Write great protagonists!
I'll be at LDSPMA
Tips organized by topic
Read about me
Editing Services
Read Testimonials
Learn the "bones" of story

Monday, October 14, 2019

Exactly Why Failure is Key to Exceptional Success

Over the last few years, I've heard a lot of people talking about how important failure is in our lives, and yet, I feel like no one has adequately explained *exactly* WHY and *exactly* HOW that works. More and more I've been gaining a greater understanding of failure, and today, I'll attempt to share what I've learned. Will I succeed? You be the judge. 😉

But before I get too far, I want to take a moment to acknowledge two different ways the term "failure" is used, because that affects the meaning of this post.

Some people use "failure" to mean giving up, the final quit. In this sense, the phrase, "You only fail if you quit" is true (I've said that same phrase on my blog).

Other people use "failure" to mean any kind of mess up, mistake, or error.

A lot of us use it both ways, which can make a conversation about it confusing.

While in the past, I've usually meant the first definition, today I'm using it as the second definition: mess up, mistake, error.

There are so many interconnected parts of failure's purpose in life, that it's hard to know where to start, but I will begin with the familiar and build up to the most profound and important.

(Why) Failing Sucks

This is definitely the most familiar. We've all failed, and we've all known what that feels like.

No one genuinely enjoys failure. It's not fun. And it can make you feel stupid.

The more failures you accumulate, one after another, the more frustrated and disappointed you will become.

To be honest, I've been dealing with this a lot lately.

You see, I have a few specific scenes left to fix in my manuscript, and I can't for the life of me figure them out. I literally worked on it diligently for over a month. And while I made some headway, it wasn't much, and I'm largely just as stuck.

So, I've been accumulating lots of failures. And naturally I've been dealing with regular feelings of frustration, disappointment, and even depression. Heck, I've even gotten to the point of asking existential questions.

But guess what? Any normal person in this same situation would feel those same feelings. I mean, seriously? Over a month? For me that means I've spent about 80 hours on it. Who wouldn't be frustrated? Disappointed? Depressed? Questioning life choices?

This is completely normal. And contrary to how you feel, it's not actually a bad thing. Sure, your emotions are a part of you and your existence, but you need to learn to rise above them, not be ruled by them.

Recently I read this in an article:

What feels like struggle and frustration is often skill development and growth. . . . In other words, what looks like failure is often the foundation of success.

I've heard others talk about how feelings of confusion are actually simply signals to your brain that you are about to learn something new.

These emotions may feel negative to your well-being at the time, but they actually aren't bad, and they definitely aren't evil.

They simply mean you are entering a skill development phase. This is completely true, and in the process of this post, you'll see why, specifically.

Now, some of you may have actually been embarrassed for me when I said I've spent 80 hours trying to fix a few scenes; maybe you even thought you were better than that. Maybe you are 🤷‍♀️ but this is also another reason why failing sucks. Not only do you naturally deal with feelings of frustration, disappointment, maybe existential questions, but you have to deal with others, our culture, and society, which has often taught us failure is something to be ashamed and embarrassed about, in other words, it's not accepted. In other words, we have even another reason to avoid it.

To be fair, it's almost impossible in our classrooms and society to adequately incorporate failure, for reasons I'll explain later. It just doesn't work--it's not realistic.

Why Exactly Perseverance is so Important

Because failing, especially repeated failing, naturally invites feelings of frustration, disappointment, and depression, along with ridicule, shame, and embarrassment, it requires something else to carry you over to those new skills: perseverance.

It's such a cliche, that you might want to skip ahead, but trust me, you don't.

Like we said, failing is not fun. But often failing means you have the opportunity to learn a new skill. But you can only learn that new skill if you keep going. We've all been taught this.

But there is something else to be gained: experience.

The first time you run into a specific failure and choose to push on to success, your experience is like this line, small and thin. I kind of think of it as a little indentation in a trail you took.

Yes, Paint has been useful for my blog again! Notice the thin line.

