the art of expecting failure

So, you have career goals? Assume you’ll never reach them, and you will always be pleasantly surprised!

Now wait, wait, hear me out! Much like my terrible advice about the benefits of sleep deprivation, there is a kernel of reason deep down in the weeds. You just have to dig a little. The lesson in sleep deprivation was “don’t overthink the rough draft.” The lesson in assumed failure is “don’t obsess over the outcome.”

Let me elaborate.

[Sidenote: I talk about sleep deprivation so much, I actually got spam asking if I’d like to provide free advertising for janky sleep products sooo, always have your contact information online folks, totally worth it!!]

My childhood was mostly ideology-free, but a handful of superstitions have followed me to adulthood. The greatest of all: malocchio. The evil eye. Spite. When you tempt fate (say, by speaking aloud, “I think this is the book that will get me an agent!”), somebody (don’t ask me who; somebody) is going to hear you. And just like that, you are not going to get what you want. You were too prideful. You made assumptions. You bragged, and that made somebody else jealous. The universe is going to humble you now. Bye-bye, agent.

If you accidentally admit out loud that you think you’re going to do well at something (pass that test, have a complication-free pregnancy, sell to that magazine), you better throw the horns real quick to negate any evil energy coming your way. I don’t mean throw them up, like you’re at a heavy metal concert. I mean throw them down, in a blocking motion.

And if you’re real serious, you get yourself a chili pepper necklace. I don’t make the rules.


Charms: cornetto and mano cornuta. Credit: flickr/crwr ( (cropped)

“But, Sam!” I hear you cry. “But, Sam, if you always assume you’re going to fail, how do you accomplish anything?”

That’s the trick. You do the thing anyway! And you put your absolute best effort in, because you know the universe is stacking the odds against you. And if you fail, well, such is life. But if you succeed–oh man, the success is even sweeter! You beat insurmountable odds to get there! You tricked your way past the weird Italian cow-related manifestation of bad luck!

Here is how this plays out in a writing career: you only make goals out of the parts you control.

Acceptable goals:

  • finish the rough draft
  • edit the work until it is the best you can possibly make it
  • research the appropriate markets/agents/publishing path
  • submit the work

That’s it. The goal isn’t actually acceptance at the magazine, or an agent, or a contract. Secretly, it is, but you can’t control who says yes. You can only control whether you try, and how well you follow the guidelines.

So, you wrote it: success! You sent it out: success! Now assume it’s never going to get anywhere, because as soon as you think you’re a shoe-in, the universe will strike you down. Start planning the next step as though the next step is inevitable. (“Okay, after the story gets rejected there, I’m going to send it here,” or, “Okay, this book won’t be picked up, so while that’s on submission I’ll edit the query package for my next one.”)

It’s a weird headspace to occupy, I’m not gonna lie. I have to simultaneously be passionate about what I’m working on, genuinely love it and put my whole heart into the effort, do my absolute best to target my submissions and write a great query letter, AND ALSO protect my emotions by managing my expectations. I have to get that “no” in my email, shrug, and say, “Oh well, maybe the next one! But probably not [throw horns for good measure]. But maaaaaybe.”

Embracing this has made the submission process so low-stress. I’ve got half a dozen stories and one book on submission, and when a rejection rolls in I just send the work back out. And hey, once in a while I open that email prepared to log another “nope” in my spreadsheet, and I am delighted to find it’s an acceptance or a full request! So I happily send that along, and I go back to working on the next thing.

Like all writing advice, your mileage may vary. If this sounds horrible to you, ignore me. Do whatever you need to do to stay motivated, because publication is just as much a game of persistence as it is a game of skill.

But if you’ve got work in your hands, and a list of places to send it, and you suddenly find yourself stricken with stage fright (which I did, for two whole months), try this:

Take a deep breath. Say out loud, “It’s not a big deal. When this comes back, I’ll try the next one.” And cross your fingers behind your back where the universe won’t see it.

Then send it out.