Success and Failure

A post at musings of a frequent flying scientist asked the question:

What would you attempt if you knew you couldn’t fail?

It wasn’t her question, but we both agreed that, as asked, the question was poorly worded. It’s not an attempt if one knows one can’t fail. The question should read “what would you do if you knew you could not fail?”

Regardless how it’s worded, it’s an interesting question, and it generated a lot of replies. 

But I want to sidestep the question and dig a little deeper, specifically about the idea of success and failure.


A friend and I owned and ran a business for twenty years. We employed a lot of people, contributed to the success of a number of car programs, and the company was well-regarded by those who worked with us. In 2004, after a betrayal of sorts by some trusted individuals and the auto industry outsourcing to China and India, we decided to close the business.

Were we successful or were we failures?

I ask because a lot of the responses to the original question, “what would you attempt”, exposed a common theme of fear . . . the fear of failure.  

Go ahead; go read the answers. You’ll find lots of talk about success and failure. Success and failure as it relates to writing and photography. Coincidentally, these happen to be two of my current major interests. 


Here’s what I noticed common to all the responses . . . none of them defined those two words. Success and failure. 

What does it mean to be successful at writing? What does it mean to be successful in photography? For either of those, what does failure consist of? 

Is it money? Is it fame? Is it awards?

If it’s money, how much money before you know that you are successful? Are we talking J. K. Rawling’s level of money, or are we talking enough money to quit your day job and make a living writing, but just barely so? Many writers, published and recognizable writers, keep their day jobs because few writers make living wages. Are they successful or failures?

If it’s fame, just how much fame? Think about that . . . say a writer sold a million books and has seven million followers. That writer is unknown to 99.9% of humanity. Are they successful or are they failures? 

Is it awards? Some actors go all their lives without winning an Oscar, even as they are well known and well paid. Some writers sell a lot of popular books, but for various reasons are never going to win any awards. Some get “recognition” awards, often because they never won actual awards but contributed greatly to their field. Are they successful or are they failures? 

MISC_29JUL2010_12955-Processed (2)_DIGI

I am currently submitting stories to paying markets. I have one novel I am shopping around. How many stories do I need to sell before I consider myself successful?

Right now, I would be ecstatic with a single sale. Success! But wait . . . is that success or is that just one of many milestones to success? What if I sell one thousand stories and twenty novels? Can I then consider myself successful? Am I still successful if I then don’t sell another thing for the rest of my life?

If it’s money, is it better to write and sell a thousand stories at $200 a pop over the course of ten years or write and sell just one story in your lifetime for $1,000,000?

If it’s fame, is it better to be known as the master of hundreds of trashy novels beloved by many readers, or be the author of a literary classic revered by academia but sitting unread in libraries around the world? 

If it’s winning awards, is one enough? Or, do you need to win awards every few years to consider yourself successful? 


I don’t remember the name, but I remember some gymnast winning the Gold Medal at the Olympics a number of years back. She was in her early teens; fourteen, I think. She achieved her lifelong dream . . . at fourteen. 

What does she do next? Is it all downhill from there? She was successful and achieved what she desired most in life at fourteen . . . is that going to carry her into her twenties, forties, sixties? It might, I don’t know. She has a gold medal to remind her. 

But, for the rest of us, the ones who cannot dedicate every minute of every day to intense training, effort, and perseverance, how long do we give ourselves before we consider ourselves failures?

How long do I give myself before I consider myself a failure? I am 63 . . . What if I die before I publish anything, but four years after I’m dead, my works get published posthumously . . . how does one score that one? I died a failure but then succeeded with no further effort on my part. Someone else put in the elbow grease to get my stuff published.   

If that happens, will I be considered successful or a failure? Probably a tragic figure, with tens of people feeling sorry for the fact I died without seeing my name on the cover of a book. I’ll be dead; I won’t care, but just before I died, did I pass judgment on my writing efforts or was I too busy with the dying thing?


I ask all this because it’s pertinent to the discussions in the above blog. People vividly expressed their fear of failure . . . but did not explain what would constitute success. But, that fear stops them from writing or photographing or doing whatever they “would like to do” if success was guaranteed.

The thing I want to ask them is this . . . what is that success worth to you if success was guaranteed? Would you even try your best knowing that no matter what you do, it will be successful (whatever that means)? Would it give you satisfaction if you sneezed on a piece of paper, took a picture of it, sold it for $1M and won awards for it . . . and could do so whenever you wanted and with whatever you did? 

I mean, sure, the money would be nice . . . but is that all it would take to satisfy your idea of success? For that matter, could you claim the “success” your own? It sounds as if there’s some magic involved, and it’s not you at all. Perhaps you can call yourself fortunate, but successful? I think not. 


I write and I photograph stuff. I think I am fairly realistic in my expectations. That is, I’m certain the odds are very much against me becoming world-famous and rich, either for my writing or photography or both. 

