Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 26, 2015

The Difference Between Mistakes and Failure

I am not an old soul. I am a klutz and a fairly slow learner. I bumble through life, making almost every mistake possible before finding the right way.  People (most notably, my long-suffering parents) tried to explain things to me. But that’s apparently not how I learn. And I don’t think I’m alone.

This used to make me feel like a failure. But it doesn’t anymore.

Do you remember when you were little? If you don’t, observe a child who is preschool age, attempting something new to them. They try, make mistakes, learn, and move on. They don’t beat themselves up, because they seem to know instinctively that making mistakes is how you learn. Do you, as an adult, fault them for that? Of course not! You explain, and demonstrate and encourage, until they get it, or decide it isn’t for them, and they move on to try the next thing.


But something happens around the golden years of junior high (yes, that’s sarcasm). Peer opinion becomes a red-hot pressure cooker. It’s no longer okay to make mistakes. We look around and decide we’re behind—everyone around us has it together, and we never got the manual. We watch adults, observing their competence and confidence.

So you start racing, trying to catch up. You don’t take chances anymore, because you may make a mistake. And everyone will find out that you are clueless. You stick to things you know. You don’t try new things, because you can’t take the chance that you might not be good at them. You may even chose a career, not because you love it, but because you’re competent at it. And how sad is that?

Somewhere around forty, I gave up looking for the manual. I accepted my ‘process’. I’m always going to stumble through life, making mistakes. I relaxed when I realized that my whole life is an experiment.

Remember the scientific method from school? In case you don’t, here are the steps:

  • Ask a Question
  • Do Background Research
  • Construct a Hypothesis
  • Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
  • Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion

Mistakes aren’t failure.

Each mistake I make brings me closer to the correct conclusion. Mistakes are an essential part of learning!

Thomas Edison's teachers said he was "too stupid to learn anything." He was fired from his first two jobs for being "non-productive." As an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb.

                       Do we think of Edison as an idiot?


I belong to a national writer’s organization. I can’t tell you how many people I met who joined with an ardent fire in their eye. They wrote, they learned, they submitted. They were rejected. Repeat.

I noticed when they began to look around them, seeing others working hard and some succeeding. I remember that look from junior high. They were counting their mistakes, and looking for the handbook that everyone else seemed to have. Many disappeared shortly thereafter.

BBB 2011 2

Once I rediscovered the scientific process, I didn’t quit—even after 15 yrs. And 417 rejections. I now have two publishers, seven contracted novels and last year, I won the 2014 Romance Writers of America®   RITA® award for the Best First Book.

Me Ro and Rita

People tell me I’m an inspiration, but I’m not. I’m a bumbling klutz, who refused to take mistakes as a judgement of my ability. I don’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to get it right the first time (or the 500th). All I have to do is learn something from each mistake and continue to improve. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

You have a choice of two ways to look at your mistakes, and no one’s opinion matters but yours.

One will freeze you to immobility, one will move you through any adversity.

And one of those choices would be a big mistake.

 So  are you ready to take up my challenge of seeing life as an experiment? Do you have any tips for us on how you slay the demons in your head? 


70 comments on “The Difference Between Mistakes and Failure”

  1. Your words "everyone around us had it together and we never got the manual" resonated truth so much for me. I still feel that way, decades past junior high school! An inspiring message to be sure, but much more. It underscores the need to take risks and also to have marathon runner endurance to become a successful writer. Thank you.

  2. Wonderful post. So inspiring. I'm a professional artist so know rejection is hard. Though I think my skin is thick I may not feel the same when I start querying.

    If you have a dream, just keep going. When it's really hard to write or revise, paint or create, do it anyway. It takes practice to get into concentration mode, but after an hour goes by you're there and it's much easier than you anticipated. Peer pressure or feelings of unworthiness bring nail-biting procrastination.

    I love bumbling along in life. Thank you for sharing

    1. You're so right, Angie. I think we have to work our way around all this stuff in our head. It's an illusion that appears very real.

  3. lrtovi, give yourself permission to try, and to fail. It's amazing how fast things changed, when I stopped looking to others for permission, and gave it to myself! It's all sitting, deep inside you, just waiting!

