How Messing Up Can Be a Great Way to Change Your Life for the Better
by Claire Rudy Foster
I am a failure. It’s my calling in life. I’ve failed dramatically, fantastically, at everything I’ve ever tried. I’ve failed at marriage, at employment, and self sufficiency. I’ve fallen short in everything I’ve tried, from romance to racing. Seriously.
But I don’t think anyone in my life would look at me and say:
See her over there? That woman is an abject loser.
Because I’m not a loser—and that’s because I've become very good at failing.
We define failure as “not receiving the expected outcome.” Your rocket exploded in the driveway, instead of flying over the garage? That’s a failure.
You didn’t get the promotion you were counting on at work? That’s a failure, too. Technically, I mean.
All it takes is a small adjustment of perspective to see that "failure" has nothing to do with what you get. Instead, it's about what you experience, learn, and apply to the next project. It’s natural to feel let down or disappointed when you don’t get what you want. When I stopped living in my disappointment and learned to respect my failures for what they were, I became more successful in every area of my life.
Think about it this way: what if every single thing you did was for the sole purpose of seeing what happened?
To go back to the rocket example. Imagine that you’ve spent an entire weekend painstakingly building a model rocket. You glued the CO2 engine into the tube of its body, attached the custom cardboard fins, and painted it to look like a horrible sea monster.
You kneel in the driveway and, after a moment of fumbling with the matches, light the fuse. You take a few steps back and watch the flame move into the cardboard casement. You squint, hold your breath. For about two seconds, time stops, and you experience eternity.
Then, the engine fires and the damn thing falls on its side, skids across the tar, and fizzles in the grass by your waterlogged dahlias. Its paint job is smeared, the body is scorched, and the nose cone that you sanded into shape by hand is badly dented.
Your rocket is a failure.
This is the moment that determines the difference between momentary disappointment and absolute defeat. It’s normal, in this moment, to hold the busted thing in your hand and swear a few times and wish you hadn’t spent a sunny Saturday bent over a highly combustible model rocket. That’s a totally logical reaction.
What’s not logical is throwing your project on the ground, stomping on it, and storming back into the house. Every great inventor—from Edison to Einstein—knew that failure was a critical part of every process.
If your failure makes you curious, or inspires you to try again, you are not a failure at all. You are making progress.
The difference between failure and success isn’t the outcome. It’s how you use your failure to improve and learn. That sounds simple, but in the moment—when you’re heartbroken or humiliated or just fed up—it can be hard to see how your failure fits into the greater story arc of your life.
The best advice I ever got was to think of every action as “collecting data.” If something didn’t go my way, it was just data—new information that I could apply to the next opportunity.
I used this tool a lot when I was unemployed. I sent out ten resumes a day, applying for job after job. I’m a failure, I told myself. I couldn’t seem to make anyone hire me. After a few exhausting, discouraging weeks, I looked back at the hundred-odd cover letters I’d sent. Why weren’t these working? For the first time, I looked at my work with a critical eye. Although I thought I sounded fun and competent, I realized that I actually sounded like a smartass—not the kind of person who would be good to work with, or take suggestions from a manager.
Also, my resume was generic and only included entry level positions. I was applying for jobs I knew I could do—but on paper, I wasn’t qualified for them. I realized that I had been setting myself up to fail. Once I saw that, I was able to use my new data to rewrite my cover letter and my resume. I found a job within the next month and stayed in it for almost three years.
My failure gave me the information I needed to succeed.
Being willing to fail, and fail extravagantly, has meant taking leap after leap of faith. I think of it as learning to fail better—to fail without fear of consequences. Instead of being embarrassed when I fail, I practice laughing at myself.
I failed. So what! Show me a person who hasn’t failed, and I’ll show you someone who is completely incapable of handling real life.
Stephen King, in his wonderful memoir On Writing, says that when he was just starting out, he saved his rejection letters. I did that too—hundreds of them. Form letters, all of them. Nitpicky, unhelpful notes from editors who thought they were doing me a favor. A whole folder of NO, NO, NO.
It was so disappointing getting each one, but each rejection prepared me for a career as a writer. Not everyone is going to like my work. Also, a hundred “no” letters makes the one “yes” that much more valuable. If the rocket flies on the first try, there’s no reason to keep tinkering with the design, right? I honed my craft with every rejection, and now I can write a story that flies straight. I’m also encouraged by writers like J.K. Rowling, whose first book—a little YA novel called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, have you heard of it?—was rejected twelve times before it finally found a publisher.
If it can happen for Rowling, it can happen for anyone.
Failure isn’t the same as giving up—it’s the opposite. I am proud to be a failure today. The more I’ve failed at something, the more I’ve learned. Because of my failures, I’m a better mother, partner, employee, daughter, friend, and writer.
I plan to go on failing, because each failure brings me closer to success.
About the Author
Claire Rudy Foster is a regular contributor to Transformation is Real. For a list of her other writing on TIR, click here.
Her critically recognized short fiction appears in various respected journals, including McSweeney’s, Vestal Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She has been honored by several small presses, including a nomination for the Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. She is also the author of I've Never Done This Before, which if you haven't read, you should! She is afraid of sharks, zombies and other imaginary monsters. She lives in Portland, Oregon.