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? 

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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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