The Difference Between Failing and Being a Failure

by Jay Delaney

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Today’s topic is a silent but deadly killer.  Expect to hear me discuss it often.  It’s one of the primary roadblocks that can keep you from unleashing your greatness.  It’s so important that I want to address it early on at Create the Map.  Unless you learn how to properly view failure, it can destroy your creative fire.

Dr. Seuss’s First Children’s Book Was Rejected by More Than 20 Publishers

Did you know that no one wanted to publish Dr. Seuss’s first children’s book?  Depending on which version of the story he told, somewhere between 20 and 29 publishers rejected the book.  Can you imagine getting rejection letter after rejection letter?  His official bio talks about how he was so disappointed and discouraged that he was “walking down Madison Avenue, about to throw the book away.”  But then, “he ran into former classmate Mike McClintock, who had just been appointed juvenile editor of Vanguard Press.  McClintock promptly took him up to his office, where they signed a contract for Mulberry Street.”*  Even once that book was published in 1937, his advertising work remained his main source of income for the next 20 years until he published The Cat in the Hat, his thirteenth book.  By that point, Dr. Seuss was in his 50s.

Charles Kettering quote

You’re Going to Fail

If you want to live authentically, do great things, and carve out your own path in life, then you’re going to fail. Accept it.  Expect it.  That doesn’t mean you give any less energy or effort to what matters to you in life.  But it does mean that it’s human to fail.  Success isn’t so much about learning how to avoid failure; it’s more about learning how to handle failure.  What’s most important is that you learn how to get up each time you fail.  In all of the stories I’ve encountered and life experiences I’ve had so far, it seems to me that getting back up each time you fall might be the single greatest indicator of who succeeds and who doesn’t.  Just take a look at the failures Abraham Lincoln racked up before becoming President.

Just Because You Fail Doesn’t Mean You’re a Failure

There’s a difference between failing and being a failure. I’ve met people who see each failure as a sign that they are a failure.  But everyone fails.  Even successful people.  Even your heroes.  Even the people who seem like everything they touch turns to gold.  Even superheroes.  Often we hear about people who’ve succeeded long after they’ve trudged through all those failures along the way, so it can seem like their success came easily.  Perhaps the most important difference between failing and being a failure is that “failing” is just a setback/disappointment whereas “being a failure” is a mindset.  I created a chart that outlines the differences between failing and being a failure.  Here it is:

chart of failure v. being a failure

Being a failure is pretty simple. Give up.  That’s it.  It takes a lot more courage, guts, and heart to fail and then keep going.  As long as you’re working toward something that matters to you, then you’re not a failure.

My Own Lesson in Failing

I submitted my first feature-length film to numerous film festivals. (For those who may not know, film festivals only accept a certain number of films each year to screen.  Most film festivals reject far more films than they accept.)  The Toronto Film Festival was the first to reject my film.  The Sundance Film Festival rejected it.  The Slamdance Film Festival rejected it.  The Berlin Film Festival rejected it.  New Directors / New Films rejected it.  The Tribeca Film Festival rejected it.  So did the Los Angeles Film Festival.  But guess what.  The SXSW Film Festival called and invited me to premiere my film there.  After it premiered at SXSW, I continued to get rejected from other festivals, but I started getting accepted into more festivals.  And through SXSW, I ended up meeting the company that ultimately distributed my film – Oscilloscope Pictures, owned by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch.  Oscilloscope’s executive, David Fenkel, saw the film at SXSW, and so did Adam Yauch.  The rejections (aka failures) were a necessary part of the journey of getting my film out into the world.

Getting rejection letters from film festivals isn’t easy. It’s discouraging.  But all along, I can honestly say that I always believed that I would find a way to make the film a success.  I knew that it would somehow work out and that I would do everything within my power to make it work.

Show Us Your Resilience

Failure is just part of the journey. Don’t ever let it make you believe that you’re a failure.  Maybe you’re failing now, but that doesn’t mean you’ll keep failing.  Show us your resilience.  It’s up to you to bring the tenacity.  You have to bring the fire.  You have to figure out how to make it happen.  You have to get up.  And you can’t let failing along the way keep you down or turn you into a failure.

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*Dr. Seuss’s Biography,
**About the photo above: I took this picture in Pontiac, Illinois during the summer of 2010 on a road trip with my fiancee down old Route 66 in Illinois.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Joshua July 5, 2011 at 10:35 am

My current work is the product of all my failures. I made just about every possible mistake with my last site. But although it was a disaster, I learned so much from it.

Of course, I would love to say that I have everything figured out and make no mistakes anymore, but that would not be true. :)


Jay July 7, 2011 at 12:19 am

I love that perspective, Joshua, that your current work is the “product of all your failures.” Your momentum is exciting to see, and I love that it’s stronger now from all the past experiences you’ve learned from.


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