I’m sure you’ve heard those stories. The ones about extremely famous people, who experienced some form of rejection or failure, and went on to “prove them all wrong.”
Some are true. (The Beatles were rejected by Decca records. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper and told he lacked creativity. Albert Einstein really was a late talker. Etc.)
Some of them are exaggerations or inventions. (Michael Jordan wasn’t cut from his high school basketball team. C. S. Lewis was not rejected 800 times before he was first published. Harry Potter was rejected by a dozen publishers, but J. K. Rowling already had an agent at that point, whom she snagged after sending only two query letters.)
The point of these stories is, of course, that rejection and failure don’t mean you can’t succeed. I think that is an important and inspiring message.
But I also think these stories are misleading, and even harmful, when taken at face value.
The Danger of Survivorship Bias
A very well-meaning person once heard that I was trying to get my novel published, and told me not to give up. She saw the weary smile on my face and said, “It’s only the ones who give up who don’t succeed.”
I looked her square in the eye and asked, “Have you ever considered the possibility that you don’t know about the ones who kept trying, their whole lives, but didn’t succeed, because they didn’t succeed?”
The Beatles were not the only musicians to be rejected by Decca. They were probably not the only good musicians to be rejected by Decca, either. How many music sensations did we never get to hear because they didn’t manage to find a recording company that liked their sound? How many truly amazing manuscripts were buried with their authors and never saw the light of day?
We’ll never know, but sadly, the answer is probably a lot.
We only hear about the ones who succeed, so we think they are representative. They aren’t. They are representative of the very small percentage of cases, of people who had just the right balance of talent, courage, and dumb luck/Divine assistance to make it big.
We need to face this truth and stare it in the face. We are not all the Beatles. We are not all J. K. Rowling. We are not all Walt Disney.
That doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
Freeing Ourselves from a Narrow Definition of Success
When I was contemplating the possibility of self-publishing Letters to Josep, I found myself approaching this question: what does it mean for me to be successful as an author? What specific, concrete results or experiences am I really dreaming of achieving?
When I sat down and thought about this, I came up with two things:
- I want to walk into a bookstore, see a book on the shelf, pick it up, hold it in my hands, and be able to say, “I wrote this.”
- I want something I wrote to change the way someone thinks or feels about something important to me.
That was it.
And I realized that I did not need an agent or a fancy publisher or even to sell more than a dozen copies to make that dream come true. I was willing to concede the brick-and-mortar bookstore part; after all, those establishments are becoming a rare relic of a pre-Amazon past.
But as it turns out, I didn’t have to.
Within a week of releasing Letters to Josep, someone wrote to me to tell me what an impact one small line from the book had had on her.
So under my definition of success, Letters to Josep was a success.
Typical inspirational success stories tell us that success means becoming rich and famous. They don’t give us room to ask ourselves what success really means to us.
Sometimes Giving Up Is the Bravest Thing You Can Do
If we buy into the idea that if we only try hard enough, we’ll succeed, one of these days we’re going to turn around and say, “This just isn’t working. I’ve given this everything I have, and I still haven’t succeeded. Why?”
I am writing this blog because I reached that point with my latest novel not so very long ago.
Let me tell you something. It is not easy to query more than 100 literary agents over the course of 18 months.
It is not easy to persist in the face of so many rejections. And there were little milestones along the way that made me feel that I was going in the right direction; encouragement from agents, keep going, keep trying. The manuscript evolved and improved dramatically over the course of that time thanks to the feedback I got from agents and friends. But all efforts turned up dry. All partial and full manuscript requests were turned down. All gates that opened led to dead ends. And at a certain point I realized that the querying process was no longer giving me hope, only anguish.
Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to rest.
Sometimes we need to know when it’s time to walk away–temporarily, or permanently–from a pursuit that is taking away more than it is giving us.
“Giving up” has such a negative connotation in a culture so obsessed with productivity. “Quitter” is one of the worst insults in American English. But there’s a concept in economics called the “sunk cost fallacy.” It’s when you continue to invest in something that is clearly not profitable only because you’ve already invested so much in it.
Sometimes giving up is the bravest thing you can do. Sometimes you need to recognize that you’ve invested everything you could in something that did not bear fruit, and it’s time to cut your losses. Giving up from a place of self-compassion and faith that you are doing the right thing for yourself is completely different from giving up from a place of fear.
And… you can always decide to pick it up again when you’re ready. I still Google agents from time to time. I will only query when it feels right.*
Investing in the Right Things
There is one piece of advice that all writers get that is absolutely, 100% true.
I used to be annoyed when I got this advice. It sounded kind of like “Keep dreaming.” “You’re not good enough yet. Maybe you’ll be better if you keep practicing.”
And I found it infuriating to be told that just because I was very young, I couldn’t produce anything worthwhile.
While it was true that I was an unusually mature teenager and that my age didn’t necessarily mean I couldn’t produce good literature, I still lacked something that could only be gained with time: experience. Anything I could have written at age 17, however talented I may have been, is going to pale in comparison to something I wrote at age 27. And I hope and pray that will be true of something I may write at age 37 or 47.
The perk of being an artist, my friends, is that we are like fine wines; the passage of time and experience itself gives our work depth, complexity, and color that cannot be achieved by anything else.
Sometimes we need to realize that the emotional energy we are investing in trying to get our work out there might be better spent invested in creating the next, greater work of art. Your “self-doubt demons” might drive the fear into you that you will never create anything better. This happens to me all the time. Sometimes I’m able to ignore those voices. Sometimes they suck me into their vortex of “never good enough.” It’s a struggle, but the important thing is not to let them stop you from doing what you love.
The Lack-of-Wings Predicament
You may have seen a meme going around with a quote from a poem by Erin Hanson. I should mention that it works a lot better in context. But this is what appears on the meme:
‘What if I fall?’
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?
And I’m just like… really?
You think I should jump out the window and risk breaking my neck over the chance that I might fly?
Let’s be real. We have to weigh the risks of falling against the chances of flying. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that most people reading this are not in possession of a pair of wings. Therefore, let me state the obvious: jumping out a window to see if you can fly is not called “brave,” it’s called “suicide.”
The choice not to jump is a lot less glorious, but sometimes it’s the right one.
So… my creative friends… this is what I want to tell you, and myself, today.
You are allowed to give up.
You are allowed to rest.
You are allowed to define what success means to you and operate accordingly.
You are allowed to choose which pursuits are most worthy of your energies–based on what’s right for you now.
And when you’ve decided to walk away from something, and someone tells you to not to give up… you have my permission to roll your eyes, curse under your breath, and keep walking with your head held high.
*I feel an obligation to add a footnote here for the sake of full disclosure, but please do not let it distract you from the very important message of this post. Just a few months after writing this entry, my novel was accepted for publication by a small publisher. More thoughts on what it means not to give up in my post about that acceptance, “Someday Your ‘Yes’ Will Come.“↩