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Fail big


Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing. ~ Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln knew how to fail big. He also knew how to win.

The path to success in anything will always be riddled with potholes and treacherous drop-offs. Slipping and stumbling along the way at least means you’re on the road. It also means that you’re learning what not to do, so as you progress down the path you keep a sharper eye out for anything that could trip you up.

You learn the warning signs and you arm yourself with the tools you need to make it to the top.

But it’s not easy.

Very little worth having comes easy—if it does, I’d start looking for the scam or the Candid Camera crew—and when things are tough, we get tired. We start to doubt ourselves and our resolve and wonder why we’re putting ourselves through this punishment. Who wants to trip and fall and stumble all the time?

We start to wonder if the end goal is really worth it. Is it worth all of the time, energy, frustration, money, missed (insert whatever you have to give up here), late nights, early mornings, and pain?


Ask yourself how you’ll feel a year from now—two years, ten years, when you’re ninety—if you don’t stick with it. How will you feel if you give up on this dream?

If the answer is, “Thank God I didn’t waste any more time on that crazy idea.” Then go forth and be happy and do something else.

If your future self is more likely to curse you out for not sticking with it, to berate you for failing to believe in yourself, to pester one and all with your stories of regret for the dream you gave up, then go forth and be happy knowing that you’re doing what you’re meant to do.

Setbacks will happen. Pain will happen. Failures. Will. Happen.


But you will—most likely, assuming we’re not talking about death-defying acts of acrobatics and the like—survive. And you will come out on the other side stronger and wiser and closer than ever to your goal.

I thought that today, on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, it might be relevant and helpful to remind you of the many failures and setbacks of the famous U.S. president.

(Click here for a list.)

Lincoln was met with disaster and defeat repeatedly. Interestingly, these often came just before success.

I think the only difference between him and other people who face setbacks is that he kept moving forward toward his goal, in spite of the obstacles. He knew what he wanted and he kept going after it like a K-9 on the scent. Unwavering, single-minded, focused. (Or so I’ve read. It’s not like I knew the guy.)

Even if it’s all a myth, let’s use it as a model, shall we?

Go forth and fail madly and happily on your way to your dream.

I dare you.

Image credits: (1) Brocken Inaglory CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

(2) Mick Garratt CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

(3) By Sister72 ( CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Be bold, set a goal

Fortune befriends the bold. – Emily Dickinson you have long-term goals for your writing?

I’m listening to a recording of the Bob Mayer workshop I missed while I was in California a couple weeks ago. A lot of his advice is centered around facing your fears and moving outside your comfort zone, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

But what really struck a chord with me is his suggestion that we should all create a plan for what we want to accomplish, with clear, measurable goals. Not just measurable, but visible, just like the goals we create for our characters.

Whoa, talk about getting uncomfortable.

Sure, I have goals. I have goals for things I have direct control over. Like how many words I write per day, how many query letters I send, or when I want to have a manuscript finished.

But he thinks we should go beyond that and think sales and money. Money, people!

I have no control over money. How can I possibly know what I’ll make in one, two, or five years? How can anyone plan for such a thing?

But if I don’t set a goal, how will I know what I’m shooting for? How will I know if an opportunity that comes along supports my vision of success or hinders it? How will I know if I'm a success or just spinning my wheels?

This is where the fear sets in. I feel silly picking a number, but it’s really fear talking.

What if I say I want to be making $50K/year on my writing and teaching activities by the end of 2015 and I fail? My number might be too unrealistic, just wishful thinking. But now that I’ve asked myself the question, what seems silly is worrying about not reaching my number. If I don't, so what?

Will I likely be better off than I am today? Will I have made decisions that move me toward what I want instead of away from it?


And if I end up making $70K, then I’ll really know it’s time to party.

So, great, you’re convinced. Me too. I’m setting a goal. Several of them.

