When Failure Is Success…And Vice Versa

It was likely in 2001 – though it may have been just after I moved into my new apartment in the Philadelphia suburb of King of Prussia in February 2003 – I received this handsome piece of engraved metal from my more off-than-on-again girlfriend.

When I first read the question, I tried earnestly answer it – until I realized the obvious answer: nothing.

Just as the answer would be “nothing” if the last word was “succeed.”

It is the uncertainty of outcome that makes a thing worth doing. The thrill comes in succeeding when success was not guaranteed.

Moreover, I now think the question is purely hypothetical. I cannot imagine an activity where failure is not an option, no matter how seemingly banal or minor it is. Despite what the self-help gurus and the rah-rah-artists and the well-meaning leaders tell us:

Failure is ALWAYS an option.


In a recent post, I presented an update on the process of publishing the book – Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own – I completed in late January. To summarize, I queried 100 literary agencies between February 5 and May 12, understanding this to the best route to securing a mass-market publisher. To date, 90 agencies have either formally rejected me (22) or have not responded to me within their stated time frame (68). My expectation is the remaining 10 simply have not yet rejected me, though I obviously do not know for certain.

At first glance, though, 100 seems like a large enough number of agencies that success should all but guaranteed. After all, I only need one, right?

Well, the likelihood of at least one agency accepting me as a client depends upon two things: the probability of being accepted by each individual agency, and the extent to which those probabilities are statistically independent; the latter being a fancy way to ask whether being turned down by one agency implies being turned down by other agencies.

Being of a quantitative bent, I calculated this probability as best I could, primarily to reassure myself as the days, weeks and months passed. To simplify matters, I assumed a constant probability of acceptance across all agencies AND the decision Agency A makes has nothing to do with the decision Agency B makes which has nothing to do with the decision Agency C makes…and so forth.

These are not great assumptions: it was obvious I fit better with some agencies than with others, meaning my probability of acceptance likely varied across the agencies. And while the agencies themselves want to you think each makes its own “highly subjective” (to quote nearly every rejection e-mail) decisions regarding new clients, the reality – apparent from a close reading of agent wish lists, emphasizing diverse voices, indifference to “serious” non-fiction, pre-existing platforms, “similar” (high sales) books and the constant refrain of how many queries each receives – is that nearly every agency is approaching those queries through a broadly similar lens.

Still, as a first approximation, we use this formula:

P(Acceptance by 1 or more agencies) = 1 – (1-p)n,

…where p is the probability of being accepted by any given agency, and n is the number of “trials,” in this case 100.

Going into this process, I naively thought my educational background (“I am an EXPERT!”) and the fact of completion (“No worries about me not finishing here!”) would boost my chances. Maybe to, you know, 1 in 100 – or p=0.01.

Well, that translates to a P of 63.4%. Even with 100 queries, the odds were only about 5:3 in my favor.

Lowering my expectations to p=0.005 – 1 in 200 – lowers P to just 39.4%, or about 3:2 against.

Lowering them further to the more realistic levels I should have understood in February (or in July 2017):

At p=0.001, P=9.5%.

At p=0.0005, P=4.9%.

At p=0.0001, P=1.0%.

And so on.

Now, this is when the bluntly American “can-do” mindset responds with “Well, then, you need to keep querying agencies.”

And that is not unreasonable. Except, I had just queried (excepting one with no e-mail address) every agency in WRITER’S MARKET 2019 that met my basic criteria: no reading fees, represents adult non-fiction, accepting new clients.

It can seem noble never to accept failure – to keep trying despite the long odds one faces because there is nothing we cannot do if we blah blah blah – but math does not lie.

Failure is ALWAYS an option.

But, for the sake of argument, let us say I found 100 more agencies to query. Here are the corresponding increases in P:

At p=0.01, P=86.6% (still 13.4% chance of failure).

At p=0.005, P=63.3% (still 36.7% chance of failure).

At p=0.001, P=18.1%.

At p=0.0005, P=9.5%.

At p=0.0001, P=2.0%.

You get the idea. Even at the rose-colored glasses probability of 1% and 200 queries, the probability of at least one acceptance is only slightly better than Hillary Clinton’s chances of beating Donald J. Trump going into Election Day 2016.

Clinton lost that election.

Failure is ALWAYS an option.


But, of course, so is success. There will always be a non-zero probability of both outcomes, no matter how much we – and, again, this is a particularly American perspective – try to “round” to 0 and 1.

