Showing posts with label success. Show all posts
Showing posts with label success. Show all posts

Friday, August 1

Seth Godin: You must fail to succeed

Lately I’ve been thinking about failure and the fear of failure, so naturally I turned to Seth Godin and read--or reread--some of what he had to say on the subject.

1. Seek out projects you can afford to fail at.

“If you under-reach a little, nail it, succeed, declare victory and repeat, you’re probably better off.”[1]

We don’t have to go for broke, it doesn’t have be all or nothing. Start small and work up.

2. Be brave.

“[...] I’m talking about the guts to take responsibility for your art. [...] the guts to open the door yourself.”[1]

No risk, no reward. Creating art is scary because it makes us vulnerable. 

“Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.” 

In order to connect with others, in order to reach our readers’ emotions, we have to fuel our writing with our own deep losses, our own tragedies, our own vulnerabilities. That’s scary.

3. Take the 10,000 hour rule to heart.

“The 10,000 hour rule is legit. If you spend enough time working through really difficult challenges, you’re just going to get better at it.”[1]

The more you publish, the more often you publish, the better you’re going to get at it--provided you learn from your mistakes.

4. Don’t make it personal.

“If you let the lizard brain run amok, if you turn problems into referenda about you, about your goodness as a human being, it’s not going to end well. A key to discernment is to figure out the truth of what you’re looking at and act on it, not let it act on you.”

Yes, sometimes reviews can review the author and not just the author’s work, but writers need to find a way to separate themselves from what they’ve written and not take criticisms about the work as criticisms about themselves as writers or as people. Something which can be difficult to do if you took rule number three to heart and bled all over the page.

5. Failure is the key to success.


“The single best way to overrule your fears is to call their bluff by making the fear come true.

“Do something you know will fail.

“And then fail again.

“Once you fail at what the lizard brain is so petrified of, it will lose its power over you.”[1]

Obviously Seth Godin is talking about non-fatal failures. And he’s not talking about intentionally failing at work or failing as a husband (or wife) or failing as a parent or failing as a human being. He’s talking about taking risks, perhaps relatively small risks. 

If a person wants to climb Mount Everest they don’t start by climbing Mount Everest, they start by climbing a steep hill. They start by taking lessons. They start by trying, and probably failing, to achieve smaller goals. 

I cannot guarantee that as long as you keep trying that, eventually, you will succeed.

I can guarantee that if you let a fear of failure keep you from trying that you will never succeed.

*  *  *

I’ve been working on a longer article about the fear of failure, but I wanted to share Seth Godin’s words with you. I believe what Seth Godin says: once we lose our fear of failure it will lose its power over us. Or, as Frank Herbert put it: fear is the mind-killer.

That quotation is one of my favorites:

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Fail. Fail again. Kill the fear. It’s the only way to truly succeed.


1. Seth Godin – Full Stop Failure over at Turnaround Magazine.
Photo credit: "streetmusic" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, May 2

Creativity, Inc: Ed Catmull On Success, Candor And Fear Of Failure

I'm reading Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull.[1] For me, the most interesting parts are where Catmull talks about failure and how to handle failure. 

Failure is an intrinsic part of a creative person's life, whether they are a singer, a songwriter, whether they play an instrument or write stories. We've all experienced failure of some sort and if there is one thing I believe with all my heart it is that how we handle failure goes a long way to determining whether we will succeed.

In Creativity, Inc. Catmull writes:

"Left to their own devices, most people don’t want to fail. But Andrew Stanton isn’t most people. As I’ve mentioned, he’s known around Pixar for repeating the phrases “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” He thinks of failure like learning to ride a bike; it isn’t conceivable that you would learn to do this without making mistakes—without toppling over a few times. “Get a bike that’s as low to the ground as you can find, put on elbow and knee pads so you’re not afraid of falling, and go,” he says. If you apply this mindset to everything new you attempt, you can begin to subvert the negative connotation associated with making mistakes. Says Andrew: “You wouldn’t say to somebody who is first learning to play the guitar, ‘You better think really hard about where you put your fingers on the guitar neck before you strum, because you only get to strum once, and that’s it. And if you get that wrong, we’re going to move on.’ That’s no way to learn, is it?”


The idea here isn't that one should try to fail--I can picture someone sitting in a bar nursing their third scotch and soda saying, "I'm on my third divorce, whoohoo!"--but that our goal shouldn't be to avoid failure since that path leads to mediocrity. Instead, we should strive to achieve success. 

