Here is the full transcript of American author Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk: Success, Failure and The Drive to Keep Creating.
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.
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.
The only thing that it is capable of feeling is the absolute value of this emotional equation, the exact distance that you have been flung from yourself.
And there’s a real equal danger in both cases of getting lost out there in the hinterlands of the psyche. But in both cases, it turns out that there is also the same remedy for self-restoration, and that is that you have got to find your way back home again as swiftly and smoothly as you can, and if you’re wondering what your home is, here’s a hint: Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself.
So that might be creativity, it might be family, it might be invention, adventure, faith, service, it might be raising corgis, I don’t know, your home is that thing to which you can dedicate your energies with such singular devotion that the ultimate results become inconsequential.
For me, that home has always been writing. So after the weird, disorienting success that I went through with “Eat, Pray, Love,” I realized that all I had to do was exactly the same thing that I used to have to do all the time when I was an equally disoriented failure.
I had to get my ass back to work, and that’s what I did, and that’s how, in 2010, I was able to publish the dreaded follow-up to “Eat, Pray, Love”. And you know what happened with that book? It bombed, and I was fine. Actually, I kind of felt bulletproof, because I knew that I had broken the spell and I had found my way back home to writing for the sheer devotion of it.
And I stayed in my home of writing after that, and I wrote another book that just came out last year and that one was really beautifully received, which is very nice, but not my point. My point is that I’m writing another one now, and I’ll write another book after that and another and another and another and many of them will fail, and some of them might succeed, but I will always be safe from the random hurricanes of outcome as long as I never forget where I rightfully live.
Look, I don’t know where you rightfully live, but I know that there’s something in this world that you love more than you love yourself. Something worthy, by the way, so addiction and infatuation don’t count, because we all know that those are not safe places to live. Right?
The only trick is that you’ve got to identify the best, worthiest thing that you love most, and then build your house right on top of it and don’t budge from it. And if you should someday, somehow get vaulted out of your home by either great failure or great success, then your job is to fight your way back to that home the only way that it has ever been done, by putting your head down and performing with diligence and devotion and respect and reverence whatever the task is that love is calling forth from you next.
You just do that, and keep doing that again and again and again, and I can absolutely promise you, from long personal experience in every direction, I can assure you that it’s all going to be okay.