Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Success and Failure

Earlier this year I reached a decision that might be considered a failure, but my conclusion remains that it was for the best. We are collectively too self-critical, and what I want to do in this post is share how I have learned to re-frame experiences and recapture self-esteem and motivation.

The Project

Back in 2014, I signed a contract to write a field guide to U.S. spiders for an academic publisher. This sounded great at the time, but soon became overwhelming to me. I found it difficult to even begin outlining the book, and I suddenly felt inadequate in my knowledge and organizational skills. My editor was so "hands-off" as to be essentially absent, and I am not a self-motivated individual. I need deadlines. These and other reasons led me to cancel the contract.

I felt most disappointed for those who knew I had this project going and who were looking forward to my "slant" on the subject. I felt I had failed them, much more than failing myself. There is also the problem of paying back the advance. Fortunately, the publisher is being most generous with terms of re-payment. Meanwhile, I have been able to cultivate a couple new clients for smaller projects that are less daunting in scope.

Books I've had a hand in producing
Take Stock

One of the first things I did after this life-altering decision was to lay out all the other books I have had a hand (or at least a finger) in producing. I was surprised at the number, and I even forgot about one book to which I'd contributed an image; and another book to which I contributed a couple chapters but was so expensive I couldn't afford my own copy. This might seem like an exercise in egotism, but not so. It helped me to realize that I have a lot to be proud of already, and that successes can happen again.

Define "Failure"

Another thing I did was to ask myself "is this decision to terminate the contract really a failure?" My spouse might agree that it was, at least financially, but the stress relief alone was worth it to me. Recognizing my limits and my lack of motivation was actually something of a success, though I wish I had realized that sooner. Still, one does not always realize whether a project is a good fit or not until one is immersed in it. There are no "good guys" or "bad guys" in this scenario, just different methods of working. My editor at the university press is a nice man, we just did not have compatible approaches to the project. We parted ways amicably, and it appears I may have found him a much more qualified author to execute the project.

Moving On

Making up for lost income is always a great motivator, but given that my subject niche is so narrow, and markets for it evaporating almost weekly, I have to get really creative. I also have to be persistent, negotiable on payment, and dependable in delivering what I agree to. I may have to self-publish book-length projects from now on because traditional publishers are so reluctant to risk taking on new authors. Fortunately, thanks to advances in technology, and the evolution of social media and crowdfunding, self-publishing is now easier; and the quality of self-published books can equal or even exceed that of the big houses.

Don't Apologize

I advise against apologizing unnecessarily for decisions that might disappoint third parties. You do not owe anyone except yourself (and your family if you have one). You don't even owe friends and consumers an explanation. What you owe yourself is forgiveness, a positive outlook for the future, and a renewed commitment to your own personal goals. Set standards. Decide what you will and will not compromise on with your clients. Treat them fairly, but treat yourself fairly, too. Do not be afraid to say "no," especially if your instincts are sounding alarm bells. You have to protect yourself in a marketplace rife with thieves and immoral degenerates. Do your homework on clients before you approach them, if possible, to avoid the bad eggs.

End of Advice

Whatever your own occupation, vocation, or art, I hope you never feel like a failure. What really matters, of course, is our character. That is what governs all of your relationships, be they professional or personal. Strive to accept who you are, and better those "weaknesses." Some days you'll have setbacks, but how you interpret them determines your success tomorrow. Good luck.


  1. Thanks for the article and the advise Eric. I too, am one who needs deadlines and prods. I will keep your cautions in mind as I go through life.

    Glad you have come to terms with this. That is the big thing, I think, that YOU are satisfied with the end results.

  2. We all fall down - what each person will think and feel in the process of picking themselves up, dusting themselves off and moving forward is both person and deeply primal - because we all endure it. And its such an opportunity to embrace the profound value of compassion - which, just like charity, always begins at home. Thank you for what you have written here. I'm in Humpty Dumpty mode myself right now, and your words are very encouraging.