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But Then We Tried

An Essay on Failure and Success

Writer Dean Wesley Smith has a concept he calls “failing to success.” I have taken this concept to heart, and use it all the time. It helps keep me motivated even during the roughest times.

What does failing to success look like? It looks like many things:

Aiming to write two thousand words and getting out five hundred.

Working toward housing every person in your city or town and getting thirty people into hotel rooms during a cold snap.

Saying you’ll paint or draw seven days this week and making art for four.

Decluttering one desktop, closet, or room at a time, even though you want to declutter your whole life.

Organizing for better working conditions and getting 80% of your terms.

Not hitting your time goal but pushing through to finish the project anyway.

All of the above can be viewed as “failures” because the stated goals were not met. All of these can equally be called “successes,” because you wrote, you painted, you got some folks inside, and your union got better—though not perfect—working conditions.

If we don’t try, nothing happens.

If we don’t set goals, the chance of reaching anything diminishes.

If we have no ambition because we fear failure? We simply feed inertia, which drives the status quo.

To enact change, it helps to be willing to fail while we succeed.

A lot has been written on the topic of “failing big” and all the rest. And it’s true that visionaries and organizers, writers and artists, have failed—sometimes for years—while also accomplishing things, some large, some small. The failures built themselves toward success, and things were learned along the way.

“I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or rat in a trap.” — Ida B. Wells-Barnett

How many editorials did Ida B. Wells have to write, how many speeches did she give, how many trips across the US and to Europe did she have to make (back when travel took days instead of hours)? How much lobbying did she do? How many times did she want to give up because of the seeming futility of her project—under massive push back, and direct threats—until anti-lynching laws were finally passed?

“I persisted because I was dry and had no better ideas… my considered opinion was that I had written the world’s all-time loser.” — Stephen King

On the other end of the spectrum from Wells, Stephen King famously threw the first pages of Carrie into the trash can, considering it a failed experiment that no one would want. Besides, no publisher wanted his first three novels, and this was just a short story for a men’s magazine. Why even try?

Well, trying was important. At the time, King was desperately poor, not even able to afford telephone service to his family’s ramshackle trailer in small town Maine. He and his wife Tabitha were scraping by, trying to make enough money to keep the family in food, and keep the car running. Selling some writing—even a short story—would have been a boon.

Tabitha dug the crumpled pages from the trash can, read them, and told him to try again. He did, and Stephen King’s career was born.

“Failure is very much an option and a way of life… However, quitting is not. You quit, you are done.” — Dean Wesley Smith

Smith’s simple phrase of “failing to success” has kept me going when I could barely do a thing because, after decades of trying to take care of myself with an undiagnosed autoimmune disorder (no doctor would listen to me), I not only burned out from the travel of my career, my health crashed, badly.

I look back on those times when I could barely get up off the couch, or walk around the block, or form a cohesive thought… and I marvel at what I accomplished. I kept going, bit by bit, doing what I could, when I could.

Stories and essays were written. Novels were published. Mutual Aid was done. During times when doing anything was a victory, my failure became a success because I tried.

And you know what? Those successes add up.

Now that I’m seeing light after six years of continuous “life rolls”—the aforementioned burnout and illness, moving to a different state, my mother dying, crashing my bike and getting post-concussion syndrome—I can look back and see all that I’ve accomplished in that time.

I did not meet my goals.

I had to curtail many of my publishing plans. I stalled out on some other business ventures. My social justice work became more and more limited… and yet, because I kept doing what I could, I ended up doing a lot.

I failed to success.

And I’m proud of that.

How about you? What are you trying? What feels like a failure? What might actually be a success? I suggest you write that down.

And then take a moment to celebrate all you’ve done.

T. Thorn Coyle

January, 2022

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