  4. Thanks for such an inspirational article Laura! My sister and I have been waiting to hear back about our first publishing deal this week, and it's been hard in the face of possible rejection to stay positive. But the only alternative is to stop writing altogether, and that's even worse than being considered a 'failure'. I do agree that we are our own worst enemies most of the time. Funnily enough I saw this on Facebook this morning: 'Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.' If we don't believe in ourselves, who will?

    1. Katherine, I'll keep my fingers crossed for you! But know, if it's a rejection, they're not rejecting you. They're not even rejecting your novel - because they haven't read it! There's a bunch of reasons for rejection that have nothing to do with your writing (marketability, genre, etc.) Best to you!

  5. I love reading about others who have achieved their dreams. Congratulations. You’ve worked hard and deserve all of it and what is yet to come. Thank you for passing on hope.

  6. You do know that I am going to buy you that cheerleader outfit eventually, don't you, Laura?

    Thanks for being such a great role model to one who grew up needing to be perfect!

    1. Oh God, Fae, please don't. Even I don't want to see me in that!!!! Give up the perfect habit, Fae - you are loved just the way you are.

    2. Thanks, Kimberly. I think this is why so many talented people feel like frauds...they know that they don't have the manual. Manual? We don't need no stinking manual!

  7. How inspirational. I feel like I should not give up after reading this. I once was published then because of various happenings didn't write for a while. Since I am back at it, nada. Nothing published though a couple of scripts have been made into movies. But I long for my manuscripts to be in print. I will continue to try.

    1. I'm with you as an older writer. If writing makes you happy - even if you're never published again, you'll go out happy, right? Every once in a while I get caught up in the publication revolving door, and have to remind myself why I write to begin with.

      It's because I love it.

  8. Love this post, Laura! What tips do I have for slaying the demons in my head, you ask? Only one...pure STUBBORNNESS in a refusal to give up!

    1. Damned straight, Mary! Ask my Alpha Dog if I'm stubborn....

      I have seen SO many authors with far more talent than I, give up. There's a lot to be said for stubbornness!

  9. Laura - thank you for an inspirational post. I don't have to look far to feel the 'I'm not worthy' judgment. It's right there in my head all the time, and I have to constantly work through it. This post is very timely because I think I beat the demon back this week and I'm ready to rewrite my first chapter. My critique partner (wonderfully supportive) is ready to help me rip it apart to brush off the debris and find the gems. I will be writing again the first time in two months and I'm feeling like the muse is back. When I read your post, it was nice to discover that this process is normal. Very. Normal. So now, I choose to move through the adversity and take up your challenge. Thank you! - Barbara Rath Hoover

    1. You know, Debbie, I've never spoken with anyone about this - and it's so cool to know that I'm not alone! Now we have to teach our children this - earlier!

    1. Honestly, Jean, because you learn as you go, and if you don't quit, You'll have obtained both! No one needs to know you didn't have it to begin with!

  10. I'm a member of the "I can relate" team. I keep chugging along in the face of rejection like the little train. Most days "I think I can" succeed.

  11. Great post, Laura. I really identified with your comments about writers. I just wanted someone to give me the rules so I could get it right! And the first time! The antithesis of good writing. LOL At a Margie Lawson workshop, I drew one of her stars with a James Michener quote. "I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter." Not to compare myself to Michener in anyway, but, this really helped me. It was like he gave me permission to write the way I do. Takes tons of revisions! I nearly gave up because of all the rejections. So glad I hung in there. I've shared, people need to be reminded it's okay to make mistakes.

    1. Thanks for the share, Marsha - and I'm so glad you kept with it too. We all need to pay it forward and remind people it's okay not to succeed at first!

  12. Oh wow, Laura! How absolutely perfect!

    I had a related discussion with a wise young man that was an eye-opener. We were at the climbing gym and I asked him to give me a lesson, tell me what I was doing wrong. His answer: "There's no such thing as doing it wrong. You do it your way, if it doesn't work, try a different path and learn what works for you." Wow. That young man is my 10 year old.

