The Relief Of Failure

A lot of the stuff I write about is filled with personal stories. Coming from a large extended family of killer story-tellers, I learned long ago to avoid being boring at all costs — as a kid at dinner, if the first words out of my mouth didn’t get everyone’s attention, I’d be instantly interrupted and never get my story out at all.

That’s good training. Brutal and humiliating… but good.

It’s also no guarantee I won’t occasionally bore the living hell out of you. To me, every story I tell is fascinating and crammed with lessons… or I wouldn’t bother telling it.

Still, sometimes it’s hard to listen to a guy go on about things that happened last century. Our culture has zero respect for history, and the youth-orientation of our media and markets reinforces the nonsensical notion that “new is good”.

I gotta tell you: It ain’t always good.

So, here I am, once again, about to regale you with tales from my own case files. Just remember: I have a point.

This one’s about failure.

I remember, probably way too clearly, my first “big” failure. I’ve failed at things all my life — you can’t learn to walk without falling down — but this time, I’d gone out of my way to try to accomplish something… and failed.

That was new.

It was senior year of high school. My best pal, Art, and I were going out with girls from another high school… and learned that they were having this big senior talent show. Sounded like wicked good fun… so Art and I decided to organize one ourselves.

Let me tell you — it’s not like the old movies, where the neighborhood kids decide “hey gang — let’s put on a show!”, and everything falls into place.

Long story short (you’re welcome): After a month of not knowing the first thing about putting on a talent show… and dealing with almost daily nightmares from sobbing talentless wannabe’s and cruel “it’s all about me” ego cases… the show was a few days away from “opening”, and an imminent disaster.

I was a wreck. Rumors were flying, and one of my teachers took me aside and suggested we call it off. I hadn’t considered that possibility. Art and I made a quick decision to do just that, returned the money for advance ticket sales… and each heaved a big sigh of relief.

That was the operative emotion: Relief.

Later in life, I got kicked upstairs in a job, and spent a summer working 80-hour weeks trying to keep a corporate train wreck from happening. I was overwhelmed, exhausted and dreaming of running away.

Then, happy day, the marketing veep took me aside and fired me. He apologized, because he knew I’d been single-handedly keeping disaster at bay… but because the project was a little late, bonuses for the other executives were forfeited. Someone’s head had to roll.

My response: Relief.

Not too long after that, my psycho girlfriend dumped me. I suggest every young man go through the crucible of having a psycho girlfriend — it’s great training for understanding human nature. And I guarantee you — you will never forget those particular lessons. Never.

Again: A pang or two of heartache, but mostly relief.

Why am I dredging up these memories of relief and failure?

To illustrate a trap: By the time I was ready to get serious about my freelance career, I had to face up to an inconvenient fact — I had been rewarding myself for failure.

And it had to stop.

As a professional freelance copywriter, I suspected that failing wouldn’t be good for my reputation. I saw other writers fail consistently — missing deadlines, turning in inferior work, creating obstacles to getting the job done.

So, I made a simple vow: Failure was no longer an option.

I studied my former responses. That relief was really just an “emotional pardon”… I had still failed. I just allowed myself not to get too worked up about it.

I let myself off the hook.

As a pro, I decided that wasn’t gonna cut it. There’s an old Zen concept about “trying” to do anything. You can’t “try” to eat a sandwich, for example — you either are chewing and swallowing, or you’re not. It’s the same with everything else. You can’t “try” to quit smoking — you’re either a smoker, fooling yourself… or you’re a non-smoker now. No middle ground.

So I wasn’t going to “try” to succeed. I just would. Every failure became nothing more than another step toward getting the job done right. If I was facing a difficult writing project, I padded the deadline with extra time — time to fail, fix the failure, and get closer to success… while still making the deadline.

My past failures had been excused by everyone around me. Quitting was understandable. It was clear that few others would have succeeded where I had muddled. Life is tough. Sometimes you screw up.

Well, bullshit.

