After all, inspirational quotes about success abound: they appear throughout Facebook, on the walls of the kids’ classrooms, drifting through my in-box in the form of a daily email that I don’t remember subscribing to. The phrase itself, in fact, seems almost redundant. An inspirational quote about success? Well of course. How could you have an inspirational quote about failure?
Except that’s just what I needed last week: an inspirational quote about failure. The only quote about failure that I could think about as I sat at my computer that day was “Failure is not an option.” And yet for me, failure was most definitely an option. In fact, as the hours rolled by and I was trying for the third time to complete the writing assignment I’d been given earlier in the day, I became convinced it was the only option.
A friend who works as a marketing consultant had asked if I’d be willing to try writing some copy for her. When she described the project – a fairly technical description of a business-to-business solution in the high-tech arena – I admitted it was beyond my usual realm of subject matter, but she was encouraging. She seemed to think I might discover new abilities – and maybe even new interests, a chance to broaden my scope as a professional writer.
Alas, she was wrong. Having committed to the project, knee-deep in documentation, information, and instructions, I acknowledged to myself that I simply had no idea how to do this. I didn’t even understand the subject matter very well, let alone having any idea how to communicate it based on the requirements of the project.
This wasn’t an entirely new experience for me. Four years or so ago, when I was working hard to expand my freelance portfolio, I took on every writing job I was offered. As a result, I distinctly remember one afternoon in which the clients for whom I was on deadline were a municipal planner, an internet security company, and a varicose vein clinic. Each client insisted that a writer of my abilities could surely just apply the same techniques with which I write about artists, musicians, food, travel, families, and community to their particular product and it would be fine.
And in each of those cases, I was able to finesse it, pretty much. I found ways to explain varicose vein treatment and sidewalk reconstruction and computer firewalls in a cogent enough way to make the client happy. But this time I just didn’t think I could do it.
Failure, in fact, is an option, I told myself. I have failed at this assignment, and now it’s time to stop wrecking myself over it and let the client know.
So I emailed her apologetically, admitting it just wasn’t my skill set and I wasn’t doing her any favors by spending increasing amounts of time on a project for which she was sure to be dissatisfied with the results. Then I went out for a walk, afraid to check my email for what was sure to be an angry or disappointed response.
But that’s not what happened. When I returned from my walk, I found a reply from the client that said “Thanks for trying to help, and for being honest when it became clear that this is not working.”
The experience made me think about the concept of core competencies. It’s good to be well-rounded and show aptitude in many different areas, but it’s also okay to know what you do best and to leave the other endeavors to other people.
So yes, as a parent and friend and occasional teacher and coach, I will continue to be encouraging, to try to inspire people to succeed. And I’ll continue to strive for success in my own pursuits as well, of course. But at the same time, I’ll remember what I learned from this particular unfinished assignment: sometimes failure is indeed an option. Not only that, but sometimes it is an entirely valid option.