Photo of lemonsThe Incredible Value of Failure

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” the saying goes.  When life gives you lemons, pay attention.

Have you failed recently? Congratulations!  Let me explain.

When I was a kid, I hurt myself and said to my mother, “I wish I couldn’t feel pain.”  

My mother then told me a story of a person who couldn’t feel pain.  This person bled to death at the beach.  He hadn’t felt a cut in his foot and bled to death without noticing.  Without pain, she told me, we wouldn’t know when we were hurt.  I disagreed at the time.  She was telling me something important. 

Failure, like pain, sends us precious signals of problems that need to be corrected.  Without failure nothing of true difficulty and importance is ever achieved.

If you are hitting all bulls-eyes, you are too close to the target.

I hate to fail.  You do, too.

Failure is pain.  But when you fail, you learn.  When you learn, you get better.  When you get better, you succeed.

If you are not failing, you are staying within your comfort zone. You are not getting better.

Failure, of course, should not be pursued intentionally.  Similarly, one should not stab an ice pick into one’s thigh.  That would be dumb.  

But when failure occurs, we are being sent valuable intelligence and guidance.  

Failure is painful, sometimes very painful.

Example:  The Apollo 1 spacecraft, which never flew, used pure oxygen inside the crew cabin.  While being tested by a crew of three astronauts, an electrical short started a fire that burned abnormally rapidly in the pure oxygen atmosphere.  Astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee were killed.

Value:  Had the Apollo program proceeded with the 100% oxygen cabin atmosphere, almost certainly the same accident would have occurred in space.  There were 11 successful Apollo missions — Apollo 7 through Apollo 17 — success being defined as returning the crew safely to Earth.  Six of those flights landed men on the Moon.  Those 33 astronauts, and the Apollo program, owed a great debt to Grissom, White, and Chaffee.  

This intense example of failure was integral to one of mankind’s greatest successes of the 20th century: sending humans to another world.  The accomplishment has not been repeated.

Smaller failures and successes are still available to otherwise ordinary people.  You, too, can fail.

If you want to succeed, double your failure rate” has been attributed to the co-discoverer of DNA, Thomas J. Watson.  “But don’t overdo it,” is a corollary attributed to AstroGremlin.  Really.  Don’t overdo it.

If you fail repeatedly, in close succession, you are being sent a series of valuable messages you are likely ignoring.  If this occurs in traffic, if other drivers are honking at you or you are experiencing “near misses,” you are cruising for a bruising.  Or worse.

Failure, like pain, must be accompanied by appropriate correction.

Personal Example:  I had a professor who corrected every mistake in every essay I turned in.  Terse comments in the margins questioned the logic of my arguments and marked-up text pointed out mistakes in the sentences I had struggled so hard to write. My face would burn with embarrassment as I read the all-too-justified corrections.

Value:  That tough professor set me on a path to thinking and writing more carefully.  I remembered every edit.  Having my writing edited stung.  But the alternative was worse: living in a self-congratulatory slumber in Plato’s cave of ignorance.  I would later encounter even tougher editors.  Every time, I didn’t like it.  But I learned.  

Now I edit other people’s writing.  Before I get to the actual editing, I always write something nice like, “You have some good ideas in here.”  And then I bring down the corrections like flaming chunks of doo doo.  This is how editors show their love to writers and their love for good writing.  If you find a tough editor, treasure that person. 

What feels like failure, is not.  The real failure is to ignore the message.

Can you recall a recent failure?  

Was it just a tough break (there is a difference)?  Has it resulted in correction, or did you ignore it?  Can you cite an example of a remarkable personal success that grew out of a catastrophic failure?

Let me know you are alive and kicking.  Leave a comment!

Your Writer Versus Your Editor

As a blogger you wear “two hats”: writer and editor, two roles that often fail to see eye-to-eye and the truly critical eye of the editor is best applied after the flow of the writer’s thoughts has been tapped in raw form

As a blogger you wear “two hats”: writer and editor

The writer is the font of raw ideas, the creative impulse, and the MakerThe editor is the voice of reason, the critic, and the Fixer.  Yes, the two sensibilities can be tapped in one sitting, and good writing is good editing.  But the truly critical eye of the editor is best applied after the flow of the writer’s thoughts has been tapped in raw form.

The Maker is more conversational and wordy, adding asides and stray thoughts that may distract, or may need expansion into full paragraphs. The Fixer tends to create a tighter, more compact narrative, using fewer words.  A tension sometimes arises from the tighter version’s potential loss of the spontaneity of the first flush of ideas in prolix style.

These two roles can fail to see eye-to-eye when they are different people.  But even when played by the same person, the Maker tends to want to protect the Golden Word from the Fixer.  Often well to keep these two characters separated by a day.

A tip of the space helmet to Stephen Guise whose article A Superior Writing Method inspired this essay.

Being Edited to Excess? Try Editor Bait

When a crummy editor absolutely has to find “mistakes,” give them some! Intentional mistakes and awkward phrases in copy will attract the editor’s red pencil and protect your good text. Be careful never to give editor bait to a good editor.

Being Edited Is Part of Life as a Writer

You write a first draft, tighten it up, re-read it and tinker some more, realize it’s 123 words too long, squeeze out more words, read it over, realize you removed an important paragraph link, fix it, edit some more.  Perfect!

Then you hand this polished gem into your editor.  And he or she screws with it!

Sound familiar?  Writers and editors have been described as “natural enemies.” Here’s the unfortunate truth:  Editors are paid to screw with writers.  Editors may even sense that messing with your words is a mistake and feel bad about it.  And it can be a lot of  work to mess with a well written piece, only to put it back in shape.

True story from the olden days:

A newspaper editor was fired for crossing out words and replacing them with the identical words.  If you are a writer, this story may tug at your heart strings:  Maybe the guy finally realized that writers work hard to get it right.

Not All Editors are Evil

If your stuff is good, good editors will leave it alone, and if it just needs shortening, some editors will give you a chance to cut it.  A good editor will make you a better writer.

Then there are the others. When your copy has been running “as is” without being edited by previous editors, and suddenly your new editor  starts messing with stuff, and NOT MAKING IT BETTER, you may be dealing with an incompetent justifying his or her existence.  An editor may have a combination of problems leading to this behavior: insecurity, not being too smart, desire to please his or her superior, not being all that smart.  It may be time for you to carefully introduce editor bait.

What is Editor Bait?

When a crummy editor absolutely has to find “mistakes,” give them some! Intentional mistakes and awkward phrases in copy will attract the editor’s red pencil and protect your good text.   Be careful never to give editor bait to a good editor.  Be subtle.  Not capitalizing “napoleon bonaparte” might be a an honest (wink, wink) mistake. But even when baiting an extremely obtuse editor, be careful.  You might be tempted to throw in a phrase like “enjoyed most by squirrel touchers.”  This is going too far. “Paris in the the spring” is better.  They like to fix  that one.

Seriously, if you are stooping to such tactics to avoid bad editing, you may want to look for another job, market your freelance talents elsewhere , or adopt a more “philosophical” attitude.  Check out a great article by Will Kenny.

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