[We haven’t done one of these in ages, and this one is apposite. This post was originally published on my old blog on April 13, 2009.]

Every now and then I get really discouraged about this writing gig. When I’m down in those familiar dumps, I amuse myself by looking up famous literary rejections. Did you know that, in 1944, T S Eliot, then a director of Faber and Faber, rejected George Orwell’s Animal Farm for publication on the grounds of its political subtext? Someone also once told Rudyard Kipling that he didn’t know how to use the English language, and informed Nabokov that Lolita was “overwhelmingly nauseating” and would be best buried under a rock for a thousand years. Writers have some of the best rejection stories out there, simply because rejection comes with the territory and the good zingers are captured for posterity.

That’s not to say that only writers feel the sting of rejection. Rejection is an equal opportunity pox: everyone gets it sometime. For my part, rejection is like failure: to be avoided at all times. I’ve been pretty successful in doing it most of my life. If that sounds like bragging, it’s not. I’m not particularly proud of this achievement because it represents a failure in itself – a failure to take chances, reach higher. It’s not to say that I’m a slacker or an under-achiever; but I’ll never be entirely sure whether I might have achieved more had I been more willing to face rejection, or failure. I’ve done well in everything I’ve chosen to do, but I’ve chosen to do those very things because I knew I could do them well. My victories were born of hard work and perseverance, not ingenuity or audacity; hardly the stuff for laurels and parades.

The world needs fearless gamblers. If people couldn’t face rejection, the whole species would be extinct by now. If people couldn’t countenance failure, we’d probably still be living in caves. The fact that we’re still around, and kicking around slightly fancier digs, speaks volumes about our inherent resilience in the face of (temporary) set-backs.

Rejection, I was once told by a young gentleman who (I can only assume) must have been something of an expert in the subject, is a numbers game. Getting rejected nine times out of ten still means you get one “yes”. After a while, you build a certain immunity to the sting of rejection. Failure is not entirely dissimilar. A friend of mine once told me that the reason why she didn’t ski was because she was afraid of falling. Having learned to ski the hard way (by being dumped by my parents at the top of the black diamond slope on my third day in skis*), I told her that the fear lasts only until your first fall. Falling on your butt, unpleasant as that is, is the best thing that can happen to a new skier. Now, if only I could take my own advice and apply it to my fear of failure, right?

Of course it’s not that easy. I’m nearing 30, and I’m still trying to ready myself for that first really big wipe-out. One of these days.


* I was about 7 years old. I made it down safely, mostly on my ass.

[Editor’s note: I was actually looking for another old post of mine when I came across this one, and went: “a-ha.” The fear of failure has been on my mind again lately, likely because this year is set to be a time of some significant changes in my life, mostly career-related. It’s a fear that was must have been ingrained in me so early on in life that, to this day, I have a very visceral reaction to the idea of failure. As I wrote almost 6 years ago (and even more so since then), to a lot of people, my accomplishments may seem like a pretty good definition of success (at least in the context of an average person’s life). And yet, the spectre that looms over it all for me is the fear of failure. I’ve still never really failed at anything – with the possible exception of baking – in 35 years and the thing that is hard to admit, even to myself, is that the reason is negative: I’ve just never really reached beyond what I knew, for certain, to be the limits of my abilities. The known limits of my abilities, if you will.

Perhaps there is more to it. This year, I’m determined to find out.

A friend of mine got me thinking about choosing a word to define my year. At first blush, it seems like such a kooky-Facebook-quiz thing to do. Exactly the sort of thing I hate. But I’ve been re-reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and thinking about the power of our intentions, and of the energy we put forth in the world. And that got me thinking that choosing a defining word – a theme – this year would be a lot like picking a mantra to help focus myself. And so, after some more thinking, I did. I chose a word that scared me with its implicit messages.


