how to fail at succeeding by victoria wolf

How to Fail at Succeeding

I won an award for my book. Woohoo! Yes, that would be a reasonable and expected response. But, not for me. Instead, I feel as if I have failed.

How’s that? Well, to understand, I am afraid you will need to peer deep into my soul, or maybe just my brain. Are you ready?

A bit of background is in order.

In 2021, I wrote a book, Perpetual Conflict. It’s a memoir interweaved with my 3-month “teach myself how to paint” experience. It’s raw, it’s honest, and at times, it’s not easy to read. As many of my demons are revealed throughout the story, I try to calm them down, hide from them, fight with them, and ultimately understand their presence in my life.

After publishing the book, I did what many authors do: submit it for trade reviews. This is done mainly for marketing purposes and to get the hallowed “endorsement blurb” for the front of the book. But, the review process also gives validation, or sometimes, lack thereof. It’s the validation aspect I believe I was searching for as I sent out my book. Searching for validation has always been troublesome for me.

I waited six long weeks to receive two reviews. When they arrived, within days of each other, my soul was shattered, not once, but twice. No, they weren’t bad reviews at all, but they were not the BEST.

In submitting my book, I anticipated that it could cause me pain and suffering, but I believed I could handle it.

It was a flawed belief. I could not.

I truly thought when I submitted my book that I was a well-functioning, recovering perfectionist. But as soon as the reviews came in, I realized I was still a full-on perfectionist, yet still somewhat well-functioning.

The emotional pain and anguish I experienced were deep and all-consuming. The pain kept pushing me further down the rabbit hole, deeper than I had ever been before. I cried, I mentally beat myself up, and I was distraught, for days.

I needed to get the feelings of despair out of my head and thought painting would do the trick. I was very skeptical and indecisive for days.

Should I paint, or just say fuck it? Isn’t this painting shit what got me into his mess in the first place?

I somehow convinced myself to paint, even though all I felt was pain. I was convinced whatever I ended up painting was going to be a complete shit-show. But, at the end of that painting session, I was astonished. I created a beautiful piece that is still my favorite, Trees of Pain. Every ounce of pain, agony, anger, resentment, and rage went into the painting. Now, it is hanging in the living room of our RV and each time I look at it, I see all those emotions echoed in the sky, the sand, and especially, the dead trees. 

Trees of Pain Victoria R Wolf acryllic on canvas

And, I learned something important about my painting process: you can’t paint with pain. Or I should say, you can’t spell paint without p a i n.

After a few weeks, I recovered emotionally and even went ahead with my book launch party. My book, stoic and unflinching at the party, did not recover. I didn’t market my book, nor did I speak of my book for nearly two years.

In early 2023, a colleague and friend of mine read my book and really liked it. She’s the type of person who would not lie to make me feel better, so I believed her. We had a great conversation about my book and the reviews. After nearly two years, I could finally look at my book and the words two professionals said about my book in a less negative light. I also reached out to my editor for words of encouragement, and she gave them to me. They were the same words she shared with me right after the reviews came out. I was in too much pain to hear them at the time, but the years since had mellowed me a bit, and I could finally hear what she was saying.

I was emboldened and entered my book into The BookFest awards in the Memoir: Confessionals category.

I did it. I poked the bear yet again. Would the results yield a different reaction from me?

Yes, and no.

I didn’t pay attention when I submitted my book, so I had no idea when the winners would be announced. Actually, I forgot that I had even entered. Imagine that? Then, as I was going through emails on a regular Thursday afternoon, I saw an email with the subject: Congratulations, Your Submission Is a Winner. I thought it was SPAM or a joke. Of course, I did.

It took me a while to navigate the site to find out if I really was a winner or if the email was just a vicious attempt to screw with me. I had to look through all the levels (first, second, third, honorable mention) one by one to find out. Of course, I started with the least impressive, Honorable Mention. Nope, not there. Thankfully, I thought to myself, I didn’t come in dead last! Next was Third Place, and that’s where I saw my book.


Any author would be thrilled to achieve a win at any of the levels. Well, not me. I was mad at myself for not winning first. I felt like it was telling me my book (and me by extension) was good but just not good enough. I know, intellectually, it all depends on the competition, and in any other year, I could have achieved first, second, or not even placed. But, the intellectual part is never a problem for me. It’s the emotional crap that gets me.

It is now confirmed. I am still a perfectionist.

In those moments after I discovered my win, I was also failing at succeeding in such a glorious fashion. My demons were strong, and they egged me on. “Way to fail, Victoria,” “of course you lost,” and the always heartfelt, “you just aren’t all that, are you?”

But I was not going to give in to the failing bullshit. Well, at least not entirely. I put together a Facebook post about my “win” and put it out. I wanted to make a solid attempt to consider myself a winner and push back the negative thoughts and energy floating around in my head. Putting it out to the world seemed like a good plan of action. It’s real only if you see it on Facebook, right?

Yet, deep inside me, the war rages on. I wonder if I can ever answer the question, “why do I need to be perfect to be worthy of grace, acceptance, and love?”

I know, intellectually, that perfection is a trap. No person, place, or thing is perfect, and perfection is not something to strive for. Well, if you want to keep striving and never reach your goal, then by all means, keep that carrot of perfection dangling in front of you.

A few days beyond the award announcement, I began to feel a bit less like a failure, although the failure was still resonating in me. I could have written a better story and achieved a better award. That thought will linger for some time.

I am not perfect.
I will never be perfect.

But, I will continue to analyze my thoughts, actions, and emotions to understand better why I still think I am supposed to be perfect.

And I will share all ugliness, and the beauty, of that journey with you! 


One Response

  1. I honestly love this and you! I heard your voice as I read this. I actually heard your laughter. It’s so much a part of you. I know you have pain in your life but your “screw it,” attitude inspires me. As a fellow perfectionist, I am learning from you. Keep it coming!

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