    That's a lesson I won't forget! 🙂

    1. From the mouths of babes, Orly....sometimes I think we really DO have it all together in Kindergarten - then spend the rest of our lives, trying to get over Junior High school.

      I swear.....

  13. Nothing new for me to add here. Just an awesome kick in the butt for those of us who keep plodding along and thinking that maybe we're doing it "wrong." It takes the perseverance of a pit bull and the thick skin of an armadillo to keep going. I've decided I have both. It may not be pretty, but it works for me. 🙂 Can't wait to meet you in person in Albuquerque!

  14. All the love for this post!!! I hope it reaches my writer pals (and others from my other circles, too). Thanks for sharing this and for sharing your story 🙂

  15. Another story to support the idea that truth is stranger than fiction. Against all odds, I keep writing. Yet when my main character continues to struggle in spite of all the obstacles, my critique partners demand that I clarify her motivation. "Because she's too hard-headed to quit" is good enough for me, but not a satisfying reason for a heroine!

    Thanks for this!

    1. crb - I just wrote a heroine like that! It's a perfectly good reason! If you let the reader know the event that shaped her stubbornness, you've got motivation! Go for it!

  16. Laura this is so refreshing to hear. As a...(ahem)..."recovering perfectionist," it's so nice to soak up a bit of your attitude. The last thing my agent said to me before I went off to think up an idea for my third novel was, "Take risks, Kathryn." After having my first idea for #3 nixed by my editor, let me tell you I felt no pressure at all when I heard her say that! But "recovering perfectionists" or no, I do believe all writers who seek publication are risk-takers anyway, so we might as well be fiercely so. And guess what? Found out this morning my agent loves the new idea. We're talking in a half hour! Huzzah!

    1. Yeah for that new idea, Kathryn! I would bet on you coming up with a great one. Hope the talk went well.

    2. See Kathryn, you had us fooled (not), we KNEW you'd come up with a great plot! So happy for you! Now, go catch that idea on the paper!

  17. A) Thank you, Laura. Exactly what I needed today. B) You look beautiful in your pic. C) Huge congrats on your win!

    D) Excuse me now, I must go write. Thank you for inspiring me to get the hell out of my own way and do so.

  18. Ah, yes. I too am a slow learner and a late bloomer. My daughter only saw the end results of my college years. I was a 29 yo freshman but I determined to do the best I could possibly do. I finished my BA and the first year of a masters in three years. I was an honor student. She concluded that meant I was a natural genius. I laughed and told her. "No, I'm an average, even below average student who reads over and over until the words become embedded in my skull."

    That is my way. A left-handed, pigeon toed accident waiting to happen, I stumbled and bumbled through. I read my lessons three or five times, I studied extra hours. When I decided so, so late in life to write, it was the same. I made every mistake. I made every mistake dozens of times. Still, no one can convince me that I cannot publish and there will never be a time that anyone can take the stories from me. It might take more time to share those stories with the world at-large ... but when I do ... they will get the very best I can offer.

    Thanks as always, Laura. You keep the light on the front porch burning for those of us who get home late 🙂

  19. *high five's* I was later than you, Florence - got my degree at 40! All I try to do is make each mistake once - because I make every one possible, I won't live long enough, otherwise!

    And yes, I'll leave the light on for ya.

  20. What a great post, Laura. This one made me cry - truly hit home. There is a quote I have saved to my Outlook calendar. It pops up every day and it's the first thing I see when I turn on my computer. "Never give up on something you can't go a day without thinking about." It inspires me to kick the demons to curb and just keep going. This post will be a go-to as well.

    1. Thank you Lily. I've been called many things, but 'old soul' is not one of them! But I came a long way this lifetime, so maybe the next, I'll earn that title!

  21. I've always thought mistakes were a great way of learning - making the next one better. But I could never find the manual either and hid my mistakes, nothing even worth writing about really, from family, peers, people I didn't even know.
    I've since realized one thing and perhaps being a little bit older helps. What 'they say' doesn't matter anymore, it's what 'I think' that does.
    Thanks Laura, and everyone ^^ for their comments. 🙂 Great reading, uplifting.