So, why do I write? Why do I photograph stuff? 


Well, to be honest . . . it’s money, fame, and awards . . . 

Yes, I kid.

But, let me turn the original question back on itself . . . 

What would you stop doing if you knew you will never be successful at it?”

I don’t know about others, but for me, the answer is easy.


That’s right; even if I knew right now that I would never get published, I would not stop writing. In part, that’s because I did not start writing with the idea of getting published. I mean, yeah, the thought crossed my mind way back when, but I’ve been writing for many years, and last year was the first time I decided to give getting published a go. 

But, if I knew right now, with 100% certainty that I am never getting published, I would still keep writing.

Would I consider myself a failure? No. Absolutely not because I’m already successful at writing. I have written three novels, a fourth novel in the works, and probably approaching one hundred stories of various lengths, spanning different genres, from humorous to tragic, from stand-alone to series.  

I am a successful writer because I write. I am a successful photographer because I photograph stuff. I am a successful eating machine because I snack a lot. 

On the other hand, I am a failure at playing the guitar, basketball, yacht racing, procreating, singing, being a serial killer, and probably well over a thousand other things in which I either have no interest or have yet to apply myself. 

I should clarify a slight difference between my writing and my photography. I’m actively pursuing a goal in writing, whereas I’m not in photography. 




Pursuing a goal. Striving for something. 

So, if I succeed with my goal, will I be successful? Yes . . . at achieving that goal. I would then get me a new goal.

But, let’s be realistic. 

If tomorrow I lost all of my possessions, savings, and our house, my immediate response would not be “That’s it! Amo write the bestest novel ever and make a gazillion bucks!”

No. What I would do is go out and find me a job that generates a regular income, probably going back to something in engineering, but if I had to, I would dig ditches. I would strive to be successful at digging ditches . . . and I would keep writing, and I would keep photographing stuff. I might also pick up serial killing, going after the jerks that took everything I had. And I would be successful at all of those because I would be doing them. Actually doing them, and working at becoming the best that I want to be at all of those things.

So, what are people afraid of when they say they are afraid of failure? 

I don’t have a clue, and I suspect they also don’t have a clue. Not insulting them when I say that; I just mean they have not really thought it through.  

Are those people successful at their current jobs? How successful? How long did it take? Is it likely they will be even more successful in the near or distant future? Are they actively trying to be better at their job so they can be more successful (earn more money)? Are they trying to climb the corporate ladder? Do they have a rung in mind that they want to reach? Is it CEO of the company? 

Bottom line, if you want to write, write. If you want to photograph stuff, do so. If you want a career in either or both, know that it’s a long and competitive road, and like basketball, playing guitar, yacht racing,  singing, and being a serial killer, there’s a lot to learn, there’s a lot of practice involved, and it will take time, probably a long time, and you will need a few breaks along the way, and that you will have to work at facilitating those breaks coming your way, and that in the end, you may still not be happy with everything that you accomplished because the nature of many people seems to be always wanting more. If that keeps you from writing or any other thing, well, then, you probably did not want that thing in the first place, so stop saying “I wish”.  

Procreating, on the other hand, comes quite easily to most people . . . just be aware it will interfere with all them other goals you have.


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. . .  my FP ward  . . . chieken shit.

About disperser

Odd guy with odd views living an odd life during odd times.
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31 Responses to Success and Failure

  1. desleyjane says:

    Brilliant. Clearly I failed English composition because I didn’t define the success and failure. I should have! You’ve made me think about how I respond to these prompts in the future. Firstly, thank you for taking the time to write this post, I loved every word and as usual had a few chuckles along the way. Personally, my idea of success in a business based in photography and writing is being able to quit my job in scientific sales and do it full time. That’s the dream. However – in the meantime, you are right, I am actively trying to excel in my day job, working harder on that than on anything else. And I can’t see myself letting that slide because people (boss, colleagues, customers) are all relying on me to do well. In fact, at the moment, I’m striving to do even better having just been promoted and again you’re right, I do have a rung on the ladder that I’m trying to reach.
    Such a melting pot of issues and questions and plans and needs and desires.
    Watch this space I say, because I am not afraid of failure! Mediocrity, on the other hand, that would suck!
    Thanks again for contemplating this topic.


    • disperser says:

      Thank you.
      I should have mentioned that there are people who are really focused on their desires and accomplish much while still at their day job. I’ve never been that dedicated to anything because I also like to enjoy life in the aggregate, so I never put the effort that I needed to succeed (i.e. get published) until after I retired. Even now, it’s not an all-consuming thing in my life. It’s just a part of my life.

      I’ve heard interviews of writers who wrote their books literally ten to twenty minutes at a time (they wrote whenever they had a few moments to spare). Other writers got rid of their TV, some got rid of the Internet.