The next time you do that, your experience is like this line. It's a little deeper, a little stronger, in the trail.

The next time you do that, your experience is like this line.

The next time you do that, your experience is like this line. Bolder, clearer, stronger, like a deep rut in the path.

This line is more obvious/clearer. It's "stronger."

All of our choices and experiences accumulate within us. Every time we choose to persevere to success, the clearer our path becomes next time, even if the subject matter is different.


Because every time we persevere and make it through a hard time, it becomes a little easier to make it through the next hard time. Because we've already done hard things, we can do more hard things (we can take the rut in the trail). We know we can. And even if this situation is something harder, our past experience informs us we are capable of figuring it out. It all accumulates and becomes clearer.

This in turn relates directly to growing in confidence. A lot of teens and young adults struggle with confidence. Why? Well, one part is because they have not yet accumulated enough experience to perceive the clear path. How are you supposed to be confident in which way to go, if you've never gone that way before? It might seem like a fool's confidence to pretend you know. This is where the concept of faith comes in. You need to exercise faith the first few times, but once you accumulate experiences, the paths and consequences become clearer. You don't need to "try" to be confident. You will be, because you know.

Each experience builds.

Sure, prior to that, you may need to get help and direction, from tools or people who already know the way. You exercise faith by trying it out, getting results, and evaluating that experience. As that accumulates, eventually you will be confident and know.

Unfortunately, though, this sort of thing also happens in the reverse. . . .

Imagine you have the choice whether or not to persevere.

And you quit.

First path of quitting

And the next time you quit.

And the next time you quit.

And the next time you quit.

Quitting becomes the more obvious path to take. It's a "stronger" path because you've taken it so many times.

You've now accumulated a bunch of quitting experiences, making it even harder to take those first few journeys of faith. Why? Because all you've ever done is quit. Worse, because that is what you've always ever done, you may just assume you are doomed to do that to yourself again.

There is hope.

And do you want to know a secret?

I think the first few leaps of faith almost always suck, regardless of past experiences. Because you don't yet know. Leaps of faith are scary! They've made me restless for nights on end, made me want to throw up my breakfast, made me have existential questions. But to this day, I will tell you that none of them have been as hard as the first significant one I took, exactly because it was the first one I took. (I won't go into the story because it's long and personal.) I realize that might sound depressing for a few people, but think of it this way--all the other leaps will likely be easier because you already did it once!

And sometimes, it's helpful to not put the faith in yourself; after all, you don't yet have the accumulated experience to give you the knowledge that paves the way to confidence. It might be easier to imagine putting your faith in God, the universe, "Truth," a mentor, or someone more experienced than you (for me it's God, but not everyone shares my beliefs). Trust them, and then leap. Then see what happens and evaluate.

I realize like with everything, there are exceptions. There always are, especially when you talk about abstract concepts like, faith, perseverance, and failure. Since they aren't concrete things, we have to use generalization to even create the concept in the first place (though some would argue we do that with all words of language, but let's leave that for the college classrooms today).

Perseverance is important, because without it, you'll never get the skills needed to find exceptional success.

Sure, you can get some success without failure and perseverance, but you'll never get exceptional success.

One Difference Between Consistent Quitters and Exceptional Success . . . ors

In my current journey of regular failures and bouts of frustration and disappointment, et. al, I've been listening to a lot of speeches about failure when I get ready in the mornings. In fact, I've listened to some speakers talk about studies that have even been done on consistent quitters and consistently successful people. One key thing really stuck out to me.

Observers have noticed that consistent quitters internalize failure.

Consistently successful people, don't.

There is a typical process that goes on when you are trying to do something difficult.

1. You start working on something
2. It gets hard
3. You can't figure it out
4. You try and fail and try and fail
5. Because you fail so much, you beat yourself up, and decide you suck.
6. You keep trying (or quit).

