Failure and What Comes Next

People have been talking more about failure in recent years, and they have been listing the things that haven’t worked out for them on social media or in failure resumes. I have been thinking about this too. I confess I don’t feel comfortable broadcasting a list of my failures here because we live in a judgemental world, though I assure you they happen. That said I think I am relatively comfortable with failures (presumably as a result of regular exposure), so I thought I would take this opportunity of writing a column that will be published on Christmas Eve when almost no one is listening to do the writing equivalent of whispering into the hum of people worrying about their own lives to say something about it.

Firstly, I propose we narrow the definition of failure. We approach so many things in life as a moment for potential failure, but just because everything we try, suggest, or work on, doesn’t end up as planned doesn’t mean we have failed. Failure sounds so final, and going a different way than you initially planned can just be approached as learning something that helps you move forward, so consider that:

  • Applying for a job and not getting it ≠ failure
  • Applying to a school and not getting in ≠ failure
  • Writing a book and not finding a publisher ≠ failure
  • Initiating research and not finding what you thought you would ≠ failure

As long as you pick yourself up and try something, you just found something that didn’t work for you the way you hoped it might.

Some of the best advice I ever got was from a friend and colleague some years ago. I was designing and publishing knitting patterns as a sideline (I would take it as a favour if you don’t talk to me about knitting, I ruined it for myself). I figured that when starting a creative endeavour I should anticipate most people would reject my proposals, so I should send out more submissions than I could implement. Instead, everyone said yes to me, which meant that I had to spend every spare minute knitting for months. I told my friend this, and he said that if everyone was saying yes to me then I wasn’t aiming high enough. That if people aren’t saying no to me regularly then I haven’t found my level. Since then I have tried to make sure that people are regularly saying no to me.

Some people try to hit targets for the number of rejections they receive. I was inspired by this post about someone who was aiming to get 100 writing rejections in a year. As the author was advised: “Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone who shoots for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.” Most readers are not likely to have the same pattern of acceptance and rejection as a creative writer, but it may be something worth thinking about.

This is the time of year when many people are getting unwelcome news about something. Maybe they’re not getting into the school they wanted, but maybe it’s more personal. Christmas is peak season for getting engaged — and if that many proposals are happening, you know some get turned down. Let’s try to be more comfortable with things not working out for ourselves and for others.

In the new year I hope we all have just the right amount of failure.


  1. Fascinating to read as It has been my intention for a while to write a Slaw piece in 2020 on the F word from the personal perspective of a law publisher. I haven’t worked it out yet but I hope that the contrast from one side to the other is seen as interesting.

    An excellent article. Thanks.

  2. Thank you Robert. For what it’s worth, I think there’s room for many stories about failure in this space. We have had so much bravado for so long that we don’t think it’s okay. I look forward to reading it.

  3. Great column, Sarah.
    “Firstly, I propose we narrow the definition of failure. We approach so many things in life as a moment for potential failure, but just because everything we try, suggest, or work on, doesn’t end up as planned doesn’t mean we have failed.”
    This is astute. Trying, and learning, are just those—trying and learning. Hypothesis, experimentation, and evaluation of our results—followed by adjustment and further experimentation or exploration—are the way we learn most things, I think. That our hypothesis proves incorrect, or that our method doesn’t work, gives us more to learn. Sometimes the unsuccessful or undesirable outcome is in public or came at a risk and can be unpleasant. But if we think of the whole process as learning and growing rather than failing and stalling, I agree; we can take comfort or even pride in that.

  4. Thank you Kim.
    Certainly, it can be uncomfortable for things not to turn out as planned, and we should definitely take pride in our process.

  5. Jeanette M. Oostlander

    It is Boxing Day and I heard you Sarah. Good points made.
    Every litigator knows that victory is never certain when one enters a courtroom.
    You can prepare to the nth degree, research extensively but the evidence just does
    not come together as you hope. . .