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The Courage to Fail

Taking risks means you might fail, but they can also help prepare you for future successes.

Lisa Hardman

December 07, 2007

The Courage to Fail

As my professor reads the winners of Arapahoe Community College’s Third Annual Literary Contest from the podium, I remember an icy February night two months ago. Stuck in rush hour traffic during a snow storm, I was determined to turn in my nonfiction essay before the literary contest deadline ended. Although the school parking lot was mainly deserted when I got there, I buoyantly trudged my way through the quickly-accumulating snow up to the fourth floor of the main building. Relieved to see my professor at her desk, I delivered my entry in a manila envelope, hopeful that my story might be one of those selected for publication in the school’s upcoming literary journal.

When I first considered entering the contest, I didn’t feel that I had anything worth submitting. As an emerging writer, I felt uncomfortable attempting to write something “literary.” But finally, with the encouragement of a classmate and my writing professor, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to give it a shot. At the very least, I told myself, I would gain valuable writing experience in the process.

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After weeks of working and reworking a six-page personal essay, at last I had a final draft that I was pleased with. The day of the deadline arrived. I felt invigorated after such intense mental exertion but cautious, too. Knowing that the chance of acceptance was slight, I only told one other person, my eleven-year-old daughter, that I had entered the contest. Weeks went by and I tried not to think too much about the contest results. Still, when the rejection letter came in the mail, I was surprised by my feelings of disappointment. Quietly, I tucked the letter away and didn’t mention it to anyone.

Now, listening to the winning author’s voice lilting along in practiced cadence, I alternately feel embarrassment about my own work and admiration for hers. Mesmerized by her rich, metaphorical expressions, I realize how blatantly amateurish my story is, how riddled it is with false sentimentality, how predictable and superficial it seems in comparison.

I glance at the judges sitting in the audience, grateful they can’t physically identify me as the author who entered such a substandard piece. Inwardly I console myself with the words of Theodore Roosevelt who said, “The credit belongs to the man [or woman] who...strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again ... who spends himself [or herself] in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he [or she] fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Yes, I took a personal risk in putting my work out there and I didn’t succeed—this time around. It would be so easy to tuck my writing away for awhile, to give in to discouragement, but I have to admit that going through this experience has helped me recognize where my writing needs improvement. In my mind, I see each of my children: my sixteen-year-old son whirling around and around perfecting his favorite break dance moves; my eleven-year-old daughter carefully balancing before her ballet teacher during a pointe shoe evaluation; my eight-year-old daughter lovingly working on an intricate drawing; my four-year-old son making good and bad shots with his junior-sized basketball; and my one-year-old son standing and teetering as he takes his first steps.

Then I imagine myself, reaching for the stack of past ACC literary journals, essaying my resolve, and attempting once again to match the dogged drive and tenacity of my children.

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