People who are consistently successful, skip step five. Because they don't internalize the failure--they don't make it about them being no good, but only the problem itself being very difficult--they don't quit, and they find more success.

This is way easier said than done.

Years and years ago, I was always a number five stepper. ALWAYS. And you know what? It was the worst! Sometimes I'd even crawl in my bed when I got home and cry. (It didn't stop me, apparently, cause I'm still here--so even if you are a five stepper, you can keep going!) I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I could do everything I wanted to--without feeling that way. I just thought it was a normal part of my process.

Now, I admit I would be embarrassed if certain people I knew read that, but I want to include it because I believe there are people out there struggling with the same thing, and I want them to know it's possible for it to go away.

I'm not a therapist or a doctor. But as I kept forcing myself to persevere over and over again, something weird happened.

I accumulated experience.

Which meant I accumulated confidence.

At some point, I stopped internalizing failures without really realizing it, because I knew I could overcome the problem--because I did it over and over and over again. I could do hard things.

I'm not saying thoughts never cross my mind that could affect my self-esteem--they do, to everyone. No one is immune to passing thoughts. It's a natural thought process of failure. Of course I'm going to question things, because I'm disappointed and not figuring things out, and I'm trying to figure them out, troubleshoot, evaluate, why it's not working (is it me???). But because I have accumulated experience, it doesn't take root.

The Keys to Exceptional Success: Unparalleled Discernment and Precision

But even with all this, failure has a purpose that in some ways is far more important than anything we've talked about. And this is a process that I think most people don't adequately explain.

They may say things like, "You learn more from failure," but they don't clearly explain how or why; they just brush the surface.

For the last two years, I've been thinking a lot about discernment, and what it is, how we develop it, and why it's so important.

Guess what?

This relates directly to failure. In fact, accumulating failure can give you unparalleled discernment and precision, which is exactly why you will have the potential to become exceptionally successful.

In classrooms and in textbooks, we tend to talk in "black and white" terms. Either something is right, or something is wrong. You either solved that problem correctly, or you didn't. Sometimes this even goes into religion. You either kept that commandment, or you didn't.

But the real world is way more complicated than that. Some people want to believe it's still black and white, but it's not. I don't care how vehemently you preach that to me, reality and experience has taught me life is way more complicated and complex than that.

This is where life experience comes in. You've probably all heard the idea that you can study about a subject all day for years, but until you accumulate life experience, you won't be able to do whatever you are trying to do, as successfully. This is because the subject, like almost everything, has a whole entire spectrum of grays--not just black and white.

It would be impossible to teach and cover all those grays in a classroom, textbook, or sermon--the grays, in some ways, are infinite. And if we did try to teach all those grays and exceptions and such, not only would it take up waaaay more time, but it would muddy and take away from the main successful routes, the white over the black, the basics we are trying to teach.

But let's get deeper.

Gray isn't one color. It's a type of color.

So maybe you are introduced to black and white. But in the real world, you run into gray. And you don't know how to interpret or approach it. It doesn't fit in exactly with what you were taught.

Discern the gray

As you deal with that, you learn to discern that gray exists.

But guess what? Gray is a type of color.

So you go along in life, and then you run into a different gray. Now not only do you discern gray from black and white, but you need to learn to discern how this gray is different than the last. What kind of gray is it? To what degree is it black? To what degree it is white? Does it have other colors mixed in?

And as time goes on, you encounter another gray.

And another.

And another.

And eventually . . .

even if the shades are almost exactly the same . . .

you can discern almost imperceptible differences.


This is the same sort of process that happens when you accumulate failures (though obviously I'm using a metaphor to make it more accessible), as long as you persevere until you succeed in each one.

In other words, you develop a level of discernment that was totally inaccessible without those encounters, because you can't know them, until you accumulate the experience of them. And as you accumulate the experience of them, you more easily discern them. (I know I just talked in circles, but hopefully you get it).

You can identify steel gray from pewter gray.

But identifying is only half of it.