Fear of failure leads to taking fewer risks and innovating less. Instead, we want our curiosity to drive experimentation. The alternative is to play it safe so we won't fail, but if we look at things that way, if we take "don't fail" as our goal, we'll never do anything brilliant. 

And, yes, maybe we will never do anything stunningly brilliant, but it's a lot more fun to be creative and fail occasionally than to play it safe, never fail, and hate what we do. 

Pixar's Rough Drafts Suck

This line suprised me: "early on, all of our movies suck." That got my attention! Here's the entire quotation:

"[C]andor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I make a point of repeating it often, and I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions of our films really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing by saying this. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.” This idea—that all the movies we now think of as brilliant were, at one time, terrible—is a hard concept for many to grasp. But think about how easy it would be for a movie about talking toys to feel derivative, sappy, or overtly merchandise-driven. Think about how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food could be, or how risky it must’ve seemed to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. And this is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process—reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul."

That's courageous! And they've gotten terrific results. (By the way, Maria Popova over at has written a wonderful article about Catmull's book.)

Having planted my feet firmly on the "failure is an agent of learning" bandwagon, I'd like to offer a couple of notes of warning.

1. Pick the right people.

Catmull writes:

"Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others. Show early and show often. It’ll be pretty when we get there, but it won’t be pretty along the way. And that’s as it should be."

I agree! In principle. 

Yes, in the best groups that's true. But I've learnt from experience that humans have good reasons to fear speaking up in groups, to fear sharing the product of their creativity with others. Unfortunately some--whether through ignorance or malice--find glee in ripping the creative efforts of others to painful, bloody, shreds. Don't give them the chance.

Yes, share your creative work with others, but test them first. Don't wear your heart on your sleeve the first time. Get to know your collaborators and make sure they're the right fit for you. A team that is simpatico (and here I'm thinking of writer, beta readers, editor, etc.) is a beautiful thing. One that isn't grinds everyone down. Picking the right people to rely on is key. (IMHO)

2. Don't try to fail.

I know I've said this before, but it's an important point. 

Catmull is saying that you shouldn't aim to avoid failure--you shouldn't have that as your goal--because that's focusing on the wrong thing. Rather, aim for the stars and embrace failure when it happens. 

Of course, if you're aiming high, if you're trying to do things no one else has, you're going to fail. A lot. But Catmull says that's okay. You're learning. Adapting. Evolving. A culture--whether corporate or otherwise--that doesn't foster people who are willing to take risks will never achieve anything truly great. Anything truly different. Why? Because they will be too fearful to strike out where no one has gone before (yes, I'm hearing the Star Trek theme in my head!)

I think Ed Catmull's book, Creativity, Inc. is a must for any creative professional to read, especially the chapters on candor (Chapter 5) and fear of failure (Chapter 6). 


1. Ed Catmull is a computer scientist and president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios.

Photo credit: "spring in the park" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, August 15

Hugh Howey, Bestselling Author Of Wool, On The Key To Writing Success

Hugh Howey, bestselling author of Wool, on the key to writing success

Hugh Howey, the bestselling author of Wool, writes this reply to Sue Graften's allegation that self-publishers are "too lazy to do the hard work". I'm not going to put in a link to Graften's article, Hugh Howey did, so you can get to her article through his if you really want to read it.

Hugh writes:
There is no better way to break into traditional publishing than self publishing. Period. End of story. Hell, write fan fiction. Another piece of Twilight fan-fic just got a seven-figure advance on the heels of the success of 50 Shades of Grey. Does this mean it’s the new norm? No. But it does mean that publishers no longer care how you sell books. They don’t care if you self-publish. They don’t even care if you write porn based on YA vampire novels. They just want to give readers whatever the hell they want! And readers don’t want query letters. They don’t want books in slush piles. They want good stories, decently edited, available right now, and as cheap as you please.
Read the rest of Hugh Howey's article here: My Favorite Four Sue Grafton Novels.

And he would know. His runaway bestseller, Wool, has been picked up by Random House in the UK and Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator) will be directing an upcoming blockbuster movie made by 20th Century Fox. You can read all about it here: Hugh Howey Writes About The Phenomenal Success Of Wool.

Thanks to The Passive Voice Blog for the link to Hugh Howey's article, provocatively titled Sue Grafton Thinks I'm Lazy.

