On Failure (Cheryl Renée Herbsman)

As the year draws to a close, and we reflect on goals and achievements reached, I want to take a moment to talk about failure.

Some of you may know I just returned from Stockholm, where I witnessed my father receiving the Nobel prize. There aren't many higher markers of success. Of all the interviews he gave in recent months, my favorite one is where he talks about the importance of failure. In it he says that he's not happy when his lab is finding too much success, because "'It means we're not asking the right questions.'" He went on to say, "'I think a lot of my fellows in the lab would agree we're asking the right questions right now, because we're facing a lot of failure!'" I think this can mean that if your desired results are coming too swiftly, perhaps you're not challenging yourself in the right way. (That's not to say that success is a bad thing!)

I think it's easier to appreciate failure once you've found major success, but I also think it's important when you're trying to get there to remember the importance of the role failure plays. With writing and publishing, there can be many reasons for "failure," many of them out of our control. I've written manuscripts since my debut novel that have not been published, but with each of them I've learned something key about the process and the craft of novel writing. Each project leads me to the next one, even if they seemingly have nothing to do with one another. Each one teaches me something new about story, or character, or setting, or pace.

Few among us would say we enjoy failure. But I think as we look back each year at what we've accomplished, it's also worth taking the time to appreciate what we've learned from our so-called failures. Maybe it's even worth taking them out of the dark trunk, shining them up, and setting them out on the mantel, saying, "Look at these beautiful failures I've been blessed with." Because in the end, they are part of our path and part of who we are and we wouldn't be the same without them.

In the year ahead, I wish you all much success and also some healthy failures that lead you someplace wonderful and unexpected.


  1. WOW. The Nobel. I love thinking about "challenge" and "failure" in this way.

  2. Such an important point, Cheryl. Thanks so much for writing this.

  3. This is so true! My failures teach me more than my successes, I think.

    I watched the clip of your father accepting the award. I don't even know him, and it brought tears to my eyes.

  4. Your father totally rocks. He has that voice that every one of my favorite doctors has -- something deep and resonant that makes me confident that he will 'figure it out.' Okay, that may sound weird, but it's something I've observed. And yes, I agree. Failure teaches us so much. (Of course our public school system is currently in a phase where they want to assure that no one fails, and perhaps that is why there are many students who lack resilience, but that is another story.)


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