  22. I can't begin to say how inspiring this post is. Thank you! I was just revising a story this morning, and, despite having a number of short stories published the past few years, was thinking I'm a failure because I don't have this down cold, rather than except that learning is what I do, and I learn by making mistakes. I'll be sharing this far and wide 🙂

    1. Dale, Ernest Hemingway said, "We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master." And I kind of like it that way. You?

      Thanks for the share!

  23. Laura, Brilliant post! The exact antidote to a lot of discouraging commentary from some fellow writers lately. I keep saying, let's try something different to improve sales, and I keep hearing that it's too late. Crazy, huh?
    Thank you for sharing what I was thinking--only you said it brilliantly!

  24. Laura, I have known you online for a few months now and I cannot believe you are the mistake queen you say you are. You have helped me so much in your comments and here with your article/advice I have read. I guess I have the opposite problem. I was raised around strong minded women and always seemed to find a spot no one notice me in and listened to them talk. I never fit in with kids my age or any age. I had few friends because of this. But I am not sorry about it. When I was growing up at school and later as an adult I still feel this way. I never thought about making a mistake, I never looked like the other kids cause Mother dressed me like a little grown up. On the playground I hung out around the teachers and listened to them talk. If my project didn't turn out right and I don't remember any not I just assumed mine was above what the others work on. Brat, no just to sure of myself. People liked me they just didn't know how to respond to me. When something really went wrong like cooking I just told Mother I had the rest of my life to learn how to cook. I married at 18 years and 9 days but I was really about 23 years old. I did find out when I got married the rest of my life was here and I needed to be able to cook. My grandfather and 5 great uncles, Mother and my grandmother were excellent cooks, so is my son. My daughter and I didn't get the gene. We read and write. My sweet mother-in-law taught me how to cook farm food and that's what I learned really but then everything I learned to cook was declared lethal. Now Thank God for the Microwave. Can you tell I spend too much time alone by how long and useless my comments are. Seriously I do think you are so smart you just don't see it.

    1. 50, I admit to being jealous. I always wondered what it would be like to have the self confidence you have in spades. I'll bet our writing and voice is very different because of that!

      Thanks for sharing a piece of yourself here - I've enjoyed getting to know you better, and I'm sure other WITS readers have, too!

      And I truly am the mistake queen. But it's funny how some wisdom has come from my embracing that part of myself, instead of hiding it away. Take this blog for example - I had NO idea so many people felt the same! The truth really can set you free!

  25. Laura-as always I am inspired by your words, and in this essay, by your self-effacing wit. Your life lessons show me that no matter how much I stumble or fall, the best way to move forward is through perseverance. This is not an easy profession but when you, and others like you, share your experiences and encourage other writers with your compassion and what my Irish/Scottish/American grandmother would have called "gumption", I know I've found my tribe! Thanks again for all you do to keep the momentum going for our writing community.

  26. Cerrissa, since my experience is so hard won (8 zillion mistakes and counting) I always thought it would be sad if it only benefited me. I hope it can help others.

    Like my German ex-MIL said, "Too soon old, too late smart". Those old saws work, because we have commonalities of the human experience, right? 🙂 Write on!

  27. You are an inspiration Laura! Not everyone has the fortitude that you have to continue until you succeed. They aren't wired that way. They give up. You're the little engine that could! Bumpy or not! And though I'm just getting to know you, I love that about you. You encourage me to not give up. That first novel is a nightmare. I just hope I don't die before I finish it. The thing is, will anyone want to read it? Even after I've done all this work? Who knows. Look at you and what you've accomplished. Inspiring! ((Hugs))

    1. Karen, don't give up on that 'nightmare'. You believe in it - you have to, or you wouldn't have stuck with it long enough to finish it, right? Dig down and find that kernel of what you wanted to say - polish it, and sell it!

      My first book took a year and a half to write, and ten years to rewrite and sell. It was my training ground for everything that came after. And you know what? I'm proud of that book.

      I mean, those ten years were going to pass anyway, right? Why not have something to show for them? I'm enjoying getting to know you on social media, too!

  28. What you do have a gift for is encouragement. I love your inspirational posts, Laura! Thank you.

    And now I'm off to bumble a bit with my writing...

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