Dear Writers, Please Fail to Succeed

I’ve been a little focused on failure as the path to success lately. I think it is because my daughter is graduating from college and my son is graduating from high school, both in the same year, and both are sharply focused on what to do next. They are hyper-focused on the need to succeed, and I am spending more and more time reassuring them that there is more than one path to success, more than one definition of success, more than one way to measure success.

Allow me to meander a bit. We’ll focus on writing in a moment.

My daughter is a talented singer. She attended Ithaca College for vocal performance. That college is no joke for vocalists. Throughout high school, she experienced measurable success, though she tried to achieve more. As a college senior, though, she had a tough time with graduate school auditions and didn’t gain admission to the schools she wanted – she saw this as failure. My son is an actor. He attends a performing arts high school, he has been in more plays and musicals -both amateur and professional- than will fit on a resume. He was invited to audition for some of the top college conservatory programs on the east coast, only to be turned down time after time. He, like his sister, saw this as failure. My heart broke for both of them, like any mother’s would. They work so hard. They are so well-trained and educated. What happened? There is no simple answer. But instead of looking backward, the only way to look is ahead. What comes next? A plan to succeed. How to turn those downturns into something valuable.

Both kids now have separate paths ahead. My daughter is focused on a year of training and working with vocal students, looking into vocal health and perhaps a conducting MFA in another year. My son accepted an offer from a great college in New York not for theatre, but for film. Once he shifted his view, a whole new picture emerged. Actors are in movies, after all.

So on to writing…

I’ve written plenty of documentation that misses the mark. I have to go back to it and rethink, rework the process until it hits. I read the work of Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who articulated how important it is to feel insecure, to lose, to get things wrong. (I am far oversimplifying this but the gist is – you must fail.)

As people, to succeed, we have to embrace failure in order to succeed. Tech giant Jack Ma spoke at the World Economic Forum in 2018 about his failure when he applied for a job at KFC. 24 people applied for positions, 23 people were hired. He was not one. He applied to Harvard 10 times. He was not accepted. 10 times! Talk about really wanting something!  Failure hurts, indeed, but we learn from it. It’s normal and maybe we should see it as a little less detrimental and harmful if we can start to view it as part of our growth. (I still doubt that I would apply ten times, but…)

I recently read H. Jon Benjamin’s “Failure is an Option” while on a road trip. Seriously funny stuff, that book. Part memoir, part joke, the whole book had me in stitches. If the guy who blends Archer and Bob’s Burgers and landed in a big pot of wealthy can’t talk to you about failing, who else can? And he can write, too! As a writer, I respect that. I brought his thinking to my writing, and to my workplace. He may not be drafting technical manuals, but the point is still the same. You can reinvent text, yourself, your path, and your work. Failure IS an option. Just don’t flog yourself over it. Don’t make it a habit, unless you are a comedian, and then if you are, write a book about it and cash in on the whole life experience.

Henry Ford is thought to have said “failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.” And I’ve read that it took Dyson vacuums 5,127 prototypes in order to arrive at that amazing, ultra-successful 5,128th model that we are willing to pay a handsome fee for – all to have a great experience.

Workplaces that penalize failure wind up with low-talent, low-energy responsibility-shirkers. In technical writing, and in any kind of writing, it is taking a risk, being willing to innovate and develop new methods, new approaches, and new techniques that blazes a new path to truly dynamic customer experiences.

Our work is integral to our lives. Our successes are integral to our work. What we do defines who we are, whether that is our job, our home life, our sports or our pastimes. When there is opportunity in decision-making, there is risk and there is reward (unless there isn’t).

So, dear writers, break out the pen, not the safe pencil with the eraser, and make yourself uncomfortable. Mess it up. Then fix it. Then learn from it. Fail…to succeed.


The Data Story

I’ve mentioned before that I am something of a Data Nerd. This is unusual for someone who is also a “word artist,” but hey, a girl can wear more than one hat, can’t she? I’m also a mother, a triathlete, and a lover of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. In high school, no one would have pegged me as a future triathlete, and no one who knows me now would imagine that I was ever *not* an athlete, so there you have it: the Venn diagram of Susan.

At the heart of this is data. But data about just me is not all that interesting. Data about thousands of people, and especially customers – now that is interesting. Even better is this funky cool tool called “Google Trends.”

As a technical writer and UX Copy Writer, I find this handy-dandy tool super fun and useful. You may be asking why. I’ll tell ya.

With a heavy-lifter of a creation like this, I can sit back and think about trends and numbers in ways I used to have to do lots and lots of work to get at. Research is a UX/UI wonk’s best asset. If I understand what people like, what people do, what people are looking for – I am on top of the world! I can simply and easily take a look at what was, generally, trending in the United States in 2014:

Searches included World Cup, Ebola, Malaysia Airlines, and Flappy Bird. People wanted to know about Kim Novak, and Jared Leto, and the Paleo diet was all the rage. By 2018, folks were clicking to learn about how to apply magnetic lashes. The Paleo diet was gone, but the Keto diet was in. Mega Millions was a top search, along with Logan Paul and Megan Markle.

Peoples’ interests and learning curves mark what I need to know, and they show this in words. Words make their decisions, drive their purchases, and reveal their inner thoughts.

So why is all this information so important? Again, I’ll tell ya.

I like to know which words people choose, and why they choose them. Wouldn’t you like to know why I write this blog, and why I choose the topics I do? I choose the topics because something pops into my head, or creeps its way in after I think about it for a while, and it is something that has been trending, or poking away and needs (in my opinion) to be discussed. It has to do with tech writing, or aspects of technology, women, and writing, and therefore fits the general parameters of this forum. Follow? But then, also it has to interest me. So there is an overlap. That’s where the Venn diagram hits. My interests, crossing over with my expertise, crossing over with something that I think will appeal to YOU.

And then, I write about it. But without the data that I could gather from some nifty tool like Google Trends, where would I be? I’d have no idea that the latest trend, in May of 2019, is that there have been more than 100K searches for Theresa May, and more than 20K of those searches were in Canada. Neat, too, that over 5k Canadian folks searched today (5/24) for the results of the cricket match between Pakistan and Afghanistan, right? Again, why does this matter? Well, because I doubt that any reference in my design documents in the US that refer to cricket would conjure the sport as much as they would reference the insect. And while Theresa May is the top search in Canada, the movie “Aladdin” is the top search in the US, so that tells us a bit about what Americans are thinking this weekend, doesn’t it?

To tie this all back to data and words, I’ll keep it simple. The more we know about users, the more we know. This data isn’t spying, and it isn’t creepy. It is downright useful. As a UX designer and writer, as a technical writer, and as a strong customer advocate, it really, truly, sincerely is all information-based. Lots of times, people in my orbit who are not in the tech realm get a little freaked out about all of this information gathering. But I don’t. I like it a whole lot when I can use data – information – numbers – WORDS – to get me where I am going and get me what I need a lot faster.

Even better when I can deliver that to my users.