What does succeeding beyond our wildest expectations have in common with failing? Both can conjure up similar feelings in us, often fear-based reactions. This post explores what Elizabeth Gilbert describes as the “strange and unlikely psychological connection in our lives between the way we experience great failure and the way we experience great success.” It’s based on her TED talks, and while particularly apt for the artists and creatives (including entrepreneurs) among us, it’s relevant to us all - we all create our own masterpieces that we share with others in some way.
At the end of the post, you can find the video of one of Elizabeth’s talks. I find it both light-hearted and touching, life-affirming and elegantly-put as well as candid and authentic, and take delight in sharing it with you. It’s about pursuing what we love, and keeping going, irrespective of success or failure.
Elizabeth recognises that there are times we find ourselves “afraid of the work that [we] feel [we] were put on this Earth to do”, and offers suggestions born from her own experiences as to how to manage these fears. Read more to unthread how success can be as disorienting as failure, and look into lessons from dealing with failure i.e. how to self-restore and carry on, regardless of the outcome. These include finding our purpose, maintaining a healthy emotional distance, and continuing to show up and do our work.
Elizabeth Gilbert is an accomplished writer, best known for Eat, Pray, Love, which she describes as “a huge break for me”. Referring to writing as “my great lifelong love and fascination”, she has written many books, and sees herself continuing to write for the next forty years… A true lifetime of creativity.
Her fascinations, as TED puts it, are genius, creativity, and how we get in our own way when it comes to both. I love how she describes creativity… some examples: “the utter maddening capriciousness of the creative process”, “this little fragment of melody, that comes into his head as inspiration often comes, elusive and tantalising”, and “transcendent” (in the context of dance).
Elizabeth has both achieved great success, as well as experienced failure and rejection over her career so far. She compares both, describing the “blinding darkness of disappointment” and the “equally blinding glare of fame and recognition and praise”. And, she says: “your subconscious is completely incapable of discerning the difference… you have been flung from your [regular] self. And there's a real equal danger in both cases of getting lost out there in the hinterlands of the psyche.”
Downsides of success
Success can be as disorienting as failure… After achieving great success, we can worry that we’ll never be able to top our past achievements, perhaps even being afraid of being one-hit wonders. Elizabeth says of her own success: “it’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me”.
...[It] left me in a really tricky position moving forward as an author trying to figure out how in the world I was ever going to write a book again that would ever please anybody, because I knew well in advance that all of those people who had adored ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it wasn't going to be ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, and all of those people who had hated ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it would provide evidence that I still lived.”
One potential solution to managing the fear is to switch to doing something else, and try to be successful in a new field – kudos to the polymaths who get this right. This might involve stopping writing… But, as Elizabeth says, “...If I had given up writing, I would have lost my beloved vocation, so I knew that the task was that I had to find some way to gin up the inspiration to write the next book regardless of its inevitable negative outcome. In other words, I had to find a way to make sure that my creativity survived its own success.”
Lessons from dealing with failure
For inspiration on how to cope with the fear and restore herself, Elizabeth recalled her previous experiences at dealing with repeated failure: “I failed at getting published for almost six years. So for almost six years, every single day, I had nothing but rejection letters waiting for me in my mailbox. And it was devastating every single time, and every single time, I had to ask myself if I should just quit while I was behind and give up and spare myself this pain. But then I would find my resolve, and always in the same way, by saying, ‘I'm not going to quit, I'm going home’.”
This technique of “find[ing] your way back home again as swiftly and smoothly as you can” is an amazing remedy for self-restoration i.e. reconnecting with who you are and what drives you.
“For me, going home meant returning to the work of writing because writing was my home, because I loved writing more than I hated failing at writing, which is to say that I loved writing more than I loved my own ego, which is ultimately to say that I loved writing more than I loved myself. And that's how I pushed through it,” says Elizabeth.
Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself. So that might be creativity, it might be family, it might be invention, adventure, faith, service... Your home is that thing to which you can dedicate your energies with such singular devotion that the ultimate results become inconsequential.”
Her concept of ‘home’ can be described in many other ways, including finding our sense of purpose, discovering what drives us… It may be about a bigger objective or worthy aim too, such as a ‘why’ or ‘just cause’. And, an added advantage of defining it is that it puts psychological distance between our individual self-worth and our personal overarching reason for being. It assists in reframing achievement as the striving towards our goals, rather than the outcome itself.
Healthy emotional distance
Elizabeth has also spoken about the important need to manage the inherent emotional risks of creativity. A “protective psychological construct” (such as seeing inspiration as coming from an external muse) can help to provide “a safe distance between me, as I am [working], and my very natural anxiety about what the reaction to that [work] is going to be” i.e. between you and the reaction to your work.
The concept of an external muse (or “genius”), Elizabeth describes, protected ancient artists against “certain things, like, for example, too much narcissism… If your work was brilliant, you couldn't take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.”
However, during the Renaissance the emphasis shifted: the world now believes that creativity completely comes “from the self of the individual”, which she argues, “warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance”.
Instead, she says that distance is good: “Maybe it doesn't have to be quite so full of anguish if you never happened to believe, in the first place, that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you. But maybe if you just believed that they were on loan to you from some unimaginable source for some exquisite portion of your life to be passed along when you're finished, [to] somebody else.”
Try and try again
Elizabeth also appeals to us to carry on: “[keep] putting your head down and performing with diligence and devotion and respect and reverence whatever the task is that love is calling forth from you next.” This strategy of trying repeatedly is summarised by one of our mentors as his “machine gun vs cannonball” philosophy i.e. keep trying in different ways in small doses until you find those that work, rather than risking all your ammunition on one target.
Here is the promised video of Elizabeth’s TED talk on “success, failure and the drive to keep creating” - it’s around 7 minutes long. Enjoy. In her words, “...another and another and another and many of them will fail, and some of them might succeed, but I will always be safe from the random hurricanes of outcome as long as I never forget where I rightfully live.”
...What I have to sort of keep telling myself when I get really psyched out.. is don't be afraid. Don't be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then ‘Olé!’And if not, do your dance anyhow. And ‘Olé!’ to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. ‘Olé!’ to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”
PS: I think I may have a fascination with talks by writers… It’s very well summed up by one of the YouTube comments on Elizabeth’s video: “[Writers] have all the passion of the scientists, engineers and educators, but with the command of the English language to make us all feel it.” Indeed, Elizabeth’s talk is another masterful tapestry of language that brings joy to my heart.