I was in a bookstore one day browsing through the section on historical fiction. I am a sucker for a well-written novel set in a real historical time and involving characters from our past. Thumbing through the familiar names of Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, and Jeff Shaara, I was surprised to come across a couple of books in this genre by Steven Pressfield. I knew Pressfield to be the creator of the story behind the movie The Legend of Bagger Vance. Intrigued, I bought both books and read them with relish. They were remarkable. They transported me back in time, immediately got me interested in their characters, and also taught me much about the epochs in which they were set. Impressed with the breadth of Pressfield’s creative ability, I dug into the story of his success.
Apparently it was seventeen years of trying before Pressfield got his first professional writing job. It was a partnership on a screenplay for a movie called King Kong Lives. Excited and confident of success, Pressfield invited everyone he knew to the movie’s premiere. Nobody showed. Not a soul. Then the review of the movie in Vanity Fair said of Pressfield and the other man who helped write the script, “. . . Ronald Shusett and Steven Pressfield; we hope these are not their real names, for their parents’ sake.” Talk about criticism!
Pressfield himself writes of that time in his life, “Here I was, forty-two years old, divorced, childless, having given up all normal human pursuits to chase the dream of being a writer; now I’ve finally got my name on a big Hollywood production . . . and what happens? I’m a loser, a phony; my life is worthless, and so am I.”
If the story had ended there for Pressfield, we may never have heard of him. But something happened. In Pressfield’s words: “My friend . . . snapped me out of it by asking if I was gonna quit . . . no! [Pressfield answered]. ‘Then be happy. You’re where you wanted to be, aren’t you? So you’re taking a few blows. That’s the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines. Stop complaining and be grateful.’”
It’s hard to imagine sometimes the resistance and rejection successful people have overcome on their journeys. We look at them and immediately see their genius, their ability, their authentic swing. We know them by their Margaritaville. But excellence comes only after the long struggle against any and all obstacles that come along. This is easy to forget when looking upon someone who has “made it.”
There is another, deeper lesson to be gained from Pressfield’s story, however. In effect, he was told not to waste his failure. Specifically, he was reminded to be grateful for it!
We have already been through the discussion about how failure isn’t fatal as long as it isn’t final. But we need to emphasize here that failures are extremely valuable if utilized properly, that is, if they are used as learning experiences and employed in the task of making us better.
Failures hurt. In reading the account of Pressfield’s first professional flop, it is easy to feel his pain and embarrassment. But fortunately for thousands of fans all over the world, Steven Pressfield did not allow his humiliations to define him; instead, he let them refine him. The concept is simple but difficult to live out consistently: our failures should not define us, but rather they should refine us.
Too many times we allow our failures to go to waste. As a result of the pain of failing we quit, pout, lash out, lose confidence, and lose hope. In such cases the failures hurt, but they are not allowed to instruct. They knock us down, but then are not utilized to lift us higher. They make us appear foolish, but are not allowed to help us grow wise.
Author Frans Johansson wrote, “ . . . groundbreaking innovators . . . produce a heap of ideas that never amount to anything. We play only about 35 percent of Mozart’s, Bach’s, or Beethoven’s compositions today; we view only a fraction of Picasso’s works; and most of Einstein’s papers were not referenced by anyone. Many of the world’s celebrated writers have also produced horrible books,* innovative movie directors have made truly uncreative duds, megasuccessful entrepreneurs have disappointed investors, and pioneering scientists have published papers with no impact whatsoever on their colleagues . . . the best way to beat the odds is to continually produce . . . .”
Any life lived will most certainly come with a litany of failures, mistakes, embarrassments, and humiliations. If we are not mature enough to use these shortfalls as steppingstones, they don’t find their way into our legacy and are spilled out as waste instead. In such instances, we have felt the pain but not grabbed the gain.
Never waste a failure. Wring from it all the experience and learning you can to come back stronger and better the next time. And no matter what, keep producing.
* He doesn't mean me!