Margaret Atwood, Anne Enright, and Garry Kasparov, on Failure

Meditations on failure, from some leading writers.

I like this quote from Margaret Atwood:

This playful doodle is by none other than Margaret Atwood!

This playful doodle is by none other than Margaret Atwood!

Failure is just another name for much of real life: much of what we set out to accomplish ends in failure, at least in our own eyes. Who set the bar so high that most of our attempts to sail gracefully over it on the viewless wings of Poesy end in an undignified scramble or a nasty fall into the mud? Who told us we had to succeed at any cost?

And Anne Enright nails it:

You must recognise that failure is 90% emotion, 10% self-fulfilling reality, and the fact that we are haunted by it is neither here nor there.The zen of it is that success and failure are both an illusion, that these illusions will keep you from the desk, they will spoil your talent; they will eat away at your life and your sleep and the way you speak to the people you love.The problem with this spiritual argument is that success and failure are also real. You can finish a real book and it can be published or not, sell or not, be reviewed or not.

Failure is not a problem for those who aren’t perfectionist.

When you are perfectionist:


Garry Kasparov looking intense. No one likes failure, but probably no one hates is more than a world chess champion. He also doesn’t look like much of a doodler.

1) Success and failure tend to be based on product, and especially on external metrics and validations. When you’re nonperfectionist, the rewards come more from the satisfaction and joy you derive from the work.

2) Success and failure seem like huge polar opposites. When you’re nonperfectionist, the two categories converge. Success is better and feels better, of course, but not by nearly as great a margin as perfectionists think. (Because nonperfectionists are internally motivated and rewarded.)

3) Success and failure seem total. In reality, there’s no such thing as a pure success or failure: most failures contain some success, at least as a learning opportunity; and most successes contain some element of compromise or failure.

4) Each success or failure feels momentous. With a healthy, nonperfectionst attitude, however, any given success or failure is simply another way station or transient state within the long span of your career.

5) You overidentify with your failures. So that it’s not simply “My project failed,” but “I am a failure.” It’s the overidentification combined with the characteristics listed above that create, in perfectionists, a terror of failure. Procrastination is a way of coping because if you don’t finish your work you don’t run the risk of having it fail. But there are better ways to cope.

My favorite quote on failure comes from Garry Kasparov, one of my heroes, whom I was fortunate to hear speak in Cambridge, MA. He was talking about lessons he had learned from chess that he applies to life, and he began his talk thusly:

“I have won hundreds of chess games and lost thousands.
You have to have the courage to fail.”

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