Besides, all of this math – as wonderful as math is – misses the larger point: successes sometimes turn out to be failures, and failures sometimes turn out to be successes – at least when considered in the future.

Here are two examples from my own life – I encourage you to do the same with your own lives – where “success” and “failure” proved remarkably fluid.

  1. The unfinished doctorate.

In May 1988, I graduated with a BA in political science from Yale University. That September, I began a one-year stint as a Research Assistant in the Government Department at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. I had enjoyed an unpaid internship there two summers earlier, so I was excited return for a salaried position – my first full-top “adult” job.

I hated it from day one; the success of getting the job later became a clear failure when I was let go the following May. Long before then, though, I had applied to five doctoral programs in government – University of California Berkeley, Harvard, University of Michigan, Stanford, Yale – and been accepted, with generous financial incentives, at all five of them.

Wow, I thought, I am set. Like, golden.

I chose Harvard, moving to the Boston suburb of Somerville in late August. For the first two years, I loved being at Harvard – my fellow students were both impressive and friendly, the classes were excellent, and I felt as home as I had my first few days at Yale.

But as oral and written examinations loomed in early June 1991 – ending the master’s degree portion of the program – something imperceptibly shifted. My romantic life was a bit of a mess, for one thing. Also, I had miscalculated at the end of 1990, when it was the turn of the students who had enrolled at the same time as me to provide the entertainment for the holiday party. We decided to use Saturday Night Live as the frame for our skits – complete with guest host monologue.

In a truly “what the hell was I thinking?” moment, I decided I would deliver the monologue as my academic advisor, Professor Gary King, who had just achieved full tenure at the age of 30. It was a fairly gentle bit of mockery – revolving him stopping wearing ties once he received tenure – but, in retrospect, it may have been unwise to satirize the soon-to-be-chair of my doctoral committee. Next thing I know, I barely pass my examinations – to this day, I think Gary blindsided me during the oral exams when he questioned me about my chosen area of interest, electoral geography.

Still, I put together a doctoral committee – including friend and mentor, Yale Professor David Mayhew – and wrote a dissertation proposal. It was accepted, and I set to work collecting data – even driving to Concord, NH in May 1992 to photocopy town-level results from that state’s 1976 presidential primaries. I wrote some early chapters.

But the joy was vanishing. I had difficulty translating my theory of “differential trait salience”[1] into mathematical models – and articulating it to my committee and fellow students. Moreover, I insisted on applying this model not to general elections – with their highly stable and complete data – but to presidential primary elections – with their highly unstable and incomplete data. I rationalized my creeping sense of failure by quipping bitterly, “Gary’s idea of advising is: go off, do some stuff, bring it back to me, and I’ll tell you why it’s wrong.”

This was garbage, by the way. King was an excellent – albeit socially awkward – political scientist and teacher. I was just not ready to listen, lacking maturity, humility and discipline. It is also likely my yet-to-be-diagnosed depression was kicking in – or kicking in harder – and I began to spend a lot of time in this excellent restaurant only two blocks from my apartment:

As I write in Chapter 11 (A Film Noir Fan is Born), “Credit card receipts reveal I spent at least $418.94 in 1991, $856.40 in 1992 and $554.79 in the first six months of 1993 there; the sum of $1,830.13 equates to $3,335 in 2019—on a modest academic stipend supplemented by teaching and research assistant work.” Self-medicating, much?

A temporary reprieve from my misery came late in June 1993, when there was a knock on the door that opened from the second-floor apartment I shared with three other 20-somethings onto the interior stairwell of our Somerville triple-decker. Two attractive younger women stood there. I recognized the one on the left as one of the female Harvard seniors who had just moved into the third floor apartment for the summer. The one on the right (one of her roommates) – an adorable brunette of just below medium height wearing glasses and a t-shirt advertising Squeeze’s Babylon and On tour – I recognized from the Greenhouse Café in the Science Center. In fact, almost as soon as I opened the door, I pointed to her, smiled and said, “I know you.”

I do not remember what they needed, but within a few days, the Squeeze fan and I had begun to date. To say she saved my life is overly melodramatic, but our rapidly progressing relationship gave me the strength to make one last push to complete my dissertation. Early the following year, I applied for – and received – a Mellon Dissertation Completion Grant. I even began to “joke” to – well, Nell calls her my first wife, so let’s go with that – “Got the Mellon, can’t elope.”

