Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Success of Failure

Inspiring words, whether you're a writer, artist, or anyone else trying to get through life.


Excerpted from “The success of failure: Pulitzer winner's surprising road to the top.”
By Todd Leopold, CNN
January 20, 2012

Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize winning author, describes her creative growth -- and success -- as "incremental all the way."

…Failure. It's such an ugly word, isn't it? It reeks of cancer, of loss: the sense that what once went wrong cannot be set right, that the world has come to an end, that failures are failures forever -- that it's not just the project that failed, but you. Successful people, we imagine, are somehow blessed with more optimism, bigger brains and higher ideals than the rest of us.

But it's not true. Successful people -- creative people -- fail every day, just like everybody else. Except they don't view failure as a verdict. They view it as an opportunity. Indeed, it's failure that paves the way for creativity.

John Seely Brown is the former head of the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the Xerox lab responsible for digital printing, the computer mouse and Ethernet. He says "trafficking in unlimited failure" let PARC's employees invent once-unimaginable technologies.

"My mantra inside PARC, which was never particularly appreciated in corporate headquarters, was at least 75% of the things we did failed," he says.

…Being creative doesn't require being Mozart. Stubbornness and practicality play a role, too. Studies of grade school and college students indicated they owed their academic success to such characteristics as curiosity, self-control and what psychology professor Angela Duckworth termed "grit" -- even if they were of average intelligence.

…Failure seems to loom around every corner, especially for creative types like writers. "I think it's totally rational for a writer, no matter how much experience he has, to go right down in confidence to almost zero when you sit down to start something," author John McPhee once observed.

That's not necessarily a bad thing if it's kept in perspective.

…“You have to be OK with failing." Clients naturally want to play it safe, but sometimes the most interesting ideas are out on the fringes. For example, he says, a cell phone provider might want to focus on established users, but what about trying to market to people who don't own cell phones at all?

"It's always a risk." But a necessary one: "If you're not failing, you're not pushing hard enough."

…If you decide the work has merit, there comes a point when you take what you have. Eventually the time for major creativity recedes and you're just trying to get to the finish line -- proofreading, refining, going over details. It can be grueling.

"At that point, disgust and ennui sets in," Egan admitted. "But I have a job to do. I can't walk away. I have a desire to make it better that drives me."

And then it's time to do it again, to climb back on the high wire and start from scratch. Scary? Absolutely. Failure is always scary. But, says Egan, it's where creative energy comes from: The awards and acclaim are wonderful, but the joy comes from the freedom she feels in trying the unusual.

Indeed, she says her recent books have been much more rewarding to write because of their challenges.

"And since then," she says, "I've had a lot more fun."

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