When failure is the only way forward

The sooner you understand that life is rooted in failure, the sooner you’ll find your own way forward


I’m a science fiction author who loves to write. I love creating stories which live on after their initial bursts of inspiration. I love that on occasion my stories mean something to other people. I love that through my use of words I can be a conduit for the joys and pains and thrills and sadness of this moment in time and space we call life.

I love writing. But I’m also a failure as a writer. And while it might surprise you to hear this, I’m totally good with that failure.

I’m sure my acceptance of failure will shock and annoy many people. After all, in today’s money-focused and achievement-driven world, failure is seen as unacceptable. In fact, failure is now supposed to be temporary affair. To be a mere stepping stone to someone’s complete and dominating success. In today’s world the only people who truly fail at anything are losers who were never meant to succeed in the first place.

I can’t begin to say how wrong this view is.

No, the truth is that the very essence of life and existence is rooted in failure. After all, life is intimately tied with what might be considered the ultimate failure, death. No matter how many successes we have in life, no matter how much we accomplish, the fact that we live a limited span of time means that there will always be so much we failed to do.

And in many ways we define our lives by what Robert Frost called “The Road Not Taken.” Because life presents so many choices we are simply incapable of selecting them all. None of us will ever live up to all the potentials of all our possible outcomes in life. The failures in our lives, the roads not taken, haunt us as much as the paths we do tread.

None of this is meant to be depressing — it’s simply how life works. We make the best choices possible and live the best lives we can. But don’t pretend that our failures don’t define our lives as much as our successes.

Beyond the failure of roads not taken, there’s also the liberating effect of failing at the paths we do take. And when we fail at any aspect of life we either give up, or try again, or try something different or new.

In short, all of us are immediately changed by failure.

They say success changes people, but the truth is success makes people complacent and resistant to change. Only failure gives anyone the true desire and ability to change.

I consider myself a failure as an author because I haven’t achieved the goals I set years ago when I first started writing. Back then I wanted to be the creator of great literary novels which would stir people’s hearts and minds. But rather than achieving that goal I instead bounced between genres before returning to my first literary love of science fiction. In my rediscovery of science fiction I also learned that the genre was a better pathway to what I wanted to accomplish as a writer than the literary novels I’d set as my so-called goal for writing success.

So there’s my first failure as a writer. But it’s a failure I’m completely comfortable with because it forced me to change to a far better path.

My second failure was with the entire notion of novel writing itself. I tried my hand at several novels but none worked. Eventually, instead of becoming a novelist I fell in love with the short story format. I even achieved a good bit of success with my short stories.

But despite this success I kept telling myself I had to write novels because that’s what makes one a true author these days. So I still considered myself a failure as a writer because I couldn’t complete and sell a novel.

But this failure actually created a new, positive change in my writing. It turned out the more I worked on novel-length fiction the more I needed to tell stories which could only be told as novels. So while I had initially forced myself to write novels because it was expected of me as an author, I soon found myself needing to tell stories which couldn’t be told as anything other than novels.

I don’t know if my new novels will succeed or fail. But I do know the failure to achieve the goals I’d set as a young writer has not been a bad thing in my life. These failures challenged me to change again and again. To grow into my own unique writing voice. To continually search for my own path through life. To reaffirm over and over that I am a writer.

If you want to create something truly meaningful in life, it turns out the best way to continually move toward this goal is through failure.


Jason Sanford is a Nebula Award nominated author whose science fiction stories have been published in a number of magazines and books, including Interzone, Asimov’s and Analog. Follow his Sci-Fi Strange Medium collection at https://medium.com/sci-fi-strange.

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