Embracing Failure

When Stephen King received his first rejection slip, he nailed it to a wall, listened to Fats Domino’s “I’m Ready,” and “felt pretty good actually.” He was 12 or 13. He knew something that most of us have forgotten, if we ever knew it in the first place:

When you’re still too young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.[1]

Optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure at any age. Unfortunately, as we grow older we become more fragile rather than more resilient with respect to failure.[2] As we become more timid, we risk teaching our children through our actions (or inactions) to fear failure. We risk raising children who will lack the confidence and fortitude to overcome the many hurdles life will set up for them.

As a father, one of my goals is to convince #1 and #2 to see failure as an opportunity. Every failure offers an occasion to learn something both about what you are trying to do and about yourself. More than simply not fearing failure, I want #1 and #2 to welcome and embrace it.[3]

Failure is not an end but a promising new beginning.[4]

  1. From Stephen King’s On Writing, p. 40.  ↩

  2. For example, listen to little kids talk either in their native language or one that they are learning. They commit grammatical errors, use the wrong words, mispronounce words with reckless abandon. Contrast their behavior with that of adults learning a foreign language whose fear of making even the smallest mistake causes a sort of linguistic paralysis.
    Our fear of failure seems, at first glance, understandable. We have more invested in any project or endeavour—as adults failure is more costly and has wider reaching consequences. We have families and houses and lives that we can’t disrupt. We have bills to pay. We no longer heal (emotionally or physically) as quickly as we did as children. But there are so many ways to fail that don’t cost much—take up a new hobby (e.g., painting, drawing, piano, sewing, cooking), learn to dance or a new language, write a story and try to get it published. But put the nail in the wall first, so you have a place to impale all the rejection slips.  ↩

  3. King apparently had little difficulty embracing those early rejections, which he sacrificed on the nail in his wall: “By the time I was fourteen … the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it” (p. 41).  ↩

  4. I can’t help but hear echoes of Semisonic’s “Closing Time:” “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”  ↩