The Will to Fail


This winter, Randi and I took a road trip from California to Norman, Oklahoma for the holidays.  It’s a long drive, over twenty-four hours, and we spend most of the time reading to each other.  Randi had picked up  Dorothea Brandt’s How to Wake Up and Live: A Formula for Success that Works.  Brandt’s other book, Becoming a Writer, was one of the most influential in Randi’s early writerly development.

Brandt’s book, as it’s subtitle suggests, is a “formula for success.”  In the introduction, she tells us this formula has changed her life then teases the reader with several chapters before she gives said formula away.  At first, I’d been annoyed – why dangle the “secret” over our heads (for it is, indeed, similar to the “secret” in The Secret), but as Randi read onwards, I began to understand.  A formula can only be useful if you have taken the time to understand its parts.  And this formula had one part in particular that needed explaining: it was, as Brandt called it, the “will to fail.”

friedrich-nietzsche-power-quotes-the-world-itself-is-the-will-toThis will to fail concept is a variation on Nietzsche’s “Will to Power,” which my old friend SparkNotes explains as a fundamental part of living, the quest to have and be powerful, a need that is “stronger than the will to survive.”  While this will to power can result in conflict, “Nietzsche is more interested in the sublimated will to power, where people turn their will to power inward and pursue self-mastery rather than mastery over others.”  In other words, it is our desire to be powerful individuals that drives us towarsd self-betterment (or at least this is how I understood it).

Brandt, however, points out that there is something stronger than this “Will to Power” that Nietzsche doesn’t address, and that is the “Will to Fail.”  For pages upon pages, she offers examples of what this will to fail looks like – the person who says they want to travel but blames a lack of money.  The person who wants more from life but is focused on raising a family.  The person who wants to be a writer, but after receiving rejections claims that they’d tried that and the world had dubbed them not good enough.  Each person has a dream, a goal, an internal sense of what would make their lives better (their own will to power, so to speak), but each person’s will to power was usurped by the stronger will to fail.  And so, despite what might seem like success–person A died a beloved member of his community, person B raised three healthy children, person C lived a long, mostly happy life, Brandt argues they fail in their ultimate purpose.

Now, I admit, there is a harshness in Brandt’s observations.  There is, too, a certain privelege that she brings with her as well, and yet, as she described each scenario, I couldn’t help but think of people I knew, each one doing similar things to those in her examples, each wanting but doing little to make changes, each with another reason or rationale for why the changes were impossible.  Each mostly happy and simultaneously dissatisfied with their current state.  Since reading this book, I have come to notice more and more the way my own excuses have become transparent as just that: excuses.

At this point, you may be wondering…This is Day 2 of Writer’s March!?  Why are you talking about failure?   Isn’t this when you would usually inspire us to craft our goals?  To be excited?  But as I think about my own goals for the month, which are still in the formation stage, I can’t help but feel like it is vital that we examine how the will to fail is playing out not just in our daily lives, but in the goals we are setting before us.

So, here on day two, I offer some ideas of self-reflection.  

First, consider the excuses you make for why you don’t write.  Do you recognize them as excuses?  Do you see them as the obstacles they are?  Second, consider your goals so far.  Are we asking enough of ourselves?  Are we asking too much and setting ourselves up for failure?  Are we aware of how capable we truly are in terms of what we can accomplish?

Find some way to offer yourself a reminder and/or clear the obstacles away.  Maybe it is an object or a quote.  Maybe it is a drawing of what these fears look like.  Maybe you hold a ritual and write the excuses on strips of paper, then burn them away.  Whatever you do, I think it is crucial that we face our own will to fail when we set forth on the journey of this month of writing.

…and if you are interested, it might be fun to share them in the comments below.

Then, when you are done, don’t let your meditation on the will to fail become another excuse for why you are not writing.  Get to it.  Tell us how it goes.

3 thoughts on “The Will to Fail

  1. I am familiar with the will to fail. I moved to Mexico in August of 2014 for the sole purpose of creating a space for writing. By October I was too ill to make it through the day and I began searching for a diagnosis and any kind of treatment I could find. I returned to the US in December 2014, had surgery in January of 2015 and spent the next several months recovering. When I finally was able to return to Mexico, and to my writing, I couldn’t focus. Too many things to do on the house, you know the drill. It felt awful to avoid writing, but I wasn’t able to stop with the excuses. About 4 months ago I found a writer’s group in a city nearby with weekly meetings. It’s possible to coast a little, but you can’t be a part of the group and show up without anything to read unless you have no self-respect. So, I began to write several days a week. And then got immediate feedback, which makes more writing possilbe. I’m well on my way to fininshing a book that I must finish. And it’s mostly because I ended the enforced solitude that I thought I needed and became part of a group of writers who get my project, and know how to be critical and supportive simultaneously. And being engaged in their work has helped me stay engaged in mine. I finally feel the urgency, and the dailyness, of writing and have a way to bring myself to it. It has taken me forever. I’m 64!!!

    • Chris, Thanks for sharing this story. I feel like I am seeing what has happened to your life in glimpses since I’ve seen you last via FB and these messages…

      I think I fell into the “I was rejected so leave me alone” will to fail category. I finally finished (and queried) the same book I’ve been working on for a long time. After a TON of rejection, I started working on something else, thinking, well it is probably just not good enough and I just don’t want to do it anymore. I spent a year working on another project, which I love, but – to skip a bunch of reasons and make a long story short – recently have returned to the project after Randi gave me a pep talk. We were walking the dogs, and I was asking her if it was a waste of time. Her response was that she did believe that sometimes we wrote books just to learn, that often those books never got published but they were never a waste. Then, she added, but you’ve worked on that thing for almost 10 years. If that were me, you bet your ass, I’d give it another go.

      SO… I’m giving it another go. The good news is the year away is helping me have some very good perspective. Also, I’ve missed these characters. It feels like I’m at a reuinion with people I love.

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