Guide To Google Drive

Why You Need a Spreadsheet Of Your Failures

How tracking all my professional setbacks made me less afraid of them

Photo illustration; Image source: Guido Mieth/Getty Images

This piece is part of How Google Drive Can Make Every Corner of Your Life Easier

When things are tough, it’s tempting to look back on earlier parts of our lives through a nostalgia-tinted lens, forgetting that we’ve ever experienced any previous setbacks. Luckily for me, though, I’ve made it impossible to forget just how many times I’ve failed.

When I first left my full-time media job and went freelance, I started a Google Sheet of all my story pitches for articles that never landed anywhere. Next to each rejected pitch I note the outlet I pitched it to, plus a few others to try next. When I formally receive a “no” from an editor, I highlight that cell so I know to move on to the next outlet on my list.

The list of rejected pitches has grown to be pretty long by now, some with three or four outlets who all either flat-out said no or never responded. Over the years, I’ve stuck to one important rule: I never take an idea off the spreadsheet. Some of these pitches were conceived pre-pandemic and are no longer relevant; others are just ideas I’m not as jazzed about writing anymore, so I don’t bother sharing them with anyone. Yet I still keep them on the list.

For me, keeping a record of my unsuccessful pitches is just as important as celebrating the stories I do land. In a profession defined by a lack of structure, understanding where my energy goes (and when it pays off) is invaluable knowledge.

Failure is an event, not an identity

No matter how personally attached I feel to my idea, the Sheet neutralizes each article pitch into a data point. I approach every email to an editor with an understanding that you have to wade through a lot of “nos” before you get to a “yes.”

Of course, this mental framework can be helpful in other endeavors, too. “Reframing failure to make it more neutral can help us see failure as a stopover, not an end,” says the clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, author of How to Be Yourself. “It can also remind us that failure is an event (‘This pitch failed’) rather than an identity (‘I’m a failure’).”

Seeing failure as a natural part of life, not a referendum on your own potential or self-worth, has scientific benefits, too. One 2016 study found that parents who viewed failure as debilitating tended to focus on their child’s ability and performance over their potential to learn, which in turn would make their kids more likely to believe that intelligence is fixed. Viewing failure as a simple learning experience (and not indicative of your own self-worth) has a tremendous impact on how you continue to grow your expertise and knowledge.

Your mistakes can be your best teachers

When I can look past the pain of remembering all those “nos,” having a log of all my old ideas is actually incredibly useful information. I see the rookie mistakes I used to make, like not doing my research on an outlet and pitching too hastily, or sending an idea to only one publication and getting too quickly discouraged. I can also see where my headlines were too long or unfocused, or how I can reframe a similar idea to make it a better fit at a different magazine.

Now that I track all my pitches, I can remember that while, sure, I’ve gotten some pieces I’m proud of published, I’ve also worked really hard to get where I am. Every email — the kind rejections, the blunt rejections, the messages I sent that went unanswered — is a testament to that fact.

Tracking them also makes me less afraid of potential low points down the line. “Normalizing failure decreases the anxiety around potential future failure,” says Hendriksen. “It helps your brain remember that you’ve lived through failure before, the world didn’t end, and you could handle it.”

A warning label for your failure sheet

Of course, this approach works best because usually I believe that I’m good at what I do, and treat the Sheet as a way to keep getting better. This method can be tough if you’re already beating yourself up a lot. “Tracking failure is unhelpful when it’s used as punishment, or as a misguided attempt to motivate,” says Hendriksen. “Sometimes, self-improvement is a way to maintain some control amidst chaos. However, if tracking failure costs you more than it buys you, by all means, press pause.”

I admit, sometimes the rejection spreadsheet is too much. When that’s the case, I try to recalibrate. For instance, I used to color in the cells with a bright red, but I realized the red was stressing me out. It makes sense; studies have shown that because red ink is associated with errors, the color red can start to stress people out. So I switched to a soft mauve instead. Other times, I just take breaks from looking at it until I feel like I’m in a better place for it.

So many factors, besides hard work and creativity, lead to success. There are still pitches in that Sheet that I really like (even if no one else did), but I’ve learned not to be so precious with them, either. If this backlog of failure teaches me anything, it’s that there are plenty more good ideas where those other ones came from.

freelance writer with work in VICE, BuzzFeed News, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Insider, and more.

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