had the opportunity to live in my dream city. I did all I could to stay there supporting myself with multiple part-time jobs, but I had to relent. I moved back in with my parents and hated the city I was living in. I slowly started making changes (moved out! new friends!), but this time they were community building, root establishing changes, and I started to like my new city.
    Just as I was getting comfortable, the dynamics at my full-time-in-my-field-with-benefits job started changing and I couldn’t wait to get out. Despite all my efforts to move up in my field, including applying to grad school and positions across the country (the arts are brutal), I realized I had failed and beating my head against this wall that wasn’t moving was no longer what I wanted for my life. I realized that sometimes, when things fall apart, it’s the universe trying to tell you to move on to something different. If I hadn’t failed and opened my eyes to examining my life, I probably wouldn’t be building a new career for myself. With reserved optimism, I’m now persistent in building the kind of life that looks the way I had hoped it would – creative, challenging, and independent.
    Thanks for sticking it out and for writing your words, they certainly resonate with me.

  33. JessB responded on 15 Jul 2012 at 2:37 am #

    Wow, you just made me realise that when I didn’t get a full-time job I wasn’t qualified for and wouldn’t have liked and didn’t want, I behaved like a child and kept temping. Even though temp work doesn’t get me enough money, doesn’t let me work in the area I’ve just done two years of study on, and has me working in basic administration jobs when I can do so much more.

    So I am now enbracing the failure, and moving on. I’m going to have a full-time job by the end of the year. Thanks for the kick up the butt I needed Kate xo

  34. Jo B responded on 16 Jul 2012 at 6:42 pm #

    This made me feel so much better about not getting the first full time job I have ever applied to. I finished school a few weeks ago and my whole family expected me to apply for this job (phone work at a big insurance company) because my brother has worked there for 6 years and moved to a really good position and is happy, and my sister worked there for a year before uni.
    So I applied for the job, and screwed up the phone interview (Interviewer: Can you tell me about a time when you really went above and beyond the call of duty to deliver great customer service? Me: I’m a cleaner, part time. So, uh…not really? I’ve cleaned some pretty disgusting things though…does that count?).
    But honestly I would probably have hated that job.
    Applied for some other jobs today and hopefully one of them will work out though!

  35. Megan responded on 26 Aug 2012 at 3:59 pm #

    I needed to read this. At the end of May, I got laid off from a job that I loved. I hated the company; but I loved what I did, and I loved the people. Then my husband and I moved to a different state. We didn’t have any jobs lined up. We just decided to go. So we did, and he got a job within a month and a half. He started last week. And me? My confidence is totally shot. I had an interview in June, and they just never called me back. I thought I nailed it—I’ve always been good at interviews. But nothing. I’ve been applying and applying and applying. No one will call me back, even if I follow up.

    Last week my husband went to start his new, exciting job, and I sat at home crying. I’ve never been unemployed—I’ve only been out of college for two years and got a job right after graduation. I’ve also never lived in a place where I didn’t have any friends or even know anyone. Suddenly I’ve started to doubt all my talents and abilities, and I’ve become profoundly sad. To top it all off, we’ve only been married for two months, so my depression and all this change has been such a strain on our relationship. It’s been quite a summer.

    I’m going to keep referring to this post to remind myself that failure is inevitable and that I can get through it.

  36. Erin responded on 30 Oct 2012 at 8:51 am #

    Kate, you wrote this before I started following your blog, but I searched in your ‘fear’ columns for something relevant to how I’m feeling today. I’m at that scary crossroads, where there is the /”PERFECT”/ career-type-job only 20 or so miles away from where my twin sister lives. It seems meant to be.
    Except I’m absolutely terrified of being rejected. Of not even being chosen for an interview. That all my hard work will actually *not* get me where I think I want to go. I think to myself, “I have to AT LEAST get an interview.. even if I’m not chosen, at least an interview to know I’m on the right track and not every-single-person in this field is more qualified for every-single-position I apply for.”
    So I’m scared to apply, and scared not to apply. Scared to fail.
    I have not been properly prepared for failure. I’ve always been good in school, always got the scholarship I /really/ applied for, got the internship, etc. Then it was like life decided I’d succeeded enough and thought I should get a long taste of failure. I came to Florida, where I didn’t fit in in my lab, didn’t enjoy the people I worked with, barely made ends meat, didn’t get along with my boss. Since when do I not get along with EVERYONE?
    Things have been looking up, though. I have a better relationship with my advisor, I feel like I’ve learned a lot and I’m finally on good track to finish my Master’s. But I’ve also been applying for a slew (sp?) of jobs that I don’t even make it to second-round review of applications for. So what are the chances I’ll get through on this one? THE ONE THAT REALLY MATTERS?
    I need to remember that it’s not the end of the world. It really isn’t. Something will come along, particularly if it’s not what I expect, and I’ll be fine.
    I just hate my life taking direction to places I didn’t see coming.

  37. Eat the Damn Cake » i am one lucky cow responded on 04 Sep 2013 at 12:43 pm #

    [...] felt impossible to talk myself out of it. “Just be thankful and happy!” I admonish myself. But then, there I am, crouching in some shadowy corner, furtively scribbling the latest puny accompl…. My eyes are wide and guilty when I startle upright and frantically stuff the paper into my pocket, [...]

  38. Suzanne responded on 25 Feb 2014 at 9:54 pm #

    So how do you get better at accepting the failure-besides a good bottle of Irish whiskey- that is?