The Failure of Success

“All of us make mistakes, and the wisdom from these mistakes is often more valuable than advice from the supersuccessful.”

Skip Prichard


Over the past few weeks, I’ve suggested a few ways to deal with failure, including honoring it, recasting it, lowering expectations, and even quitting. I have one more suggestion: Collect words of wisdom that you find personally encouraging. No doubt you’ve noticed that I’ve quoted lots of people in my previous posts. I’ve let these people speak, because each of them is considered to be successful, and yet it’s obvious that they all deal with failure. In fact, we could say that they’re experts in the subject. Some people consider me to be a success, but the truth is I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded. Every day I’m tempted to quit writing. Every day. So I collect encouraging quotes and place them in a file labeled, “Creative Courage.” When I get discouraged, I open up my “Can of Creative Courage” and read some of the voices that encourage me most. You’ve probably figured out that you’ve been reading some of my favorites.

But let’s flip the coin to the success side for a minute. Failure may be an essential part of success, but even success can be disappointing. As Lao-Tzu said, success is “the lurking place of failure.” G.K. Chesterton, in his droll way, pointed out that nothing fails like success. It’s certainly not guaranteed to bring us happiness. But people don’t often talk about the letdown we can feel after the initial euphoria of success wanes and our fifteen minutes in the spotlight is over.

Sometimes the process of working toward success is so exhilarating that after the initial celebration of reaching it, we crash. It’s easy to feel an absence of purpose, at least temporarily. That often happens to authors. I know I experienced it with my novels. A great deal of time and work go into preparing a book for release day (the day the book is on store shelves, available for purchase). For me, as with most authors, the excitement began building on the day my agent said an editor wanted to publish my novels. We then entered months of editing, finalizing the book cover, doing pre-promotion, and setting up publicity. Finally release day came!

The silence was deafening.

Release day was a normal day at home and passed by completely unnoticed by everyone except one of my writer friends who had been-there-done-that. She arrived mid-afternoon with a bottle of champagne. Bless her. She knew what a letdown it could be.

Reaching our goal is not our destination. It only sets us up for the next goal. Writing coach Lisa Cron says, ” [I]nstead of making my life easier, [success has] made it harder. . . it’s given me no choice but to deal with unavoidable change.” One of the changes is seeing another goal ahead. The end point of this climb is the starting point for the next climb.

Sometimes success is such a high that once the momentary euphoria fizzles, we’re hungry for more. We want a greater high. Or one that’s longer lasting. On the other hand, we may look back and realize that while we succeeded, we paid a high price. Success in one area sometimes leaves us with regrets in another.

Then there’s the strange effect of celebrity culture that elevates the “successful” person to a position separate from the masses. It can be a lonely place to live unless we have close friends who know us for who we are and don’t buy into our over-hyped image. (It also helps not to buy into our own press.) Often people who admire our success build up their own assumptions about us, their own stories of who we are. In other words, they think we’re something we’re not and often expect us to continue with the same level of success or to climb even higher. It’s tricky to navigate that path well. Ray Connolly, in his biography of Elvis Presley, says that toward the end of his life, the mega-star said, “I’m so tired of being Elvis Presley.”

If it’s true that nothing fails like success, it’s also true that nothing succeeds like failure. Failure succeeds in opening our eyes, humbling us, narrowing our choices toward the achievable, and directing our path. I can’t help but compare it to revising a novel. The first draft is always a disappointment. Technically it’s a failure, because I failed to express on the page what my mind dreamed, what I envisioned, what I wanted. But it’s also an opportunity to revise. Revision, re + vision, means seeing again. Gaining a new vision for the story. Or in the case of life, gaining a new vision for the future.

Life is an overlapping series of explorations and discoveries in which the failure/success experience is essential. It’s essential as we continue to come of age. It’s essential for a living, growing faith. It’s essential for becoming whole and fully human. It’s essential for opening our eyes, our minds, and our hearts.

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished,” wrote novelist Louis L’Amour. “That will be the beginning.”

Next week we’ll begin exploring time and choice. Mentally, we can relive our past choices or pre-live what we imagine to be future choices, but now is when we actually make our choices. This moment is when we either renew our commitment to our original vision or choose a different path. Join me for more next week.


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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