Its grandiosity scares me. Its presumption does too. I keep thinking about the lessons of Icarus. And, yet, there is such a sense of freedom that comes out of it too. Of lightness. Of letting go of things that hold one back, and also of rising above the turbulence of our human sphere. Which reminds me of something else I want to focus on this year: learning to be more compassionate. Resting bitch face notwithstanding, I don’t think I’m a un-empathetic person. But reading about compassion (the wish fulfilling jewel) in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying made me realize that I still have a very long way to go as far as practicing everyday loving kindness goes. “Soar” will hopefully remind me to rise above attachments to personal desires and frustrations, and channel my energies towards others’ well-being instead. Lofty goals all … but I’m ready to try and fail, rather than not try at all.

Holy TL;DR of a post, eh? If you’re still awake, tell me: have you conquered the fear of failure, and if so, how? Have you picked a word for 2015, or are you more of a specific-resolutions kind of person?


6 Comments on Friday Flashback: Just Say When

  1. This is a wonderfully written post, and I love your choice of the word “soar”. My fear of failure is rampant is all areas of my life, but I mostly fear failing as a mother. I never wanted children so when I agreed to marry my husband, I also agreed to the possibility of children. After my son was born, my postpartum depression made me feel like the ultimate failure. It was bleak. Very, very bleak. So this year I’m choosing my word to be “joy”. It’s a daily fight to find joy, but I refuse to let the fear of failure overcome me.

    • Thank you so much for your comment. I also struggled a lot after the birth of my son, and found it very difficult to talk about (even now), so I applaud your courage in speaking out. I personally know people who have struggled with postpartum depression, and I know there are many more out there, so I think it’s important to share our experiences so others know that they are not alone.

      The fear of failing as a mother – oof. I know that one well, and nearly 4 years later, I still have to make a conscious effort every day to fight that feeling. Funnily enough, I was talking about this with my husband last week, and he sent me a link to this (old but still so worthwhile to read) post: http://www.pregnantchicken.com/pregnant-chicken-blog/2012/11/9/why-youre-never-failing-as-a-mother

      “Joy” is a lovely choice – I hope you find lots of it every day this year, in little things and big things.

  2. This post speaks to me in so many ways. I graduated recently with a Bachelor’s from my top choice school and experience from almost every internship opportunity I wanted. I had the most charmed existence as a student (a lot like what you described — I went for things that fit well with my skills and aptitudes), but so far it isn’t corresponding to my experience as a person in the real world. Job hunting is the worst, especially in a state fighting its way out of 15 years of depression. There is so much rejection and failure and it has caused me to really question who I am — I was so desirable as an internship candidate! Why am I striking out when it comes to real jobs? After several months of this I have come to the conclusion that I need to let go of my expectations and fears and just go with it, but it’s the hardest thing I have ever had to do.

    • *hugs*

      Honestly, my early and mid-twenties, when I was just fresh out of school were hell. And I had a job, at least. I don’t really have words of wisdom, except to say that 10 years from now, you will be able to look back and marvel at how far you’ve come. I’ve no doubt that you will figure it all out, and go on to accomplish whatever you set your heart on. Even if it takes a little while to find your footing …

  3. Fear of failure has really been the defining feature of my life…the biggest chance I’ve ever made (changing my career path) was only made when I had literally no other options. There are so many things I might have tried that I didn’t because I cling to the things that I know I’m good at and the person it’s easy to be. If I were to chose a word for this year, it would be Grow. I’ve put down some roots in a good relationship and job, and I want to deepen my hold in those things and also reach out for the things I’m still looking for (close friendships and a meaningful way to give back to my community in particular).

    • It’s kind of incredible to me how many people have had a similar experience to mine. Goes to show, I’m not much of a special snowflake, heh. I always assume other people have all their s**t figured out, and are fearlessly carving out their path. But then again, I might *look* like that to others too. This is why I think that occasionally letting down the guard and talking about things like this is helpful – to ourselves and others. For one thing, it helps to re-set our expectations of ourselves, you know what I mean?