The Opposite of Success

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

The business of publishing gives us frequent opportunities to feel like a success or … not a success. At every step of the journey, we receive feedback and results that tell us whether our efforts are working. It’s an uncertain path riddled with possibilities for disappointment.

? We pitch our book at a conference and nobody seems to want what we’ve written.

? We search for an agent, to no avail.

? Our book is being submitted to publishers, but none are biting.

? Our book is available for sale, but the numbers aren’t good.

? We arrange a booksigning event at a bookstore, and nobody shows up.

When things happen that don’t make us feel exactly like a “success,” the instinct is to brand our efforts a “failure.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I no longer believe the opposite of success is failure. Instead,


The opposite of success is learning.



Obviously this is not an original thought, but it repeatedly strikes me anew as I navigate the perilous paths of the publishing world. The minute I brand myself a failure, or even say, “I failed,” my entire outlook changes. At that point, I become weaker. I deflate. I’m poking holes in my own resilience and persistence. I may stop believing that I can accomplish my goal.

But if I say instead, “This effort didn’t succeed, but I learned something so that I’m better prepared for the next time,” I am actually building up my resilience and persistence.

If I don’t succeed and I’m having trouble figuring out why, that’s my cue to spend some time reviewing the effort to figure out what went wrong. It may or may not have been due to anything I could have changed or controlled. If I missed a deadline because my basement office was flooded (yep), at least I learned I need to give myself more margin, and also to make sure my office is physically configured in a way that my stuff would sustain the least possible damage in the next big rain.

Sometimes you might need help figuring out why something didn’t succeed. If you’re pitching and submitting your work to agents and editors without success, and not getting any helpful feedback as to why, then you’re going to have to hook up with another author or critique partner, or hire an independent editor, to get an honest assessment of what’s going wrong.

The point is not to wallow in failure, but instead to appreciate the learning.

Have you had any notable “opportunities for learning” lately? How did you handle it?



The opposite of success is not failure, but learning. Click to Tweet.

Saying “I failed” pokes holes in our resilience and persistence. Click to Tweet.

The publishing biz gives frequent opportunities to feel like a success or …not. Click to Tweet.

“The point is not to wallow in failure, but to appreciate the learning.” Click to Tweet.


32 Responses

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  1. My work got a rejection on September 3rd. Notice that I didn’t say “I got a rejection…”
    The very nice agent was not rejecting me as a person, but my work.
    That was something I learned early on in this merry-go-round that is the writer’s life.
    She made some points and I took them as a challenge, and to show her that I had the work ethic to do what needed to be done, and to be Christ-like in how I responded.
    So, with a week left before I attended my first ACFW, I re-wrote the sample chapters, the “first 50 pages”.
    I had to work hard, fast and to the edge of my limits.(I’m a mom of 4 and it was the first week of school, AND Hubby was in Zurich!)
    Plus I had to prep for the conference.

    But I got the job done and it was sort of beneficial for me. 🙂

    Learning Opportunities??

    #1-Do NOT base your value on the opinions of someone who has never met you and is ONLY saying no to your work. If you equate your importance as a person by your success, in any field, you will fall to pieces.

    #2 There are no First Draft Prodigies in this business. Studying your craft books and the books of writers you love is an opportunity to learn, learn, learn!!

    #3 Be teachable!

    #4 Be teachable!

    #5 LISTEN.

    #6 Work harder than you want to, and then work harder.

  2. Lori says:

    Success is great but I learn more from my failures than I do from my successes.

    Just when you think you succeeded, something seems to come along like a curve ball and shows you why you failed to miss what I actually was going on or in this case the ball.

    Note: I am working on (or through) hitting that curve ball out of the park.

  3. I sent my requested MS to agents too soon. But the feedback I’ve received is helping me focus on becoming a better storyteller.
    In hopes that a second chance looms on the horizon, and because I’m fully invested in telling the story that no one else can, I’m back at the revision drawing board.

  4. Seriously. I used this f-word a lot in 2012. It tried to sneak into my 2013, but I managed to squash it; however, it did it’s damage and took many months to repair the dents and holes and dings to my resilience and persistence. I horrified myself by what I’d let happen. It took the long-term and consistent help of another writer friend to rebound. No matter what, I will not use that word again and can attest to the rightfulness of your post. It is worth sharing, and I will.

  5. This is one of the hardest lessons I have had to learn. To hear that those around me whom I consider successful struggle a I do, makes me feel just a bit better for the wear! Thank you for the renewed motivation to continue forward. Just like Walt Disney, who was once fired for not being creative enough, keep moving forward!

  6. Andrea Cox says:

    Recently, I felt like a failure because I didn’t make the proper attitude adjustment I wanted to make. Don’t you hate the days you feel grouchy but can’t seem to shake the attitude that hangs around your neck?

    Well, that night I pulled out my journal and wrote out exactly how I was feeling, pouring my heart out to God about how big of a failure I felt like. I then proceeded to go to bed.

    When I awoke the next morning, it was like God had scrubbed me down with the best cleanser. The glass was half-filled. The sun was shining. I was cheerful and brimming with hope.

    If you’re feeling like a failure, my advice is to pour out your heart to God, and let Him renew you.


    • Jeanne T says:

      I’m a big journaler too, Andrea. Between that and sleep, I usually awaken with a fresh perspective the day after a discouraging day.

    • Roxanne Sherwood Gray says:

      Andrea, Thanks for the reminder to pour our hearts to God for renewal.

