Failing at Your Own Game: A Speech for My Alma Mater

Recently, I was asked to give the keynote speech at my former school’s A-Level awards evening. For me, ‘keynote speech’ always conjures up an image of corporate conferences, sharp suits, and glass tabletops that somehow never seem to show up anybody’s fingerprints but your own.

With that in mind, I decided to do something that was the antithesis of all of that, and to talk about failure. And because I failed to write a blog post for this weekend, I thought I’d share it with you here:

Failing at Your Own Game:

I was a student at QEGS from 2011-2018. I’m now a writer. When you say you’re a writer, something quite off happens in people’s minds – and most people picture something like this:

Or maybe this:

Or even this:

Either that, or they ask if you’re the next J K Rowling, and how many millions you’ve made from your latest novel.

I assume I was asked to come and give this talk because being a published writer constitutes some kind of success. And it’s true that being a published writer does mean you get to do book signings, and occasionally get your book in a bookshop window, or get to go on a writing residency abroad. I’m currently spending a month writing in a medieval castle just outside Edinburgh.

But the reality is that most days are far less glamorous than that. Most of the time, it’s just me, sitting at my kitchen table, trying to hit a word count, and drinking far too many pots of coffee.

So even though tonight is all about celebrating success – and congratulations again to all of you on your A-levels – I don’t actually want to talk about success. Instead I’m going to talk about failure.

I want everyone to stand up.

Take a moment to look at these books. Count how many you’ve read.

Ok. Now I want you to stay standing if you’ve heard of at least one of these books.

Now stay standing if you’ve read at least one of these books (or even seen the film). Two? Three? Four? Five?

Each of these books was originally rejected for publication. So for books that at one point in their lives were considered failures, look how many of you have read at least one of them.

(Ok, sit down now)

These are some of the more famous examples of books that have been rejected, which went on to be bestsellers, and some to become classics. But these books aren’t actually very unusual. All writers get rejected, again and again. I send work off to journals and magazines. I apply for residencies, and grant funding. I submit poems and stories to competitions. The majority of these get rejected. And this isn’t because I’m a bad writer (at least I hope not!). It’s just a normal part of being a writer.

In 2018, I decided to try to apply for 100 things – a mix of residencies, grant applications, competitions, journal submissions – anything that could result either in an acceptance, or in rejection. My idea was that I could then easily find out a percentage of how many applications were successful, with the idea of creating some kind of transparency around how much rejection writers are likely face.

I didn’t quite manage 100 applied, so I failed even in that – but I did manage 87. And then at the end of the year, I made a pie chart.

By the end of the year, over 60% of those applications had been rejected. 19% – less than one in five – had had success or partial success (so, publication, or a prize win or shortlisting). At the time I put this data together, I was still waiting to hear back from 18%, but I can now tell you that only one of those was a success – the rest were all rejections. So the overwhelming majority of my applications in that year were failures.

So my question is: what’s the point? If most applications fail, then why keep doing them? If to be a writer is to be a failure, why even keep writing at all?

The most obvious reason is that not all applications are failures. Some of them (even if it’s just a few) are successful, and of course you don’t know which those are until you’ve tried, so you have to keep throwing out your net in the hope of catching a fish.

But there are other reasons too.

One is that failure is something we can learn from. If I send a poem into a magazine, most of the time it’ll come back as a rejection. But this gives me an opportunity to look at what isn’t working in the poem – to rewrite it and make it better. Each time a poem gets rejected, it’s another opportunity to improve it, and another opportunity to turn that failure into some kind of success.

But I also think it’s worth challenging what we perceive as failure, and what we perceive as success.

To look at this firstly in terms of writing: there’s a great quote from poet Caroline Bird, which is: ‘Writing a poem is impossible and once you realise this, you’re free.’ What I think she means is that, when you sit down to write a poem, you have in your head the perfect image of what this poem might be. (I know not all of you are poets – stay with me here, I promise there’s a great life lesson coming.)

You sit down to write a poem, and you imagine it’s going to be deep and thoughtful, it’s going to be moving, and lyrically beautiful, and full of original and striking imagery, that people are going to be quoting for the next 400 years – and next think you know, you’re winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The poem I end up writing may well have some of those qualities (although I’m yet to be nominated for a Nobel Prize), but it’s never going to be as perfect as the poem I imagined in my head. There’s another quote, by French essayist Paul Valery, which is: ‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned’. In other words, there’s always more that you can improve on.