But it was all for naught. In the spring of 1995, after a disastrous search for a university teaching position,[2] I made the hardest decision of my life: to resign, ABD, from Harvard. My last-ever day as a doctoral student – or so I thought – was June 30, 1995.

For the next decade or so, I thought of this – and, in a way, the seven years prior to it – as the greatest failure of my life. Heck, I did not even have a Master’s Degree to show for it, despite completed the requirements; in the spring of 2015, I finally received that A.M.

Here is the thing, though. I am now thrilled I did not pursue an academic career in political science. Does the end of my six years at Harvard still sting? Absolutely. But do I regret not having to deal with the “publish or perish” nature of academia, with its petty squabbles and bureaucratic nonsense. Heck yes!

Even as I was ending my time at Harvard, first-wife and I found an apartment just a few blocks from the triple-decker we had briefly shared. We moved in over the summer; she had since graduated Harvard and enrolled in a doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she focused on atmospheric chemistry, earning her doctorate in four years. Not only is she one of the warmest people I have ever known, she is one of the most brilliant.

That summer, I worked a mundane data analysis job, and I was happier than I had been in years. After a disastrous stint in the Registrar’s Office at Brandeis University, in early October 1996 I landed my first health-related data analysis job at now-defunct Health and Addictions Research Inc. (“HARI”) in downtown Boston. This launched a six-position, 19-year career – ending in June 2015. Even with its abrupt end, I am immensely proud of this career – and the long-term friendships it yielded. But this professional “success” only happened because I “failed” to obtain a doctorate at Harvard.

2. Selling my mother’s condominium

On the evening of August 11, 2004, I stepped from the SEPTA commuter train onto the Radnor station platform. Descending the few steps to the parking lot where I had left my car that morning, I noticed some police officers clustered near my car. Walking closer, I realized they were standing by my car. As I approached, one asked if this was my car. Yes, I replied. That is when I understood someone had broken into my car – literally bending back the front passenger side window of my Buick Century from its rubber frame – and stolen the radio and some other ephemera. They eventually arrested the thief, and I testified against him in court, but did not recover my stolen property.

That weird, roller coaster day – I had had a terrible ice cream date then met a fascinating young woman while waiting for that very same train in Suburban Station – was the low point of one of the lowest periods of my life.

Backing up slightly, after meeting the woman whose gift opens this essay, I ended my relationship with first-wife in late November 2000. Yes, this was cause and effect. In early February 2001, I returned to Philadelphia. Four months later, I began a series of increasingly-important positions in the Research Department of what was then called the Family Planning Council of Southeastern Pennsylvania (“FPC”), the best professional profession I have ever had. The next few years exemplified “lucky in money, unlucky in love.” Gift-woman and I pursued a tempestuous, ill-defined long-distance friendship/romance that confused everyone, even us. This surrounded short-term flings that went nowhere.

Still, things looked promising early in 2003. I moved into the King of Prussia apartment, I was earning a good living, and the Phillies showed promise after some great off-season moves. But just one year later, in early January, my mother’s ovarian cancer returned with a vengeance. On March 1, 2004 – after a few weeks of hospice – Elaine Kohn Berger died at the age of 66. At the tender age of 37, I was an orphan.

Grief does strange things to people. On the day of my mother’s funeral – when I apparently drank most of a bottle of whisky, prompting a friend of my stepfather Eddie nicknamed Yo to declare, “If you try to drive home, I’ll rip out your fucking distributor cap” – my stepfather’s married step-granddaughter (my step-step-niece?) was clearly trying to seduce me. OK, I was not exactly fending off her advances; she was wicked hot. Nothing – much – happened, though she did put a bug in my ear about needing to cut bait and get on with my life. Realizing she was – not wrong – I ended my relationship with gift-woman in the most brutal telephone conversation I have ever had. I lied about my feelings, among other things. Even now, as I write this, I am filled with regret. Not that I ended the relationship, but the utter cruelty with which I did so.

And while all that unfolded, I was trying to settle my mother’s estate. For her own reasons, she had made Eddie and me co-executors. Embittered – and jealous of my relationship with my mother – Eddie decided to contest the will. He hired a lawyer, I hired a lawyer – and a 16-month ordeal began. The sticking point was a condominium my mother owned. She was living there when she and Eddie began dating around 1994 or so. They married in 1997, but my mother continued to earn rent from the condominium. When she died, I began to collect that rent – clearing $1,100 a month. I do not really understand why this made Eddie so upset – maybe grief, maybe the brain tumor that felled him a few years later – but he would not relent.

