Getting my book rejected 24 times made me realize what American culture gets wrong about failure

American culture wants us to believe that failure is just a rung on the ladder to success.
American culture wants us to believe that failure is just a rung on the ladder to success.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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The day my book was rejected for the 24th time by a publisher, Michael Phelps won his 24th Olympic medal. As Phelps pointed to the sky in victory, declaring himself #1 yet again, I scraped the bottom of a tub of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Ah, symmetry.

As a writer, I’m accustomed to rejection. It still doesn’t feel good. But what often makes me feel worse is American culture’s refusal to stare rejection in the face—its propensity to believe that failure always means that our next big break is just around the bend.

Inevitably, when I mention the latest publisher who’s turned me down, someone brings up J.K. Rowling. “Well, J.K. Rowling got a million rejections, and now look at her.” But as it turns out, the author of Harry Potter received 12 rejections. Some reports count nine. Either way, it was considerably less than the number of times my book has been declined, and way less than a million.

The internet is awash in lists of writers who faced numerous rejections before going on to great literary success: besides Rowling, there’s Herman Melville, Margaret Mitchell, and Stephen King, just to name a few. Even Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote my favorite childhood book, A Wrinkle in Time, was reportedly rejected 26 times before Farrar, Straus & Giroux said yes. Meanwhile, New York magazine recently ran the story “25 Famous Women on Overcoming Rejection,” a roundup of mainly inspiring quotes about rising above the naysayers and pushing through to achieve your goals. America has always worshipped the boot-strapping Horatio Alger story as a national ideal. That means we also venerate at the altar of plucky perseverance in the face of adversity.

There are some big holes in this narrative. “The notion of ‘keep on slugging away’ is easy to say, and the problem is that it always comes from people who have succeeded,” says Stuart Firestein, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University and the author of the book Failure: Why Science Is So Successful. “They rewrite some mythological narrative about how much they failed and how by sticking to it, they hit it one day. But these are all post hoc narratives.”

Indeed, the stories we tell about failure and success tend to suffer from selection bias. Instead of a random sampling, we hear primarily from people whose rejections served as stepping stones on the path to fame and fortune. There are no quote roundups from unsuccessful writers who never made it. No one talks about them, but maybe we should. How many rejections do you take before you decide it’s time to pull the plug?

The other popular narrative these days seems to be embracing failure not as a setback, but as a gift that will lead undoubtedly to another wonderful discovery. Silicon Valley startups encourage their employees to “fail fast and fail often.” Click on any “Surprising Secrets of Successful People”-type headline, and you’re likely to find that failure just might be the key (that or meditation or getting a good night’s sleep).

Certainly we shouldn’t give up at the first sign of setback, and succumbing to the fear of failure can prevent us from ever taking risks. But both extremes shortchange us by glossing over the psychic toll that real failure takes.

I’m not talking about tough feedback from a manager or getting a B on a test when you really wanted an A, but the soul-crushing, confidence-torpedoing realization that your book will not be published, your company will have to close down, your store will not open, your dream of going to the Olympics will never come to pass. That kind of failure doesn’t feel like a stepping stone on the journey—it feels like the Great Wall of No. You need to find another road altogether.

“People may tell you to ‘just keep fighting,’ but that’s oversimplified,” says Guy Winch, a psychologist and the author of Emotional First Aid. “Failure creates an emotional wound, and we have to tend to it. You can’t just fail and then immediately gain. You fail, you hurt, you do something about it, and then you gain.” I’ve got the first two steps down pat. It’s the second two that are more difficult.

The last time I spoke to an executive coach I sometimes work with, I confessed to the depression I felt over my book’s dwindling chances of publication and my dread at having to tell dozens of people that I’d failed in my endeavor.

“Feel the loss,” he told me, “but why do you have to call it ‘failure’? Why not say that you had a great idea, you worked to make it happen, you didn’t get the results you wanted, and you’re moving on?”

I hung up the phone repeating his “not the results I wanted” mantra. But it felt like a script in a role-playing session preparing for a job interview. If failure is defined by a lack of success, why tiptoe around it with a euphemism?

What feels most honest, to me, is to consider the possibility that failure is a richer and more intriguing experience than I’ve given it credit for. Perhaps it’s not a stage that I ought to move through as quickly as possible, but a place to hang out for a little while.

I’m reminded of the Samuel Beckett quote that the tech industry has used to bolster its “fail fast” motto: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The tech industry interpreted the message all wrong, according to Firestein. Beckett wasn’t trying to talk about failure as a rung on the ladder to success. He was talking about failure as a constant in our lives.

“He believes failure is the more common state, the real human state, the more interesting state,” Firestein says. “Tolstoy has his famous phrase in Anna Karenina, that all happy families are happy in much the same way, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. That’s true of failure too. Success is nice, but, really, you succeed and you get on with it, whereas failure is endlessly interesting, isn’t it?”

To fail “better” requires patience, with yourself and with the world that insists on telling you success is around the corner. Firestein says that failure can be an end in itself, in that it forces us to live with the unknown—the place where true creativity often resides.

“There’s that wonderful phrase coined by Keats: ‘negative capability,” Firestein says. “He defines it as a state of mystery and uncertainty, with no ‘irritable reaching’ [for a goal] involved. When you are uncertain, when you have mystery on your hands, when you can’t get to the bottom of it, that’s when the most interesting thinking happens.”

Thinking about failure this way isn’t socially approved. It will be hard to explain when people ask me about my book at dinner parties. But to me, it feels like a relief. It feels like what could be the beginning of acceptance.