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Learning from Rejection and Failure

Different teachers have different teaching styles. Even students recognize that fact, and they often like (or dislike) a teacher because of his or her style. This fact becomes even more profound when one becomes a teacher.

Furthermore, a new teacher often tends, consciously or subconsciously, to imitate the style of one of his or her favorite teachers. We tend to teach as we were taught. That can be either good or bad.

These thoughts turned my memory back to the way my father, a self-employed brick mason, tried to teach me to lay brick. He was a master craftsman at just about anything he set out to do with his hands. He could mentally envision what he wanted to make, and then he did it, having only that mental blueprint.  And he did a masterful job of it, as hundreds of brick homes in Halls Crossroads and surrounding communities attest.

The first brick he had me lay were limited to parts of the house that would be “below grade,” meaning they would be covered up by the dirt when the landscapers backfilled and set out shrubs. When I got the brick up near ground level where they might be seen, he came along and leveled out subsequent courses.

But the first thing he assigned me that would be seen must be one of the hardest tasks of even a skilled mason: a windowsill. Granted, it was only a small bathroom window, and it was at the back of the house.

Couldn’t you give me something a little harder? I thought sarcastically. But I knew that arguing would be futile. I did the windowsill the best I knew how. Daddy had never actually taught me how to do one; he had just expected me to watch when he did them and pick it up by osmosis or somehow, I guess.

When I finished about an hour later (anyway, it took me far longer than it ever took Daddy), I reported back to him. He stopped his work, climbed off the scaffold, and came to inspect it. He looked it over and then, without a word of explanation, took the tip of his trowel and flipped every brick onto the ground.

“Do it over,” he commanded and returned to his work.

I was frustrated, but I did it over the best I could and reported the conclusion.

Again, Daddy inspected it, and again he flipped all the bricks onto the ground. “Do it over,” he said as he turned around and went back to his task. And I grumbled and complained, but I did it over.

I don’t want to belabor the point, but I did that windowsill about five times before Daddy accepted it. I was blinded by tears of anger and frustration. I never did learn what I was doing wrong all the other times or what made it acceptable that last time.

Napoleon Hill said, “If you don’t know why you failed, you are no wiser than when you began.” In history, it’s stated this way: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” We should learn from our mistakes, but to learn from them, we must first know what they are. If we know what we’re doing wrong, we can correct it and improve. On the other hand, if we know where we’ve erred but persist in those errors, we are asking to fail.

This is no less true (maybe especially true) in writing for publication, but in that field we might never know what our mistakes are. Writers often get frustrated by repeated rejections from publishers, especially those who don’t give a reason for their rejection or who give vague, nebulous excuses. That causes all sorts of doubts to creep into the author’s mind, not infrequently negative thoughts about one’s abilities or even if one is really called to write at all.

We have to learn to accept it at face value, never taking it personally or reading into it anything that isn’t explicitly stated. And then we must return to our writing and submitting. That’s why it’s important to keep several works in progress simultaneously. (See

As I learned from my windowsill-laying experience, tears and tirades of anger or frustration won’t help. But repeated efforts to improve and do your best will eventually pay off. Repeated rejections of a piece followed by sudden acceptance might not tell you what you were doing wrong or what you did that made it right, but the persistence will pay off in the long run.

So keep at it!

Just be aware of the feelings you had, and be willing to offer more helpful advice than you got when some other writer seeks your counsel.

How do you handle rejection? Be sure to share your ideas. You never know how many writers you might help by doing so.

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