Because you persevered to success over and over again, you know how to handle the pewter gray when you see it again.

In other words, you develop an exceptional level of precision, that anyone who has given up repeatedly, can only dream of. (Seriously.)

As you encounter pewter gray and address it over

and over

and over


The path becomes clearer.

But if you never have the experience of having to learn how to discern and address it (in the point of this post, aka, fail and overcome it), you'll never fully know it, to the same extent, of that specificity.

As your exact discerning and understanding of the specific thing grows, so does your wisdom concerning it.

What is the difference between having general "knowledge" and having "wisdom"? It is discernment. General knowledge is just learned information. But wisdom has a level of discernment. And it doesn't stop there. Real wisdom is discerning how to apply knowledge the right way to the right situation. Wisdom comes from learning to recognize and reconcile opposites.

Okay, hold your horses there, because I just used the word "opposites." The truth is, I want to use a different word, but haven't found the right one that fits yet. When I say "opposite" I don't necessarily mean direct opposites (black vs. white), but some degree of opposition, some degree of difference, i.e. pewter gray vs. steel gray. It's recognizing that and knowing the precise way to address it.

Satan wasn't kidding when he told Eve that if she partook of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil (opposites), she'd have the "wisdom of God." But people don't understand the significance of that idea, because they only think of direct opposites, the black and white, not all the grays that exist in between, (i.e. "Is it evil to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?"). I do not believe we are meant to go through life with our "color-blinders" on, only perceiving and labeling everything as black or white. We can never become something more until we discern the other shades.

What's weird is that until we can discern, we cannot accurately judge. Which adds a whole layer to the idea of not judging (in the "condemning" definition) others. The idea that we even have the level of discernment, the capacity to decide who goes to Heaven or Hell is laughable, because it implies we believe we have obtained the same capacity of discernment, of wisdom, as God. (ROFL!) But this is a tricky concept to talk about, because the word "judge" has multiple definitions. "Judge" can be used to mean something like "discern," but it's also used to mean something like "condemn" or like, "sentence." We should really only be concerned with the first one most the time (unless we are law enforcement or something). This is also why it's possible to "hate the sin, love the sinner," so to speak.

Anyway! (A slight tangent that I felt was worth mentioning.)

Repeated failure and accumulated experience (of persevering) literally enhances and broadens our capacity for discernment in ways that cannot be obtained otherwise, which means we can literally perceive things others cannot, which means, we can develop an exact level of precision that others cannot. Which means, we can actually get closer to a state of perfection, in whatever we are pursuing, that others cannot. Which means we have the potential to succeed in exceptional ways, usually way beyond that of those who don't fail.

Sure, there are naturally gifted people, who fail less, but they are rare. Most highly successful people are ordinary people who have failed a ton. And unless naturally gifted people work for it, they may never reach the same level of discernment and wisdom.

This is why you hear people say things about "experience." "I'm looking for someone with experience." What they are really saying is that they are looking for someone with discernment, with wisdom. But here's the funny thing. Just because someone has been around longer, doesn't necessarily mean they are more discerning, wise. Because if they never risk failure, choose to see the shades of gray, persevere to success, they may never develop the same level of discernment as someone much younger who does that all the time. Maybe this is why some young people "have old souls."

Since I became an adult, I've been amazed at how easily others will quit the simplest things.  Someone will ask me how I styled my hair a certain way, I'll tell them what to do, they fail, and they say things like, "I'm just not good at that. I tried it and it didn't work" (internalized failure). I try to explain I sucked at the hairstyle my first time too--in fact, maybe the first ten times. But here's the thing. They didn't see how bad my hair looked those ten days. They only saw the results.

I realize that not all of us want to succeed at everything badly. And in fact, it's unrealistic to put 100% effort into everything we choose to pursue. We may have different priorities, run into new interests, decide it's not what we thought it was, and move on. That is 100% okay.