      If I compare myself to them, I would call myself a failure, but that’s not exactly correct . . . I choose how much effort to put into what I do, and nothing really consumes my attention to that degree. I rarely say “I wish” because it means so little. If I have a hard goal, something I want to accomplish, then everything I do should be geared toward that goal. On the other hand, that becomes hard work, and I’m basically lazy.

      So, I actually have general goals, and as such, they don’t affect how I feel about myself. If I get there, fine. if not, I know I did not apply myself as much as others might have . . . but did other stuff I liked.

      And, yes, you phrased it correctly . . . mediocrity does suck.

      Liked by 1 person

      • desleyjane says:

        Right. If it starts to feel like work then it stops being fun. It’s a fine line for some people. I’m someone who usually throws myself into something once I’ve decided to do it, so then I obsess over it. Something I’m trying not to do now 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  2. as DJ said brilliant………and so correct in what you say, some of us fear the fear, not even really knowing what it is. How does one KNOW when you are successful? Perhaps it is like learning, you never stop learning, so perhaps we should never stop striving to better ourselves, our passions, our drive. If you don’t work for what you want, then perhaps you never truly wanted it? Great read,a s always


    • disperser says:

      Thank you. And yes, few really stop to think what exactly they are afraid of. They also seem to focus on what “others” will think of them, afraid they will be judged by strangers they have never met, and afraid they have to meet an ill-defined standard not of their own making.

      Heck, if that’s the fear, I got news for them . . . whether you do or don’t do something, you are being judged by others. Given that, do whatever you are passionate about, do it to the best of your ability, and don’t worry about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. mybrightlife says:

    If more people simply did what they love to do for the pleasure of doing it there would be a lot less work for shrinks….and a lot more truly happy people…It is a pity it take us so long to learn and accept this and an even greater pity that some, never do!


  4. oneowner says:

    It’s not money or acclaim that makes an endeavor a success. If that was the measure there would be far fewer successful folks out there. And lack of success is not necessarily failure.


    • disperser says:

      I should have mentioned something in the piece differentiating between personal and public (commercial) success.

      The first involves self-satisfaction . . . the latter involves validation from others. Unless one is incredibly shallow and not prone to introspection, I can’t ever imagine a scenario where validation from others trumps how you feel about yourself. I suspect that’s why we read about celebrities taking their own lives despite some being loved and admired by literally millions of people.


  5. Steven Dooey says:

    So true, what would we do if we couldn’t fail! It’s a great question to be asking ourselves. Thanks for sharing and have a great week!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. mvschulze says:

    I have not read the other responses yet. Usually don’t like to before I respond. But I would consider YOU as being successful simply because, in MY OPINION, (and if it weren’t my opinion why would it be under my name here?) …simply because I mostly enjoy the larger majority your photographs, (the ones with this post are (in my mind’s criteria) outstanding, and most of your posts – your clear and well laid out thoughts, are genuinely enjoyable, striking a nice balance of keen observations and humor and pragmatism in a comfortable read. (My opinion, of course.)
    I like your “writing” also, but am generally an impatient reader, and chronically out of time. One of the gauges of your success, in my mind, is that I look forward to the Disperser e-mails first and foremost. But this is not really about you, just you pose a nice example.
    And so it goes, your thoughts expressed above are beautifully logical; and well said.
    Some random thoughts I had about the initial question: 1.) We can’t know (about never failing) so we’re talking about fantasy land here. 2.) Success and failure form the foundation of growth, and evolution. 3.) Many highly “successful” people, (classical musicians, artists, writers, ROCK “stars”) ascend to the supposed apex of success and die from overdosing. M :-)


    • disperser says:

      Thank you. That is very nice of you to say . . . and now I do feel even more successful.

      I address some of your points in the above comments, but I do like your #2 observation . . . success and failure forming the foundation for growth. Striving for something and persevering with our efforts helps us grow as individuals. Some say it gives meaning to life. I don’t know about that, but it certainly makes it more interesting.


  7. Eddy Winko says:

    Would you be judged as a success as a serial killer if you killed many and never got caught or if you got caught and achieved notoriety? It really is about what you want to achieve, unfortunately too many of us worry about what others (society) wants us to achieve. I like the log in the lake.


    • disperser says:

      I think that would be one instance where I would prefer my notoriety to come after I am dead.

      But, if I had to seriously answer that question, because of my nature, I would get the most satisfaction from being good enough to both be prolific and never getting caught. I mean, how hard can it be to get caught? You just wait by the body.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. disperser says:

    In a show of hubris, I’ll add my own comment.

    I’ve always liked this quote by Heinlein:
    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

    The word that comes to mind is “JOAT”, or jack of all trades. I’ve always liked the idea of being proficient at many things while not being the master of any. In everything I have ever done, it was never about being the best that I COULD be. It was, and is, being the best that I WANT to be. Really, I have no overriding passion about anything. I do have varied interests in which I claim a self-determined level of proficiency . . . for instance, I’m not as good as these guys, but I’m better than most people. Sometimes, I even actually use my hands.

