Elizabeth Gilbert: Success, Failure and The Drive to Keep Creating (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of American author Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk: Success, Failure and The Drive to Keep Creating.

 

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Elizabeth Gilbert – Author

So, a few years ago I was at JFK Airport about to get on a flight, when I was approached by two women who I do not think would be insulted to hear themselves described as tiny old tough-talking Italian-American broads. The taller one, who is like up here, she comes marching up to me, and she goes, “Honey, I gotta ask you something. You got something to do with that whole ‘Eat, Pray, Love‘ thing that’s been going on lately?”

And I said, “Yes, I did.”

And she smacks her friend and she goes, “See, I told you, I said, that’s that girl. That’s that girl who wrote that book based on that movie.”

So that’s who I am. And believe me, I’m extremely grateful to be that person, because that whole “Eat, Pray, Love” thing was a huge break for me.

But it also left me in a really tricky position moving forward as an author trying to figure out how in the world I was ever going to write a book again that would ever please anybody, because I knew well in advance that all of those people who had adored “Eat, Pray, Love” were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it wasn’t going to be “Eat, Pray, Love,” and all of those people who had hated “Eat, Pray, Love” were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it would provide evidence that I still lived.

So I knew that I had no way to win, and knowing that I had no way to win made me seriously consider for a while just quitting the game and moving to the country to raise corgis. But if I had done that, if I had given up writing, I would have lost my beloved vocation, so I knew that the task was that I had to find some way to gin up the inspiration to write the next book regardless of its inevitable negative outcome.

In other words, I had to find a way to make sure that my creativity survived its own success. And I did, in the end, find that inspiration, but I found it in the most unlikely and unexpected place.

I found it in lessons that I had learned earlier in life about how creativity can survive its own failure. So just to back up and explain, the only thing I have ever wanted to be for my whole life was a writer. I wrote all through childhood, all through adolescence, by the time I was a teenager I was sending my very bad stories to The New Yorker, hoping to be discovered.

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After college, I got a job as a diner waitress, kept working, kept writing, kept trying really hard to get published, and failing at it. I failed at getting published for almost six years.

So for almost six years, every single day, I had nothing but rejection letters waiting for me in my mailbox. And it was devastating every single time, and every single time, I had to ask myself if I should just quit while I was behind and give up and spare myself this pain.

But then I would find my resolve, and always in the same way, by saying, “I’m not going to quit, I’m going home.” And you have to understand that for me, going home did not mean returning to my family’s farm. For me, going home meant returning to the work of writing because writing was my home, because I loved writing more than I hated failing at writing, which is to say that I loved writing more than I loved my own ego, which is ultimately to say that I loved writing more than I loved myself.

And that’s how I pushed through it. But the weird thing is that 20 years later, during the crazy ride of “Eat, Pray, Love,” I found myself identifying all over again with that unpublished young diner waitress who I used to be, thinking about her constantly, and feeling like I was her again, which made no rational sense whatsoever because our lives could not have been more different. She had failed constantly. I had succeeded beyond my wildest expectation. We had nothing in common.

Why did I suddenly feel like I was her all over again? And it was only when I was trying to unthread that that I finally began to comprehend the strange and unlikely psychological connection in our lives between the way we experience great failure and the way we experience great success.

So think of it like this: For most of your life, you live out your existence here in the middle of the chain of human experience where everything is normal and reassuring and regular, but failure catapults you abruptly way out over here into the blinding darkness of disappointment.

Success catapults you just as abruptly but just as far way out over here into the equally blinding glare of fame and recognition and praise. And one of these fates is objectively seen by the world as bad, and the other one is objectively seen by the world as good, but your subconscious is completely incapable of discerning the difference between bad and good.

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