But that’s why I keep writing. If I can never succeed in writing the perfect poem, then in a way, every time I sit down to write a poem, I’ve already failed – because it’s never going to be perfect.

This could be a really depressing way of looking at things – but instead, I find it inspirational. If so-called failure is inevitable, then we need to rethink what success looks like.

I remember the poet Don Paterson talking about the process of getting a book published: how for years and years, you can strive to have a book of poems published, because this is your ultimate goal. You eventually manage to secure a publisher. You spend years sending the manuscript back and forth to your editor. Eventually, you’ve done everything you can. You’ve seen the cover design. The publication date is set. You’ve figured out what you’re going to wear for your launch party and invited all your friends. The box of books finally arrives and they’re beautiful – slim volumes of your poems, with that enchanting new book smell and your name printed on the cover. You open the book, scan your eye over the first poem – and realise there’s a typo on line 3.

You’ve finally reached your end goal – you’ve finally achieved what you thought was success, only for it to disappoint you.

So my definition of success as a writer isn’t about publication, or book sales, or winning the Nobel Prize (although obviously all of those things are lovely if they happen to you). It’s about being able to write, and to keep on improving my craft as a poet and a novelist. To always be learning more about how to write, and to keep on putting that learning into practice.

Once I started thinking of success in these terms, every day that I get up to write becomes a success. Every time I write a sentence that I’m particularly proud of, is a success. Every finished poem is a success. The only failure is not writing, and not engaging with the process of writing.

So ok, you’re not all poets – so what does all this have to do with you? Well, for any of you who do write, this might sound all too familiar. But as I promised, we can extrapolate these lessons out to cover any aspect of life, not just writing.

When I was at QEGS, I was one of those annoying students who was good at both maths and English. What I liked about maths was that there might be multiple ways of getting there, but in the end there was a single right answer. What I liked about English was that there wasn’t.

So what does success look like to you, personally?

It might be running a multi-million-dollar start-up, and having your own private tropical island somewhere. But it could equally be really getting to know that one aspect of something you’re interested in, becoming an expert in, say, coffee production, or the way a painting is put together. There’s no right answer for your life, and no one definition of success. The best bit about your life, is that you get to define what makes it successful.

When I was asked to give this talk, I had no idea what I was going to say to you all. So I asked a load of other people what they would want to tell their 18-year-old selves – and I want to end by sharing some of their thoughts:

  1. Be curious and pursue what you enjoy. Being an expert is safe and boring, and learning is much more interesting. You don’t have to be good at something to enjoy doing it.
  2. Look after with knees, because with luck, you have a long journey to travel together.
  3. As long as you’re kind to other people, it isn’t selfish to also be kind to yourself.
  4. Don’t worry if you don’t know what you want to do with your life – you’ve got your whole lifetime to figure it out.
  5. The word ‘career’ also means ‘to travel downhill in an uncontrolled manner’. Job titles aren’t as important as you think. Lead with your heart, then let your head figure out how to get there. Remember that all those people who look as if they’ve got their lives completely sorted – they all have doubts and problems too. So resist the temptation to compare yourself to them.
  6. Enjoy the things that are enjoyable – don’t fall for the lie that there’s always a better party going on somewhere else. And if you do want a better party, by all means start your own.
  7. Whatever makes you different can end up being your superpower.
  8. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not capable of achieving your dreams. But make sure the dreams you’re dreaming are your own and not someone else’s.
  9. There are so many ways to get where you’re going; it might be university, or it might be an apprenticeship, or saving up to travel the world, or getting at job in Morrisons. What’s important is your own individual journey.
  10. It’s never too late to change your mind.

And lastly, because I’m talking about failure, I’m going to fail to stick to just ten points, so I want to add three of my own thoughts to finish on:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help, particularly when it comes to crowd-sourcing your speeches.
  • Make sure you can cook at least one fancy meal, so you’ll always be able to impress people.
  • And lastly, and most importantly, keep on failing. Failing is a way to remind yourself what you enjoy about something. It isn’t the end result that’s important; enjoy the process. Learn. Develop. In the words of Samuel Beckett: ‘Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’ And I’m going to add to Becket’s words, and say: don’t bother striving for somebody else’s definition of success; find your own definition of success, and fail at that instead.

So congratulations again on the success of your results – and here’s to the rest of your lives!

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