Don’t Be Afraid to Fail Aggressively

I like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
We all know he made his name as a wrestler, then got screen time as the Scorpion King. Then he kicked it up a notch with The Rundown and Walking Tall.
But Johnson wanted to break out from just being the next action guy. He wanted to expand his range, into comedies. So he started working toward that end. Some folks were skeptical. But in an interview with People magazine just before Get Smart came out, Johnson said, ”I would rather fail being aggressive than being passive.”
I loved that quote. I put it on a card and displayed it in my office. Because at the time I was taking a big risk, too.
After over a decade in the fiction game I had a secure following in the Christian publishing arena. I could count on a solid number of readers every time out. I also liked the people and the companies I worked with.
That market, however, was trending toward a more “romance” feel, with a rather surprising uptick in books depicting Amish life. Now, in our chaotic times, I well understand the appeal of fiction that depicts steadier, simpler ways. I do not at all hold it against thee if thou likes Amish fiction.
But that’s not my particular crevice in the fiction world.
So I had to make a decision. Stay put and play it safe? Or try something new and unproven? Continue as I had where everyone knew me, or put oars into the waters of the vast ocean of mainstream publishing?
Which is when I read the Dwayne Johnson quote. And I thought, If I don’t try this now, I’ll look back and regret it. It could end up being a ten story dive into a glass of water, but Bugs Bunny did that, why can’t I?
The worst that could happen was that I would “fail aggressively.” There’s no shame in that. It’s what’s driven all the innovations and breakthroughs in history. Edison failed more than he succeeded, but would never have succeeded at all if he hadn’t been aggressive. 
So I took the plunge and sold a zombie legal thriller which is, I would say, a bit outside the box of my previous engagements!
Am I glad? Oh yeah. I love Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law. And I’ve been getting some lovely email from my readers. If I may be allowed to share one comment in that regard: “If a great story is about someone we can care about who wants something we can identify with and faces odds that are relatable and believable, then it doesn’t matter what Mallory IS. What matters is what Mallory wants and why she wants it. And the best part is, she is sassy, smart and funny.”

When you get a comment like that, one that says you accomplished what you set out to do in a book you’ve poured your heart into, it makes the whole thing worth it. 

Yes, there will be dissenters. We who write professionally know that well. But while there is no sure formula for success, there is one for failure: try to please everybody. 
As writers we have to be willing to fail aggressively. If we don’t, if we play it too safe, if we spend too much time worrying about the market and how to chase it down, we will lose that chance to be what the world prizes most—an original.
Sure, use market sense, but put all that through the prism of your unique voice and vision and heart and desire. Then go for it. Don’t be afraid of failure. You may be on the pathway to a breakthrough.
Listen to The Rock. 

22 thoughts on “Don’t Be Afraid to Fail Aggressively

  1. I concur. In my writing, I want powerful historicals that don’t rely on romance—definitely swimming against the tide. But I keep pursuing, no matter how long it takes me to craft the kind of books I want.

    But I have also recently come to this conclusion regarding other pursuits as well. Though I don’t have an interest in it commercially, I have always wanted to learn to draw and paint, yet I never pursue it. Not enough time I say. But that’s not the biggest reason. As writers, we can beat ourselves up over our own work.

    I’m even worse about that when it comes to the visual arts. I’m absolutely brutal with myself when it comes to things like drawing and painting. And I need to get a grip and get over it. Of course I’ll produce garbage starting out. But with time, I mind find a new form of relaxation that will serve me well.

    Fear of failure is a powerful force in life. Invisible chains.

    BK Jackson

  2. The quote ”I would rather fail being aggressive than being passive…” is noteworthy. When I lost my job to off shoring and could not find another, I charged into writing. Often I question my sanity for thinking I can write. I have no way to judge just how much of a fool I am for pursuing this path. The risk is frighteningly high and failure the most likely outcome. I feel I have a better chance of winning the lottery.

    However, I refuse to sit back passively and let my demise fall upon me. I am aggressively charging ahead into a future unknown. That future may hold success or failure, I do not know which, but at least I will have given the attempt my fullest effort.

  3. Well said, Lester, well said. And the great difference between what you’re doing at the lottery is the strength of your will and the ability to actually DO something. You can write. You can learn. You can write some more. Sounds like that’s exactly what you’re doing. Good sailing.

  4. It’s always challenging to break out in a new direction, but we don’t know if we can succeed until we try. Plus, writing is a cyclical business. It pays to be versatile, so experimenting can lead to rewarding changes in one’s career. Bravo to you for striking out in an entirely new genre!

  5. Thanks, Nancy. It feels great to stretch the writing muscles. Before I was published I had a wild streak that was fun to write in. Now I feel a little of that coming back, and like it.

  6. James, thanks for everything. I attended your workshop at the Writers Store last week and loved it. I now follow you on twitter. Following writers on twitter has opened up a new world for me and I have new inspiration. I hacked around with screenplays 5-10 years ago. Even “finished” one. And I’ve had the gut feeling for years to write books instead or in addition to. Thanks so much. It’s great to re-enter the compulsion to write in this new digital and social media age.

  7. Welcome to The Kill Zone, Dave. Thanks for the good word, and welcome to the world of writing without fear. Go for it! Drop by again. You’ll find a lot of great advice from the bloggers here.

  8. What is so great about this concept is twofold: 1) if you didn’t go for what you wanted to do, you would have always wondered what it would have been like; and 2) there is no sense in doing things half-heartedly. Bravo! And thank you for the inspiration.

  9. Jim, You’ll remember that Casey Stengel said, “Give me errors of enthusiasm.” You’ve never lacked that quality, and I hope you never do.
    Thanks for the reminder.

  10. My favourite quote on failure, by Theodore Roosevelt:

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

    Man…I wish I’d written that.

  11. Stallone also tried to make the jump to comedy, and fell on his face, but in taking that risk he showed as much guts as when stepping into any ring.

    And here’s a favorite quote:

    What success really means, I think, is looking failure in the face and tossing the dice anyway. You may be the only person who ever knows how the dice come up, but in that knowledge you have something that millions of people will never have because they were afraid to try.
    – Tom Clancy

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