Sunday, December 30, 2007

Finding Hidden Profits in Mistakes: a 10-Step Program

In the 1980s, I wrote a novel called Chameleon: The Memoirs of a Black American Princess. That unpublished project was a failure, but I earned valuable dividends from that creative effort. In fact, the experience taught me how to convert failure into success. Here's my approach:

1. Be patient: In my 20s, I wanted everything (money, love, creative success) right away. In a rush, I skidded around like a car out of control. But when I stopped spinning my wheels, I learned to recognize patterns and insights that I totally missed before.

2. Learn something new: After several agents offered devastating comments about my novel, I enrolled in a non-degree writing program at the Writers Studio in Manhattan. I've also attended workshops in Long Island, Salt Lake City, Miami and Key West. I've also taken courses in Spanish, finance, kickboxing, yoga and organization. The Goal: to acquire new tools and insights.

3. Get feedback: I requested advice from literary agents, editors, friends and family. More importantly, I was willing to hear what others had to say and to honestly evaluate the merits of their advice. My rule of feedback: Look for patterns. When several readers stumbled over the same chapters in my creative writing and when several managers mentioned the same problems with my work performance, I realized that I had major issues to address and alter.

4. Save what you can: My princess novel had one scene that consistently drew rave reviews from readers. It was actually based on a true story about my grandmother, who was a church minister. When I ditched the novel, I kept that one non-fiction scene and re-wrote it as a first-person essay. As such, 20 years after it was originally written, the essay was published in a major newspaper and is now included in my upcoming book: The Frugal Duchess of South Beach.

5. Start over: There's a grace in new beginnings: a new job, a new town or new notebook. Sometimes it helps to be a blank screen.

6. Look for lessons: My assorted failures during the 1980s offered clues, signs and emotional billboards. Some lessons were subtle; some were brighter than neon signs. But when I learned to pay attention, I acquired insights that improved my professional and personal life. I couldn't find the trail until I learned to look for crumbs.

7. Look for humor.

8. Seek diversity: During a Writer's Digest presentation, writer Jodi Picoult offered a very helpful overview of her writing life. Basically, she works on several projects at the same time. Each project is at a different stage of development. For example, while marketing one book, she edits a second book, writes a third book and researches a fourth.

Likewise, savvy investment managers typically select a diverse portfolio of stocks. This diversity provides downside protection. If one project or stock fails, there are other options and investments. Personally, I use a diverse portfolio of projects (non-fiction, poetry, short story and blogging) to avoid harmful obsessions.

9. Take time off: When I start spinning my wheels, it helps to park my car and take time out. As such, I've shelved projects for days, weeks and even years. The bonus: with maturity and distance, I often gain better insights.

10. Learn to let go. Some things can't be fixed. Thankfully, my first novel remains in a box and the box remains in deep storage. The experience was very valuable, but I'm working on a different narrative. I've moved on to different pages and new chapters.


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