Flash forward to early December 2004. Yet another short-term relationship had come to a crashing halt, and I was beginning to see the writing on the wall at FPC – they were going in a more qualitative direction, my beloved projects were ending, and there was no room for me to advance. Meanwhile, trips to western Massachusetts the previous two summers had reminded me how much I missed the Boston area.

Even though I had done nothing wrong – other than be an absolute jerk to a woman I loved, for the second time in four years – I felt like an utter failure, trapped and lonely.

Then, soaking in the bathtub one Friday night, I had a brainstorm: why not sell the condominium, split the profits and end the standoff? With my proceeds, I could move to Boston, study biostatistics or epidemiology – maybe finally get that damned doctorate.

I presented the idea to my lawyer, who presented it to Eddie’s lawyer, who presented it to Eddie. Who – to everyone’s astonishment – agreed.

Huzzah! I cried, if only metaphorically.

The first six months of 2005 are a blur now – other than feeling absolute liberation and optimism. The condominium sold fairly quickly. I narrowed my choices to two schools of public health: Harvard, which seemed a bad idea, and Boston University (“BUSPH”), about which I had heard good things at a HARI reunion the previous summer. I arranged to retake my GRE’s. Having missed the deadline to apply to their epidemiology doctoral program, I applied to the one in biostatistics. Deciding I had been away from “higher math” too long, I was instead accepted into their master’s program. Which was fine; the process would just take a few years longer.

In March, a chance meeting at my local laundromat turned into a much-needed, if necessarily short-term, romance. I literally told her “I am moving to Boston in September” within minutes of meeting her. Looking back, she was the perfect transition relationship – even if she did move to Boston a few months after I did. That got – weird, though only briefly.

On June 30, 1995 I tearfully ended my game-changing four years at FPC. In August, I drove to Boston to find a new apartment, settling on a complex in Waltham not that different from the one in King of Prussia. Having not yet received my share of the settlement, though, I was forced to borrow the necessary first-last-security deposit payments from a close Yale friend. He graciously obliged.

Finally, at the end of August, I drove to a lawyer’s office in Philadelphia, where I was given a check for – let’s just say it was low six-digits. I immediately paid off – well, my Yale friend – my student loan debts and three credit cards, keeping only the Discover Card. It pays you back, you know.

The rest is wonderful, serendipitous history. Four days after moving to Waltham (with laundromat-woman) – hiring a moving company for the first time – the used Buick Century Eddie had given me when I moved to Philadelphia died. On September 6, I wrote a check for something like $34,000 to Cambridge Honda so I could drive away in a brand new black 2005 Honda Accord. Still in great shape, I hope to pass it on to our older daughter in a few years. I settled happily into my new classes, though I had to drop one – four was just too many; I finished the MA in three semesters, not two, as I had planned.

And on Halloween night 2005, a radiant elementary school teacher named Nell wrote to me on Friendster – and that is how I met my wife. She pretty much had me when she used “Persiflage” as the subject of her first e-mail to me.

In short, had I not reached a point of utter despair – grieving the loss of two women I loved, sensing the end of my most rewarding professional job, seeing no end to the fight with my stepfather – I would not have made the drastic, albeit smart in retrospect, decision to sell my mother’s condominium. Had I not made that decision, I would not have returned to Boston, earned both an MA and a PhD, bought my beloved Honda and met my astonishing wife. And without Nell, there are no incredible daughters.

And no Just Bear With Me…or Interrogating Memory.

Failure may always be an option, but it can also have a way of leading to successes, just as seeming successes can end up feeling like failures.

Now, back to the work of getting my book published!

Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.

[1] Essentially, the idea that the overall demographic composition of a geographic area – a state, a county, a Congressional district – determined which demographic traits were most politically salient within an individual. This acknowledged that each of us has a race AND an ethnicity AND a socioeconomic status AND a religion (or no religion) AND an age AND a marital status AND an education level AND so forth. More often than not, race is the primary predictor of partisanship. But if an area is, say, 95+% Non-Hispanic White then a trait like education level or religion might be the primary predictor. Or something like that – I have not thought deeply about in more than 25 years.

[2] The disastrous – at least for a tried-and-true Democrat like me – 1994 midterm elections hurt as well. I realized how difficult it was going to be to separate my strong partisan lean from my need for professional objectivity.

6 thoughts on “When Failure Is Success…And Vice Versa

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