Almost all the failure in my life has been from my own initial failure to pursue all possible actions until I found the right answer. The talent show presented problems — so what? There were experienced teachers I could have consulted with, and drama students who had some idea of how to work the back-stage of an event.

Instead, I ran into problems… and just effectively sat down and cried in my root beer. It was a weak plea for help.

The only “help” that arrived from this passive wishing was the advice to quit.

Lesson: Never expect the universe to hand you the answers on a silver platter. You gotta knock, ask and seek, dude.

As for getting fired… well, while I never contemplated suicide, I certainly was busy killing myself with overwork. Why was I shouldering all the responsibility, and ignoring the gathering storm clouds from upper management about heads rolling?

Getting out of that bad situation was the right course of action. Looking back, there was nothing more I could have done to make that dysfunctional situation work.

Instead of waiting for the axe like a good little soldier… I should have resigned. Today, I would, in a heartbeat. I had all the responsibility and zero control over the situation. It was, essentially, a set-up.

However, as a freelancer, I DO have control over even dysfunctional clients. I AM the bottom line… so if things need changing, I’m the guy to introduce those changes and get them working. It’s a cop-out to blame the client, and leave my post as the “go to” guy on any project.

I love that kind of responsibility.

And I haven’t “failed” in twenty years. Sometimes an ad will bomb… but only because we (collectively, the client and I, the writer) had to get through that bomb on the path to success.

If I was offered a project I suspected had no chance in hell of success… I passed on it. I let the client know my thoughts, warned them as best I could… and moved on.

Not to avoid failure. I’m not afraid of failure anymore. I’ve just put it in context — any single failure is just a blip on the path to real success.

Huge difference.

It’s all about acquiring the confidence of knowing how the game is played. In this case — advertising and marketing. The professional attitude (to quote Larry The Cable Guy) is “Get ‘er done.” It’s really that simple — when you take a job, you take on that clietn’s problem to solve.

As for the psycho g.f. — well, like many young men, I was simply an emotional coward. I wanted out of the relationship long before she pulled the plug. What kept me from bolting? I actually DID call it off a few times… but always crawled back when she called. I didn’t possess the ability to follow through.

Failure isn’t bad. Most people live it, and seem to survive.

But simple survival is a long way from enjoying life to the fullest.

I know of NO ONE who is passive, and in control of their life.

You are not a pinball, waiting helplessly for a flipper to whack you in a new direction. You have complete access to the controls of your life. You can write the entire script for your own movie.

You da man.

But only if you step up. And stop letting relief be your operative emotion. Success requires moments of discomfort and risk.

Oddly enough, once you get a taste for it, discomfort and risk make for a very tasty meal.

Stay frosty.

John Carlton

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  • Shariq says:

    killer advice John..

    n oh so timely..

    just this morning I had a ‘blip’.

    things didn’t go as they were supposed to.
    n it kinda me a lil upset.

    of course failuire never was. or is an option but
    you reminding me that.. n the fact that all the
    ‘blips’ are part of the success..

    it just gave me electrifying energy 🙂

    thanks a ton!

  • Dan Gallapoo says:

    Thanks, John. I wish someone would have explained this to me back when I was in high school. NOBODY teaches this stuff, unfortunately. Gracias for being the one lone voice spreading this message.


  • Bob says:

    Words of wisdom gained from experience my friend.
    Now to truly solve the worlds ills… we must devise a method to require the youth to hear the words of the experienced and actually listen and learn.
    I read recently an author that declared there’s a divine reason we have two ears and only one mouth. We should be listening twice as much as we’re speaking.
    Thanks John.

  • Too Cool Clarke says:

    I’m still learning this lesson again and again. thanks for the great article john

  • caleb says:

    No doubt.

    Awesome post.

  • Best post so far. Thank you.

    I’m reading your posts chronologically, and this is definitely one to come back too.

    At the end of the day, we all know that learning is failure, but it’s the degree to which you believe it that counts.


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