Other articles you might like:
- Rasana Atreya's Self-Publishing Journey
- Contracts: Deadly Agent Clauses
- The Bourne Legacy: The Story Is Fiction, The Rest Is Real

Wednesday, July 18

Writers: In Order To Win We Must Embrace Failure

Writers: in order to win we must embrace failure
Writers create

I was tempted to title this article, "Writers: Masters of the Universe," but that wouldn't have been very descriptive. Much cooler though.

I was chatting with a friend this morning over email and she mentioned the necessity of embracing failure, the need to allow oneself to fail in order to have the freedom to create that magical first draft.

I'm not saying the first draft is magical because it's so good (although my friend's probably will be, she's an awesome writer) but because it contains in some form--even if it's a twisted, mangled promissory form--the seeds of a story.

It's the morning and I've only had one cup of coffee which means I need at least two more before I become remotely lucid, but it seems to me that the first draft is an act of creation. A writer starts with nothing, not even an idea. Then the idea appears and grows and transforms and becomes a story, something with a theme and a plot and characters and perhaps narrative drive.

To me, all such acts of creation are magical. Something is being created from nothing, ex nihilo.

Years ago another friend of mine introduced me to the term, "dark art". For instance, wine tasting is a dark art, so is picking a stock that performs well.

A successful day trader is a past master of the dark arts.

The idea behind the term is that sometimes there's no straightforwardly algorithmic way to achieve success in a certain field, or at a certain venture. And yet, somehow, people do and they do it on a regular basis. I think calling such people past masters of a dark art sounds cooler than remarking, "They have what it takes," or "They have je ne sais quoi, but it comes to the same thing.

Although there's no way someone can tell another person how to accomplish something for which there is no algorithmic path to success--that's the whole point after all--there are preconditions; requirements that must be met for success to be possible. In the case of a writer one of these requirements seems to be giving oneself the permission to fail.

I came across this quotation yesterday:
'It is perfectly okay to write garbage – as long as you edit brilliantly,' C . J. Cherryh
I needed to look that quote up to make sure I remembered it correctly (thanks Ali Hale) and came across this one:
'God sells us all things at the price of the labor,' Leonardo da Vinci
It might seem as though I'm contradicting myself. On the one hand, I'm saying writing a first draft is a dark art and, on the other, that going on a Dadaistic writing frenzy is the path to success.

Both are true.

As long as the idea--even the minutest, sickliest, germ of an idea--comes out in your first draft, even if it only tangentially gestures at the potential possibility of an idea, that's your lightning in a bottle.

On successive drafts you can hone the idea, get to know it, craft it, explore it, develop it. Perhaps, ultimately, the idea that eventually becomes the soul of your story will be another one altogether and your first idea will have served to merely show you the way.

I think that's part of the mystery of writing, why we fall in love with it. At heart, writers are drunk with the power of creation.

Or something like that.

Before I have my second cup of coffee I have two operating brain cells and they're locked in a death match, so take all this with a grain of salt.

Thanks for reading and remember Heinlein's first rule: Writers write.

(See what I mean? The title, "Writers: Masters of the Universe," would have been much cooler.)

Related reading:
- Jim Butcher: How To Write A Story
- How to build a Villain, by Jim Butcher
- Jody Hedlund: Talent Is Overrated
- Henry Miller's 11 Writing Commandments

"Writers: In Order To Win We Must Embrace Failure," copyright© 2012 by Karen Woodward.

Wednesday, July 11

The Breeders: A Self Publishing Success Story

Matthew J. Beier, author of The Breeders, writes: 
In deciding to take the big leap, I knew two things for certain: I was putting future chances of being traditionally published on the line, and I would not be able to undo any career-related damage it might cause.

. . . .

Before 2011, I was a fledgling writer in chains. My success as a novelist depended on whichever benevolent literary agent buried in New York’s bowels might find my work amazing and sellable. By the time I started sending queries for my “gay agenda” satire The Breeders (and actually having success getting manuscript requests), I was well broken in to the traditional publishing system, complete with thick skin and a healthy dose of self-doubt.
Read the rest of Matthew's article here: Of Decisions and Dream Chasing.

Matthew's story reminded me that when success comes it's often through prolonged, exhausting, effort. His is a great story and an inspiration although in an I-hope-it's-not-that-hard-for-me sort of way.

Thanks to Passive Guy for mentioning Matthew on the Passive Voice Blog.

Other articles:
- Twylah: Turn Your Tweets Into A Blog
- Fifty Shades of Grey - Oh My!
- Pixar: 22 Ways To Tell A Great Story