The Obsession With Success

As is usually the case with me, I have drawn inspiration from another bloggers writing. The spark for this post comes from this excellent read over at Cristian Mihai’s blog.

His encouraging words on the acceptance, nay, appreciation of failure are well worth your time.

Which got me thinking about something that was brought to my attention years ago.

It concerns the work of one Abraham Wald during World War 2, who was assigned the task of analyzing the flak and fighter damage on bombers that had returned from operations over Europe and deducing where to reinforce or add armor to the planes to achieve a higher return rate for their aircraft and crew.

The US operated over Europe during daylight hours and the losses were truly staggering, the German Luftwaffe were having a field day, with the US escort fighters unable to carry enough fuel to stay with the bombers the entire way.

The US military had identified the areas where the planes took the most damage and had determined that armor plating needed to be added to those areas. Naturally adding armor to aircraft had to be undertaken very carefully, as weight had to be minimized, so any armor had to be placed only where desperately needed.

Wald pointed out to the military that they were actually looking at the situation the wrong way round; because they were looking at the wrong aircraft. He told them that adding armor to the places where the returned planes had taken the most damage was the worst place to put it,because the planes with the most damage there had returned, hadn’t they?

What they needed to do was place extra armor where the returned planes were damaged the least, as it was logical that these places were where the ones that didn’t return were damaged.

Stunning in its simplicity, his solution had evaded the US military because, like everyone still does today, they were obsessed with success. It seemed to them that these returned planes were the successful ones and therefore needed to be examined as to why they succeeded.

They fell victim to the preference for trying to emulate success, rather than learning from failure.

Wald, on the other hand, was a statistician and he had approached the problem from a purely mathematical point of view.

Thus we can see that only focusing on and emphasizing success is actually a recipe for a solid lack of achievement, as we are learning nothing from the most abundant source of informative material which lies at our disposal; our failures.

The media is focused intently on success, ramming it down our throats as if it were Manna from heaven, when it is, in fact, mostly toxic and poisonous. People today want to be successful and avoid failure, failure being portrayed as the thing to be avoided at all costs.

Yet, repeated failure is the only true path to success.

Anyone who believes otherwise should either never try anything or take up a career in marketing; the wavering fantasy world of sales is the only place where success, albeit fictional, can be achieved through positive thought and little else in the way of effort – unless you honestly believe that shiny red convertible will turn your life around even though you’re going to have to go into crushing debt to buy it.

It always amused me when, after a gig, someone would come up to me and we would have something like the following conversation:

“Man, I wish I could play like you.”

“Thank you very much, but you actually could, if you put in the effort.”

“Oh, I tried playing the drums once, but I was terrible.”

The irony is somewhat overwhelming, is it not? Yet, I have had that conversation in one form or another many, many times.

Yes, that is what the world is intent on selling us, the corrupted idea that anyone who excels at something is the possessor of this mystical ‘Talent’ thingy, and that alone is what propels them into the welcoming spotlight.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that there is no such thing as talent, and I won’t deny I have been blessed with some.

However, anyone who would argue that my talent is the reason I play so well is ignoring the years and years of hard work and sweat that I have thrown at drumming for the last twenty-five years. Which annoys me immensely, because I remember it as the main reason for my abilities in that area.

Now I am throwing countless hours every day at writing, hoping to achieve a level of ability that might see me once again able to provide an income for my family.

If I should achieve modest success, doubtless there will be those who say it’s down to my ‘Talent’ for writing.

Once again, the world’s propaganda campaign to stop people trying will leave its mark.

I’m not spouting a conspiracy theory, I actually have little time for those who would take a preconceived theory and then attempt to force the evidence to fit, I am merely pointing out the damage done by our obsession with success.

People today are happy to remain in their comfort zone and not stretch themselves because they fail every time they try something, the world patting them on the head and saying “There, there, it’s alright, you just don’t have the talent so stop trying. Here, watch this reality show and buy the carefully placed products instead.”

As Cristian himself argues, failure is the one sure sign we have that we are trying, and if we keep trying we must, in the end, succeed.

Perhaps we are allowing commercial interests to steer us toward setting a time limit on achievement of success.

How many times should we try something before we give up?

In a couple of weeks I will publish The Road Out. What if it tanks?

What if I write twenty novels and they all fail?

If I give up after twenty novels, perhaps novel twenty-one was the one that was going to sell.

Now, let’s just pull up a minute here and rewind back to where The Road Out tanked (not saying it will, but it would be presumptuous in the extreme to say it won’t).

I can do one of three things;

I can give up.

I can press on with number two and forget I ever wrote number one.

Or, I can take Cristian’s advice and take a good, hard look at WHY number one failed.

I can sift through the failure and pick out the rich harvest of information and education this failure has yielded me, learning, growing and improving.

I remember when I first started learning the drums; man, I was awful!

Here I was, a twenty-six year old adult, banging away and producing an uncoordinated racket while my dear wife asked herself why she had married this idiot.

I recall the first time I successfully played a song from start to finish: Joe Cocker’s You Can Leave Your Hat On. Just the groove; no fills, no flourishes, but in time and swinging.

Yep, I can remember it that easily. I can see it, right there in my mind’s eye. Because I had failed at nailing that song for weeks, until all the lessons from the failures gelled in my mind and it just clicked.

But, that’s the only reason I could now play it! Those failures were the thing that got me to the point where I could sit there, grinning like a twelve-year-old with a new bike while my wife yet again asked herself why she had married this idiot.

So, if your writing project has not worked out, if you’re feeling that lump in the pit of your stomach and you’re not sure you want to continue trying to write, let me just say this:


Now, dive into that failure, embrace it and dig deep into the rich bounty of lessons you have lying on the floor in front of you, waiting to be picked up and learned.


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