Tag Archives: risk

10 reasons why you don’t need to succeed to be a success

blog.jpegSuccess and failure are slippery and complex concepts. Some types of failure, the simple antonym to success, can be devastating. A car fails and people die. A pregnancy fails with the loss of a precious life. Mental health fails leading to breakdown and suffering. No one sane wants to court this type of failure. As James Altrucher comments:

There’s this “cult of failure” that has popped up recently. That you need to fail to succeed.

This is not true. Failure really sucks. You don’t want to fail.

There’s also failure that arises from negligence. When we fail to live in the moment, when we don’t attend to something crucial, terrible things can happen. Anything from an oil spill wiping out ecosystems to emotional damage to a loved one who knows we’re not there for her.

There’s nothing attractive about this type of faiure. However much we manage to learn from it on reflection, it would always have been better to get the learning in another way.

Moreover, when we’re dealing with the type of failure that comes from our own negligence, it’s not appropriate to relabel it as ‘success’ or ‘learning’ to duck the responsibility. There are times when the things that go wrong are shouting out for us to pay attention and do some deep reflecting.

And yet, when Samuel Beckett advises:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

I’m completely in agreement, which leads me to thin that what we mean by failure isn’t a monolithic thing. And it’s this other sort of failure, the type that involves taking risks, that we can redefine as success. In this sense, you don’t need to succeed, that is you don’t need to realise every goal in exactly the way you’d envisaged it, be a success.

Why? Because:

1. Inversion isn’t always failure

The common question, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’ is a useful shorthand for the Stoic notion of inversion. Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, practiced premeditatio malorum, or ‘premeditation of evils.’

The idea was to consider the worst outcomes of an action. What if this results in bankruptcy or losing my home? What it this leads to everyone disliking me?

The point of the exercise was to anticipate possibilities in order to plan better and think about how to manage worse case scenarios. And it was also a way to overcome fears. As Paulo Coelho says:

There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.

But inversion isn’t always about failing. Not only does this exercise help us to think about what might happen and prepare as far as possible, but it also provides an alternative way of thinking in general.

As James Clear points out:

Inversion is often at the core of great art. At any given time there is a status quo in society and the artists and innovators who stand out are often the ones who overturn the standard in a compelling way.

Great art breaks the previous rules. It is an inversion of what came before. In a way, the secret to unconventional thinking is just inverting the status quo.

And it’s not only art. A mathematician might invert a difficult problem in order to reach a solution.

Too often the definition of ‘success’ is being popular, going with the status quo, pursuing goals that everyone else values and expects you to aim for.

Inversion challenges this. What you end up with might not be ‘success’ in the eyes of the crowd, but it might very well be innovative, ground-breaking and exactly where you want to be.

2. Taking a chance is an antidote to perfectionism


Perfectionism is a kind of paralysis. On the one hand perfectionism demands of you that you can do everything: achieve ten goals before breakfast, produce a manuscript with not one comma out of place … On the other hand, it’s demands are so preposterous that you will stop in your tracks and procrastinate rather than risk failure.

Of course aiming high is good. Of course you should improve your craft. As an editor I’m a fan of putting in the work, making things excellent, stretching our boundaries as writers. But there is also a time to let go. And there are times when you need to take a chance. As Brené Brown puts it:

Healthy striving is self-focused: “How can I improve?” Perfectionism is other-focused: “What will they think?

I’d love you to continue reading on Medium and join the conversation there – thank you for reading!

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An Edge with a View

‘Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.’

  – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

One of the things I notice about Welsh, a language that I speak with the proficiency of a rather slow toddler, is that words have to work hard. It’s an old language – a primitive version of which once covered much of England and Wales. Unlike the language that supplanted it in England and drove it West, it remained relatively stable – it took in some Latin during the Roman invasion, but the Middle Welsh of the Mabinogion is more or less understandable to a modern Welsh speaker. The watershed for modern Welsh came in 1588 with a translation of the whole Bible by William Morgan (who was born a few miles from where I now live, in Penmachno near Betws y Coed). The revised version of this translation was published, after Bishop Morgan’s death, in 1620 and had an enormous influence on the language – something akin to the influence of the King James Bible’s influence on English, though perhaps even more long-lasting (a Welsh-speaking friend of mine maintains that it was a stultifying influence, though I’m not qualified to comment). But the point here is that Welsh words often have several meanings depending on context or their use within specific phrases.

The area where I live is Blaenau Ffestiniog and ‘blaenau’ is a case in point. The word can mean an ‘edge’, in the sense of a leading edge – the front edge. It can be the sharp edge of a knife or the sharp point of a pencil, even the apex of a plant emerging in spring – the tip of the bud.

Whenever I return from a trip away, usually from book launches in places like Cardiff or London or trips to catch up with one of my daughters (one a peadiatric nurse in Northampton and the other a fine art photography student in Hereford, and Cinnamon Press’s cover designer) I am always struck by how remote Blaenau appears. It can feel like the edge of the world and people frequently marvel that an independent press of any size can survive, let alone thrive, here. Yet thrive it does – perched at the foot of the Moelwyns in a rather higgledy-piggledy house that will be beautiful one day, but not necessarily in my lifetime, Cinnamon Press flourishes, even without access to a car.

The feeling of being on the knife edge is a familiar one – whenever I am waiting for the results of grant applications which, although extremely small in comparison to those lost by several presses in the recent Arts Council England round, are a life line to a press mad and passionate enough to publish substantial amounts of poetry and literary fiction that is brilliant, but too on the edge for the big presses to touch; whenever I get a new consignment of books and eagerly want to open the boxes and meet the new babies, yet fear that they might not be perfect; whenever I wait with an anxious author for guests to arrive at a launch; every week when I get a sales return email from Central Books (our distributor in England that works with the Arts Council England Inpress scheme for promoting small presses) and every month when I get a sales return print out from the Welsh Books Council (our distributor in Wales) and every time I check the bank account to convince myself that we maybe on a knife edge, but haven’t fallen over so far.

The edge is a precarious place. So what am I doing half way up a mountain in a remote corner of North Wales running a small press, fiercely guarding its independence, publishing superb books that are nonetheless risky for so many reasons? What am I doing living in this odd house with no central heating and so much renovation still to do? What am I doing? I’m enjoying the view.

People keep telling me that I will get inured to the beauty, but for ten years I’ve woken up, opened my curtains and thought how wonderful and how privileged it is to live here. And in the last year, going through the process of divorce and becoming more pointedly responsible for this press that is both on the edge and thriving, and for this quirky house that demands constant attention, yet provides a sanctuary, the feeling of wonder has only intensified. The edge, with its vistas, is a great place to run a press that looks for books prepared to take their own risks. Living on the edge has given me exactly the kind of perspective I needed to run this independent press that I love – and if the ground that it stands on is sharp and narrow, no matter – after all, as Archimedes is supposed to have said:

 Give me a place to stand on and I will move the Earth

And, to paraphrase Kafka, that place only needs to be big enough for the two feet standing on it. The edge – Blaenau – is sufficient.


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