I’ve just read a book by J K Rowling. No. Not a Harry Potter novel. Nor was it one of her Robert Galbraith novels either. It’s a title called Very Good Lives, and it is a book version of the graduation day speech she gave to the students at Harvard University in 2008. It is subtitled The fringe benefits of failure and the importance of imagination.
In her speech she talks about the fear of failure being the driving force that spurs many people on to succeed. However, she also explains that those people who have failed have learned something … often about themselves … and often something that no university can teach them. It’s this knowledge that then propels them to success, not the fear of failing again.
As writers it is easy to assume that success is whatever outcome we dream of for the current project on which we are working … and any other outcome is therefore a failure. But there is success in everything we do. If an article or short story gets rejected then it’s perceived as a failure: the end result was not what we dreamed of. But we have succeeded at something, because we still have something to submit or something to rewrite before resubmitting. It’s more than the blank page that the person who was too scared of failure ended up producing.
Marlon James has been in the news last week, as the winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize. And one thing the media has picked up on is his story about how his first novel was rejected by 78 publishers. He even considered giving up writing. But he didn’t. Those 78 rejections probably felt like huge failures at the time. But he didn’t give up. Those failures did not stop him becoming a Man Booker Prize-winning novelists, did they?
As Rowling says in her speech, “It is impossible to live without failing at something.” We’re all failures. But failing is a success, because it means we’re attempting to do something. We’re taking a risk. And every time we fail we learn a little bit more about ourselves and our project.
So don’t let the fear of failure stop you from tackling a writing project. A writer is someone who writes, not someone who gets every word they ever write published. As Thomas Edison once said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.”
So if you have an idea for a project then pursue it. You never know what the outcome might be. Marlon James probably didn’t envisage his first novel being rejected 78 times, and therefore feeling a failure 78 times over. But he probably didn’t feel a failure when he collected his cheque for £50,000.
Very Good Lives by J K Rowling
Sales of very Good Lives benefits Lumos, an international charity founded by J K Rowling that works to end the institutionalism of children around the world.