    (go to the 8min mark)


  9. disperser says:

    Finally, if you can live by this motto, you will do fine. Also, great video . . . but it hurts a bit to see a smiling Robin Williams seemingly having fun. I hope that, in that instance, he was happy and not faking it.


  10. colonialist says:

    Much food for thought.
    I have always reflected on how unfair it is that as a mediocre-to-bad plumber one is virtually assured of a living; as a good-to-brilliant writer, however, no such guarantee exists.
    Maybe a further extension of the question should be, if you are assured of success in something you don’t want to do, but assured of failure in something you desperately want to do – which do you do?


    • disperser says:

      Easy . . . I would do both. One would feed my need for food and shelter, the other for personal satisfaction.

      Seriously, the question of the plumber versus writer (or any other artist) is somewhat rooted in the realities of the world we live in. Plumbers do not offer their services for free, but writers (musicians, artists of all manner and travels) regularly offer up their work for nothing.

      This recent article points to some of the problem:

      Also, this points to the other problem where writers are even willing to pay others a lot of money to have their work seen:

      And, to be fair, it’s a changing world. A mediocre writer 80 years ago did not have competition from literally millions of other mediocre writers. Now, everyone has been sold on the idea that they have a best-seller lurking within them. From what one reads, slush piles are growing to enormous size. If you submit a manuscript, you are lucky if it will get any eyes on it, and even then, you’ll be waiting six to eight month or longer.

      And say it does get sold . . . if it’s a major publisher, is given a decent advertising budget, is promoted heavily, one can expect between 10K and 20K copies sold. But, the majority of books sell less than 1,000 copies (some much less) and come and go with little fanfare or anyone noticing. And, there are a lot of those.

      What’s depressing is that if I wanted to never spend another dime on fiction ever again, I could read literally thousand of blogs offering up both fiction and non-fiction rivaling the quality of paying markets. I’m a case in point, although I don’t claim I’m rivaling published works. So, I’m also a part of the problem. Much of what I have written so far was given away for free. I stopped that now, but still . . . lots available for free (hint, hint).

      It’s why I’m not counting on writing success to fuel my retirement savings.


      • colonialist says:

        Come to think of it, I adopted that ‘both’ compromise. Reluctant banker by profession, spare-time writer by inclination. (Now also editor, as a kind of mix – although I get far more fun out of that than I did from banking.)


  11. Margie says:

    What things would we do if we didn’t think in terms of success or failure? What if ‘doing’ was the only goal?


    • disperser says:

      ‘Doing’ is the only goal . . . it’s just that some people don’t realize it or don’t think it’s enough.

      One interesting thing, I think older folks are more invested in the success and failure bit. Not to say that’s not present in the younger generations, but from very broad and infrequent observations, I get the impression ‘doing’ is the main thing for younger humans.

      . . . perhaps we should be thanking Nike . . .


  12. Excellent, Emilio! GREAT post! I agree with what you’ve said!

    And I think if in work, hobbies, volunteer work, blogging, etc., we make just one person smile or help them feel better about life, etc., it’s a success. So, you are definitely a success…because your writing, your photography, your blogging topics always make me smile and get me thinking and some make me laugh! :-)

    HUGS!!! :-)
    PS…the pics in this post are so beautiful! Especially the cute creatures! :-)


  13. Caity says:

    The problem is that it is a moving goalpost. Humans are rarely content for long, they gain an objective and immediately start striving for another objective. I’ve had my short story published, now I want my novel published, now I want my novel to sell big, now I want my next novel to sell even better, etc, etc. It’s a trait that made humans as a whole successful (if you take success as becoming the dominant animal and ruining the planet), but if left unchecked by reality and experience in an individual, can lead to unhappiness. A member of my family has what I call the success gene – by many standards, she is successful, an overachiever. Money, intelligence, a certain level of celebrity, respect, a loving husband and children, she seems to be in a position where she should be happy. But she is never content, there is always something on the horizon she is striving for and by doing so, she doesn’t stop to appreciate what she already has. All people need ambition and success, otherwise why get out of bed in the morning? But it has to be tempered with failure as well: if not, how can we appreciate when we are successful?

    Liked by 1 person

    • disperser says:

      Well said, but there are some humans that are content with where they are in life, be it high or low. Their interest is rooted more on what they do every day than what they can accomplish. The irony is that if you just do things you enjoy, and enjoy doing them, you often accomplish a lot. From the outside, it may look like you were striving to succeed, but from your point of view, you were just having fun.

      But, truthfully, very few people are like that . . . it requires a certain ability to not let the stuff of life (and other people) interfere.


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