      My seven-year-old bounces like Tigger out of bed every day refreshed, ready for anything. I love how God’s mercies are new every morning. He lets us start each day with a fresh slate. No need to worry about yesterday. Today is a brand new and so is my outlook.

  7. Jeanne T says:

    Great post, Rachelle. I LOVED the idea that the opposite of success is learning. I’m slow at it, but I’m beginning to embrace it in the way I handle life’s disappointments.

    I’ve found that I need to give myself permission to feel the disappointment for a short time, but not get stuck in it and begin to speak that “Failure” word over what happened. It digs in and escalates the emotions in a bad direction. Then, I need to buckle down and figure out what needs to happen differently next time. I’ve done this when getting stuck in my story, and in figuring out the publishing industry.

    And, I have done this in “real” life too. At times, I need an outside perspective to help re-orient mine where it needs to be. That’s when I speak with a trusted friend who can speak the truths I need to hear in the moment.

    Sorry to hear about the basement. That’s frustrating.

  8. I come to a definition of success from something of a different background – losers died, often rather unpleasantly at the hands of unsympathetic people.

    That said, it’s been hard for me to put a more benign face on failure. As a result, I often won’t launch a project until I have overwhelming ‘superiority’ in terms of resources and ability. I have a novel that’s been complete for awhile, and got good reviews from those who read it, but I won’t query until I have the query letter exactly where I want it.

    And if the queries don’t pull? There are other avenues. Not quitting means not failing.

    When I finally fail, it’ll mean I’m dead.

    But they better not bury me with a shovel in my hands.

  9. Mehmet Arat says:

    Thanks for the view. Very important point. The ways to success are infinite, in fact the definition of success is very dynamic and subjective. However, I think we all need some guides not to fall down and find our ways when the future does not seem bright. Your “tweetables” can easily be remembered in those cases to start again.

  10. I am pleased to report that I took every “rejection” as an opportunity to improve. When one agent declined, saying my memoir sounded like it would only appeal to firefighters, I knew I had to fix both the query letter and proposal, since this was definitely not the case. Instead of assuming my story had no value, I used this as a way to to fix what was “broken.”

  11. We do fail. Over and over again. But God is the God of failure–just look at who he chose to be his Judges, Kings, and Prophets. Yes we can and must learn from our failures and present them to God so we can move on. My formerly income producing business is winding down–does that mean I’m a failure. Maybe. But it also encourages me to consider new avenues, perhaps retirement or new ways of marketing. I’ve never forgotten the story my undergrad professor told about the buggy whip manufacturers who went out of business when the automobile arrived. Except for one. That one observed his whips and took a long look at the automobiles. He let his mind work and soon came up with a new description for his old manufacturing business: Flexible cables. And that’s what we need to do to succeed. Reframe our position in the light of present circumstances and see where that takes us.

  12. Thank you! I so needed to hear this and read the comments today. All of you have been a great encouragement.

  13. Don’t worry about the failure.
    Worry about the chances you miss when you don’t even try.

  14. B.J.Young says:

    Thanks! I needed that.

  15. Lisa Jordan says:

    Such wise words.

    My learning opportunity came when I had to request a deadline extension and feared screwing up my career. My awesome agent reminded me there’s difference between being unreliable and being knocked down by life’s circumstances.

  16. Ann Cole says:

    Thanks so much for this post,Rachelle! Needed it 🙂

  17. Beth K. Vogt says:

    Success or failure — it’s all in the perspective, isn’t it? I love Albert Einstein’s view of failure:”I have not failed, I have just found 10000 ways that don’t work.”

  18. Great post, as usual, Rachelle. Part of the problem is what we really want when we think about “success.” When I was practicing medicine, each time before I got into a serious discussion with a patient about surgery or allergy therapy or some other significant treatment method, I asked one question: “What are your indicators of success?” If they were unrealistic or incorrect, I knew that until that changed, there was no reason to continue.
    I’d encourage all writers to ask themselves this same question–and give serious thought to the answer. Maybe they’re writing for the wrong reason–there’ve been some times in my journey along this road that I’ve done just that.

  19. Arlene says:

    I don’t think the opposite of success is learning. I think the opposite of success is staying safe…inertia

  20. Joe Pote says:

    The opposite of success is inaction.

    Failure and learning are both positive steps toward success. Inaction is not.

  21. Amber Perry says:

    Loved this, Rachelle! Thank you for the reminder–so timely! God bless!

  22. Rachelle, I am in the midst of my first contest, and haven’t been getting a good response. It’s safe to say I am in learning mode, but I needed this post. I was feeling like a failure, and now I can turn it around. Thanks!

  23. After talking to my friend Jennifer major a couple of hours ago, I gave the question of failure, and it lessons, some more thought.

    The salient point – that Jennifer can elucidate far better that I can – is that it ain’t over till it’s over.

    And with enough heart, not even then.

  24. Mark Kennard says:

    It just feels good to write no matter what people think of it. And if some people think it is good, so much the better. I like creating characters and hanging out with them and remembering them like people you know intimately. And then there is the creative part. The telling of a tale as if it really happened. If you write and finish a story, how can that ever be viewed a failure?

  25. I had nearly 1,500 click-throughs on my new web address, but only a handful of purchases. So, I changed the description of my book on Amazon.

  26. I’ve found that hiring an independent editor can help in making my writing stronger.

  27. “The opposite of success is learning” – a line that deserves printing out and posting by my computer. Thank you.