The next step is to share it with those who have a stake in it—family members who have to put up with you closeting yourself away to write and spending money on conferences, books, and workshops—so they’ll understand why you’re working so hard. They’ll see that you’ve thought about it and you’re serious. Hopefully, they’ll support you. (Just tell your spouse you want to make enough so he/she can retire. Might help.)

But spreading the word is scary, because now you’re committed. Tell your mother you plan to be a New York Times #1 bestselling author and she’ll ask you how that’s going. Every. Time. She. Calls. See if that doesn’t spur you on.

Finally, a goal doesn’t really have meaning if you don’t have a reason behind it (and this helps you sell it to your stakeholders too). Like Bob points out, just as our characters have a motivation for everything they do, so must you. It’s great that you want to make $30K on your self-pubbed books next year. But why $30K? Why next year?

Wouldn’t you be more likely to stick to your plan for achieving your goal—another topic for another day—if you kept in mind that the money means your graduating senior can go to college? Or you can take the trip to Australia and New Zealand you’ve always dreamed of. Or you can quit your day job to write full time?

Now there's something to keep you motivated.

I challenge you write down your goals and the motivations behind them today. Even better, since the goals should be something visible/tangible, see if you can find a picture to represent each one and put them somewhere you’ll see them every day.

Take control of your fear, figure out what you really want and why, and get to work on making it happen.

Be bold, and may fortune be your friend.

Photo credit: J147 [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Detour to success

Have you ever noticed how even when things don’t work out the way you planned, often the experience leads to something good? Maybe even better?

Here’s an example. Back in 1998, bored to tears in a programming job that was likely going to be eliminated anyway, I quit my job to start a training and support company called—in a flash of brilliant inspiration—The Help Desk.

Through some serious soul searching I had decided I really wanted to be a professor, but lacking a PhD—and the time and funds to get one anytime soon, especially with baby number two on the way—I figured teaching adults was really the key element that I craved.

I started by looking for jobs at the local community colleges and training centers, with no luck. No surprise, since I had a couple of years of programming under my belt, and several years heavy experience with Windows and Office, but no actual teaching experience. And at this point, I hadn’t even started Toastmasters.

But in my heart I knew I could teach if given a chance, and The Engineer, as usual, was willing to let me try. (Have I told you that man is the absolute best?)

And being my own boss sounded really, really good.

So I dug deeper into the Microsoft Office programs, bought a cell phone, printed out some business cards, put an ad in the local business newspaper.

I actually got some work too. Several one-on-one training sessions, some Outlook and Word classes, and even a live, televised PowerPoint training with a reporter asking questions.

A couple of non-training projects came my way as well, the most important one through a personal property appraiser I met through the chamber of commerce. She hired me to write a database to catalog items for her clients and create the final reports.

It took me over a year to complete, forcing me to learn Microsoft Access to levels I’d never dreamed of, including integration with Word, and lots and lots of Visual Basic for Applications to make it all seamless.

I also learned the definition of project creep, and the importance of a good contract.

Despite all that, by the time we left Oklahoma for Ohio 18 months after starting The Help Desk, I was feeling like the grand experiment was a failure. I had learned some good—and hard—lessons along the way, and maybe earned a little beyond my investment, but I wasn’t making enough money to justify starting over in Dayton.

If nothing else, the experience taught us that we could live on a much tighter budget. We could live with only one car. We didn’t have to eat out every week. And I learned how much I loved being home with my kids. I figured I’d enjoy my babies, and start saving up to go back to school for my Master’s.

And then it happened. Two weeks after the move, I saw an ad for an Access instructor at a local business college. Turned out they needed someone who knew Access well enough to pass the Microsoft Office User Specialist exam.

That's the beauty of the universe, right there.

Two years earlier I wouldn’t have been qualified for the job, but after all the grueling months of working on that appraisal database, I was an expert. I passed the test, got the job, and spent the next four years teaching software and business classes at private colleges and a computer training center.

No PhD necessary.

Looks like that failed business wasn’t such a failure after all.

Photo credit: By Mr. Matté [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons