When I’m out on the road, speaking to parents, teachers, and students, I tell a lot of stories to illustrate the research on failure and resilience.
I describe the time I told an anxious mother that her daughter’s middle school stumbles would reveal themselves as a gift. I talk about the year I watched a boy systematically self-destruct because he was so afraid to try and fail that he simply cut out the "try" part and went straight to the fail. Or the time a student admitted she was so afraid of failing that she’d lost her love of learning. Then there's the day I found out a mother plagiarized her child’s research paper in order to make a deadline and avoid a failing grade.
Sometimes, when I feel I can trust the audience, or feel they are skeptical of my research-based arguments about the lessons that can come from failure, I reveal my own failures, and use my life as Exhibit A.
It freaks me out every time I make the decision to go down that road, and tell the truth in front of an audience. No matter how many times I’ve revealed these truths, it always makes my pulse quicken and gets the adrenaline flowing. I’m petrified that if I expose my ugliest, wartiest, most horrifying failures, the front row will shrink back, realise they have spent an evening listening to an impostor, ask for a refund and walk out.
Despite my willingness to get personal when it comes to the benefits of learning from failure, there’s one story I’d kept secret until until last week, a tale of failure so grotesque and embarrassing that only my closest friends and family knew its ugliest details.
As is so often the case, it took my students, a room full of recovering drug- and alcohol-addicted teenagers, to coax it out of me.
We were talking about the realities of writing, how hard it can be, and how many flawed and tragic iterations it can take to end up with a shiny and beautiful final draft, when they asked me how many drafts my book, The Gift of Failure, required. One boy, who was having real trouble getting his words down on paper, looked up, finally paying attention, and fixed his eyes on me for the first time that day.
My stock answer, "lots", was not going to cut it this time. Neither was "a year’s worth", or "more than I can count", or even "gazillions". This time, anything less than the complete truth would be a lie.
"I wrote my first draft," I told them, "and my editor told me there were so many things wrong with it that the book was not publishable."
I paused, and when they did not recoil, or call me out as a fraud of a writing teacher, I went on.
"This highly respected, wise editor that I was more than a little scared of sat across the room from me, and told me that my book, something I’d spent a year and a half researching and writing, was an organisational nightmare, something she was not sure I could fix it on my own."
I paused again, then, when I realised they did not understand the implication of what I’d just described, revealed my deepest, darkest most shameful secret, right there, in the gray midwinter light of our classroom.
"See, there are these people called ghostwriters, people you can hire to fix books when the early drafts are really terrible, and my editor said I needed one."
"But you are a writer," one boy pointed out.
"Yeah. I know," I laughed. "That’s why what she said was so scary. It was the worst possible thing she could have said, and when she said it, I thought my writing career was over."
"So what did you do?" asked another boy from the back of the room, a kid I’d never quite been able to connect with, let alone entice into an extended conversation.
"I asked her to help me understand everything I did wrong - everything - and I wrote it all down, even the feedback that made me want to run out of her office or throw up right there on her fancy office floor. Organisational issues, scope, topics, flawed structure, all of it. Once I had it all down in a list that filled five notebook pages, I asked begged her for three chapters. Just three chapters to prove that I could absorb all of that negative feedback, learn from it, and create something wonderful from the wreckage of my rough draft."
"So that’s what I did. I sat down every day, looked at those five pages of suggestions, and over the next couple of months, I re-wrote those three chapters. She liked those three, so three turned into six, and a year later, I finished the entire book. In the meantime, it was scary.
"I really thought that was it. I believed that with that one crappy book draft, my career was over and everyone was going to see that I never deserved to write a book in the first place. Honestly, though, I never could have written the final draft, the one that ended up with a shiny, pretty cover and a place on the New York Times Best Seller List, without that crappy first draft."
"So," I said, looking around the room at my reluctant writers. "Let’s get back to work. You have some crappy first drafts to write."
And they did. Horrible, error-strewn, magnificently crappy first drafts that might, with some work, become something wonderful.