Novelists Ernest Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were discussing the voice of authority that is necessary for effective fiction. Hemmingway said, “I write from the authority of success.” Without missing a beat, Fitzgerald replied, “I write from the authority of failure.”
Hemmingway’s response is smug but true. You can’t learn much from his observation, though. Fitzgerald’s response rings with unexpected truth. His bizarre comment has stuck in my brain for 35 years. Can you really gain authority from failure?
Abraham Lincoln did. Even the briefest biography of Lincoln focuses on his personal history of defeats. There were so many. Lincoln failed in business as a storekeeper. He failed at farming. He failed in his first attempt at political office. When elected to the Illinois legislature, he failed when he sought the office of speaker. He failed when he sought an appointment to the U.S. Land Office. He failed when he ran for the U.S. Senate. He failed when his friends sought his nomination as Vice President in 1856. He again failed in an attempt at the Senate.
Lincoln is the only U.S. president who holds a patent – he devised a contraption to get boats unstuck from river sandbars. Once he won his patent, he failed to get his invention manufactured. When he was nominated to lead the newly formed Republican Party in 1960, his nomination was a long shot that came about not because the party leaders were excited about Lincoln, but rather because the supporters of three other candidates fell into bitter dispute. Yet at the end of his decades-long series of setbacks, Lincoln emerged as perhaps our greatest president. He accomplished the nearly impossible task of keeping the nation from fracturing irreparably during the Civil War.
In an earlier column, I derided the popular notion that “failure is not an option.” That statement is smug, arrogant and useless. Whether you succeed or fail is not under your control. A much more helpful notion comes from Winston Churchill: “Never, never, never, never give up.” The seed of Lincoln’s greatness didn’t come from success. It came from his willingness to keep trying in spite of repeated failure.
In the 1980s, IBM did a study of its internal managerial accomplishments. The idea was that if the company could identify the source of its successes, it could encourage more success. The result of the study was that the managers who accomplished the most also had the longest history of mistakes. As a result, company executives concluded, “We need to encourage our managers to make more mistakes.” The results are simple. Those who tried new approaches were those who accomplished the most. They were also making the most mistakes because they were trying new things.
A study of sport fishing with live bait versus lures found that the real differentiator in fishing was not the type of bait or lure used, but rather the amount of time the line was actually in the water. Those who fussed with their equipment – with the line out of the water – caught fewer fish than those who actually kept their lines in the water.
I have a lot of writer friends. Some have succeeded, some have not. Those who succeed have three things in common: they finish what they set out to write, they send it out to publishers, and they’re willing to take countless rejections along the way. Those writers who have not succeeded tend to have far fewer actual rejections than those who succeed – they tend to shy away from rejection.
In his infinite wisdom, Tom Waits said, “Fishing for a good time starts with throwing in the line.” I think I’ve made my point. The most common barrier between people and their dreams is fear of failure. If you want to accomplish a big dream, you will fail. Yep, and it will probably be both painful and embarrassing. You may let friends and loved ones down in your failures. If they’re worth anything, they’ll cheer as you get back up and give it another shot.