Failure Is An Option. But Quitting Is Not.

In her article in the September 2013 issue of National Geographic, Hannah Bloch, writes of the value of failure in furthering exploration. Bloch highlighted George Mallory who attempted Everest in 1924, S.A. Andree who, in 1897,  tried to fly a hot air balloon to the North Pole and, of course, Amelia Earhart who vanished in 1937 while attempting to fly around the world. Even if none of us is planning to climb Mt. Everest or circumnavigate the world, there is much to take away from the lessons of great failures of exploration.

“Even at their most miserable,” Bloch says, “failures provide us information to help us do things differently the next time.” After all, a slap in the face by failure, offers up two choices: go sit in the corner and lick your wounds or analyze the data and get ready for the next go ’round. I’ve tried both and I’ll tell you what, the first one — the licking of the wounds — that’s a lonely path leading nowhere. But the second one — analysis and dissecting and planning, well, that’s energy and curious humans need that forward movement.

Titanic 100 Years: National Geographic Channel Robert Ballard, the oceanographer who discovered the Titanic said in Bloch’s article: “We remember our failures because we’re still analyzing them. Success, on the other hand, is quickly passed.” How many times have you gnawed over a perceived failure to the point where there’s nothing left but glistening bone? Meanwhile, when someone offers congratulations on a success you mutter, “Oh, it was nothing.” And if you’re me, you might go on to catalogue everything that went wrong in that perceived success. I marvel at the realization that a man who has logged more than 130 undersea expeditions experiences the same reactions to failure and success that I do!

“Persistence. Resilience. Adaptability and crisis management,” Bloch says, “All are key themes in exploration, as in ordinary life.”

When I have a rough run, I don’t throw my shoes away and decide that I shall never run again. I don’t assume that every run from here on out will be that bad or worse. I look at the data, I talk to other runners (let’s face it: my husband) and figure out what to do differently the next time. Now, it might not be as cut and dried with writing. After the last couple of rejections, I didn’t have much to go on in terms of data. I don’t know exactly what didn’t chime with the agents I queried. Even still, in one instance, I curled up into myself and pushed away my support system. And in the other instance, I called in the troops to assess my strategy for my next step.

Climbers on Final Hurdle to Mt. Everest: National GeographicBloch closed her article with a quote from Pete Athans, who has summited Everest seven times: “If you take away uncertainty, you take away motivation,” says Athans. “Wanting to exceed your grasp is the nature of the human condition. There’s no magic to getting where we already know we can get.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but this quote put a big, goofy smile on my face because it really clicked for me. I love running, but I could just run. I’m training for a marathon because it’s a challenge. I’m pretty sure I’ll finish it, but will I finish it within my goal time? And I love books, but I could just read them. I’m writing another one because I love creating an unknown world beneath my fingertips and seeing whole people emerge from the page. If I knew what was going to happen, what would the fun be? Maybe we aren’t summiting Everest or exploring sea caves, but we are all explorers of some kind and as explorers, we must fail. That’s how we will learn. We must fail and fail again. But we must never give up.

(Images via Bing from National Geographic, but not from the article mentioned.)

6 responses to “Failure Is An Option. But Quitting Is Not.

  1. I know this post had to be difficult to write, Laura. It’s real and it’s raw. Best of all, it’s all so true. Excellent points! I’m going to have to read that article! And love the point about not throwing away your shoes just because you have a bad day running. Discouragement is like Grendel in Beowulf–a monster to be fought again and again and again. Sometimes, we only get as far as Beowulf did–breaking off an arm and getting it on the run. Sometimes, we’re the ones on the run.

    Here’s a toast to the Everests, marathons, and manuscripts in our lives, Laura. Let’s conquer them!!!! Let’s do this thing!

    • Thanks, L.Marie! I had been struggling with this post until I read that article, and then I knew exactly what I wanted to say in terms of my recent experience :)

  2. Oh wow, thanks for this powerful and insightful post, Laura! The quote about uncertainty really helps me to articulate why the process of querying agents is so difficult. When you think about how many queries agents receive and how few clients they sign, the prospect of finding an agent begins to feel pretty darn uncertain. Add to that the fact that for very understandable reasons, agents can’t offer each query-writer super-detailed feedback about why they are passing, and you get a whole lot of uncertainty without much material to analyze and strategize about.

    I think that success and failure look different in different contexts. Just as a baseball player certainly would not feel like a failure if he got a hit 3 out of every 10 times he came up to bat, I think writers really can’t feel like we’re failing when we get some agent rejections. Or, maybe it’s impossible not to feel that way, but after the sting and the occasional need to wallow in it, we need to keep on exploring as you say, and not give up. I highly recommend this blog post from literary agent Sarah LaPolla, which gave me some perspective on the querying process and helped me (at least in theory) reframe the idea of success and failure in this particular context. http://glasscasesblog.blogspot.com/2012/10/in-dreams-begin-responsibilities.html

    • Thanks, Laurie! You are so right about success and failure looking different in different contexts. I love the baseball analogy because you are so right. Just getting a partial request in the querying process is a form of success! I will definitely check out that blog post. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Great post, Laura :) I definitely needed the encouragement today! I keep trying to remind myself that failure means you’re playing the game and that that’s the important part. Not trying is the real failure.

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