On the other hand, part of me wonders, if that person quit at trying a hairstyle after their first attempt--what else is that behavior affecting in their lives? After all, most things you don't get right the first time! Then again, maybe they just decided they weren't that interested . . . which weirdly gets back to discernment--I don't have all the factors to judge for sure, and it's very important we learn to discern ourselves and our own motives, honestly.

Still, I think a lot of people probably give up too quickly, mainly because of my earlier point: failure isn't fun. It can hurt and even be humiliating. And the growing process of learning discernment and a new skill is difficult and uncomfortable (but so, so worth it). If you look at what I've outlined in this section, it's clearly a refining process.

As I've been working at solving the scenes I'm stuck on, it does feel like refinement in a lot of ways.

At first I set out with some ideas on how to fix the scenes.

But one way failed.

Then another.

Then another.

Then another.

And another.

But in the process of my attempts, I'm slowly stripping away what does not work, getting closer to the solution. And refining my discernment and precision, in ways I haven't before. So I'm gaining wisdom.

What's crazy . . .

. . . is the more you do this . . .

. . . the more exceptional you can become . . .

. . . and the more exceptional you can become . . .

. . . the more you can stand out . . .

. . . so you'll be unparalleled in your realm.

We all think competition is fierce--and it can be. (And there are always some elements out of our control.)

But imagine being so exceptional, that few people are even in your level, or in that category. In a sense, there is actually less competition where you stand. After all, frankly, most people will quit before they get to that level. Maybe it's because they internalize failure. Maybe it's because they don't slow down, identify, and overcome the problem, but instead just keep starting over and over and over again. Maybe it's because they choose not to see gray. Maybe it's because failing so many times invites feelings of frustration and disappointment (though weirdly, the more often you experience that point, the more clearly you can see how to deal with those feelings and that they will eventually pass). Or, maybe they decide they aren't that interested in it. It is a personal choice after all, and who am I to judge (condemn)? I'm still trying to learn to judge (discern), myself.

All I'm saying is that overcoming repeated failure is a refining process that enhances our discernment and precision in ways that are unparalleled. As long as you are learning (and applying what you learn), you are succeeding, to say the cliche. Or in other words, "You only fail if you quit" (I love playing with the ambiguity of English words). I've heard these cliches . . . but now I know them (or perhaps more appropriately, discern them).

Often those who have had exceptional success, the masters, have failed a million times, whether that is Edison or Mozart. In an article I recently read, someone called it the "10 Years of Silence," noticing that many music masters didn't have any exceptional success for ten years (where they were failing behind the scenes). It's precisely this refinement and perseverance that enabled them to become masters at all.

Now, everyone remembers them for their successes, not their failures.


I realize this is a post that is different than what I have been writing lately, but I feel that understanding the purpose of failure is critical to success, especially in writing, where we are literally working with black marks on a page. Learning to discern accurately is critical--it's why we have writing groups, writing conferences, teachers, and editors. 

I also realize it is a little rambly, but it's a pretty abstract topic, and when I thought of cutting out certain points, I thought that those points may resonate with a particular person. So you'll have to forgive me (this is just an informal blog post after all, and I wanted to get it up today). Hopefully, though, at least one thing in here was helpful to you!


  1. Thank you for taking the time to craft this post! It speaks profoundly to me and my struggle with art. I'm embarrassed that it has taken me so long to improve, even a little. I go through times of hibernating from it then come back and start over. It is frustrating, but now like the saying about getting back on the horse, I feel like I'm staying on the horse for a little longer each time and there is a thrill I find in that. Thanks for the reminder that mistakes are good. :)

    On another note, I love this reminder of how to avoid/overcome step 5: https://doodlealley.com/2012/09/10/you-are-not-your-art/

    1. Hi Malea! I'm so glad it was helpful to you! And I'm even more glad that you are sticking at it a bit longer each time.

      Wow, I love that comic. That explains that path pretty well (#guilty)

    2. Thanks! I'm guilty too! :D I love following your journey!


I love comments :)