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Career Strategies for Librarians
Failure is Bad, Right?
by Ann Snoeyenbos

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to
rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray
twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” -- Theodore Roosevelt

Failure is bad and it should be avoided at all costs, right?  No, not at all!  Failure is good, and failure is
necessary.  If you design your life so that you encounter as little adversity as possible, it is likely that you
will not enjoy many successes either.  When you test yourself by risking failure, you are challenging
yourself to go to the next higher level in whatever you do.  

I once read an article (author and journal title long-forgotten, I’m afraid) in which the author encouraged
readers to set a goal of one failure a day.  “Overwhelming!” was my first thought, and then I realized just
how liberating that one simple goal could be.  By accepting the challenge, not only would I be giving
myself permission to screw up, but I’d be forcing myself to change my work patterns so that I could
embrace real challenges and some very real opportunities as well.  

Do you think that making an effort to screw up on a daily basis will get you fired before you can scream,
“Ann Snoeyenbos told me to”?  Or could it mean that you will take a more proactive approach to your job
and to the projects in which you participate?  Could it mean that you will seek out challenges and meet
them head on because, finally, you’re not inhibited by fear of failure?
                 
Is it possible to challenge yourself in a meaningful way without putting your career on the line every day?  
I wouldn’t say that you need to jeopardize your career, or even your job, but I do believe that if you always
choose the safe and secure route, you will never know where your capabilities lie. If you don't experiment
with activities outside your comfort zone, you risk never knowing what you truly enjoy or where you excel.  
It is not uncommon for a person to enjoy success in one area of their career and then never test
themselves in other areas because they are afraid they might not be good at something else.  What they
risk is becoming stale, unmotivated, and ultimately less satisfied by their original area of expertise.  

What is success, and how does anyone get to be successful?  Are the successful ones members of a
special breed of people who were born with an inability to screw up, or did they learn a secret
handshake at home that guarantees they meet only people who wish them well?  I don’t think so.  I
believe that to be successful all you have to do is pick yourself up off the ground more often than you’re
knocked down.

Are you afraid of getting in over your head?  I don’t recommend that you disrespect another person (or
group of people) by committing to something you really don't have the time or skills to complete, but I do
suggest that you stretch yourself on a regular basis to find out where your limits are.  Most often you'll
find that you're capable of much more than you originally believed.  When the period of frenzy is over you’
re likely to find that you've tightened up your work habits, streamlined your private life, and the end result
is that you have more time, energy, and enthusiasm than you had before the period of overcommitment.  

Failure is word nobody likes to hear, but making a mistake does not mean you are a failure at all things
for all time.  A good solid failure from time to time can be useful in promoting personal growth -- it forces
you to accept that you are not all-knowing.  Fear of failure can cause people to take baby steps in their
jobs, their careers, and their interpersonal relationships.  

Relative success is something you should measure with a microscope—let the small things appear
great (example: “At least I remembered to bring a pen to this meeting!”). When you constantly beat up on
yourself for little errors, you effectively talk yourself down from a position of strength to one of fear and
weakness.   

Failure in its darkest sense should be measured grosso modo  (example:  “In the last five years I've
really only screwed up a couple of time, and they weren’t so bad”).  Everybody meets adversity in life, and
people are constantly being beaten down by circumstances within and beyond their control. Your
reaction to mistakes and failures is what determines the outcome of the venture.  The difference
between the people we call successful and everybody else is that the successful people keep getting
up.  (Think about Donald Trump.)  Sure, sometimes it takes a little while to regroup and lay new
groundwork, but if you commit yourself to always getting back up no matter how often you’re beaten
down, then a successful outcome will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Reliving each setback is only useful
as long as it takes you to extract the lessons and then move on.                        

When you do makes mistakes, as I hope you will, you must admit freely and openly that you made a
mistake; present ideas for remedying the situation; and then make notes to yourself (mental or
otherwise) about the things you did correctly.  By looking for opportunities that involve the risk of failure,
you toughen your outlook and you become used to the give and take, the highs and lows that are an
integral part of life.    

The last area that I should address is stress.  We experience stress when we feel we don’t have control
over the situation.  Don’t surrender yourself to your workplace, but rather take responsibility for the
hundreds of decisions you make each day about how your job and career move along.  Commit yourself
to choosing the more challenging route on a regular basis, and I guarantee you’ll amaze yourself with
your capabilities.   

Notes:

Loehr, James E. Stress for Success. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997

About the Author:

Ann Snoeyenbos is the reference and collection development librarian for West European Social
Science at New York University. In 1994 she ran for NMRT President and was defeated. She became
President of NMRT in 1997 anyway. From 1994-96 she made three applications for the same research
grant and was not selected. She perseveres.

Article submitted Apr 2002

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