Failing Forward? To Amanda Palmer, With Love.

Failure is in vogue these days. 

Or, to be more precise: it's fashionable in America to talk or write about your own failures. This past Saturday, New York Times ran a long article on "failing forward," and the trend for Silicon Valley start-ups to attempt this via confessional blogging. The article links to a long compendium -- over 100 "start-up failure postmortems." Another article on literary failures opens with the line "Failure is big right now."

Failure is big right now. Well, it looms large for me. I can't even read those postmortems. I'm sticking to Amanda Palmer's The Art of Asking. It's helpful.

Since late October, I've been fundraising to go to West Africa to report on the downstream effects of the Ebola outbreak, mostly food security. The work builds on my previous experience in the region in 2007 and 2010. I've had a partner, Pacific Standard Magazine, which has run a piece supporting me. I've completed the first article of the project, a discussion with Gary Slutkin of how epidemics relate to violence.

While the campaign has run, I've raised $3,865. That's not bad. 

The problem is that I have just one day left to raise the rest of the money. If I don't raise it all, I don't get anything, and the project will never happen.

It feels almost impossible. Gloom has descended.

I know why I feel sad. It's not the gap between what I've raised and the goal. It's not the project itself, which I am still dying to do. And it certainly isn't the help of so many friends and colleagues -- for which I am so, so grateful.

The problem is a Sisyphus effect. Sisyphus is the protagonist of a Greek myth, a man who was punished by being forced to laboriously push a large rock up a hill... and every time he succeeded, it would roll back to the bottom and he would have to do it again. The ancient tale endures because it's a powerful metaphor for demoralizing, demotivating cycles, a type of action all humans seem to detest. 

That happened here. The project got off to a slow start. It was nerve-wracking. Then came a one-day period where my publication partner matched all donations. I felt honored to have their generous support, and I felt lucky when donors responded in a fairly big way.

The problem was that the crowd-funding website used incorrect code to display the amount raised. They sent me a message saying that this was correct. I was unsure how much money was raised -- but took them at their word.

After a couple of days, a guy at the crowd-funding website corrected it -- and sent me an oddly upbeat email about how the real amount was far less than what I and all the donors had thought it was. I was upset about having unintentionally misled others and unhappy with how poorly the crowd-funding website had communicated. I watched the big rock roll back down the hill, and in a way that is consistent with psychological research, I felt like Sisyphus.

The next day, a woman who I thought might contribute sent me a email suggesting I was a racist with a "white savior complex." Criticism is par for the course in journalism -- they say you know you've arrived when you get your first death threat -- and this wasn't a particularly solid critique. But it was nastiness from someone whose opinion I respected, and probably the ending of a connection to this friend and former boss. I cried.

Fundraising is tough. It requires confidence that has been socialized out of me, and perhaps out of most women. (I think it might be a cousin to negotiating, another thing women are told not to do.) I know confidence matters as much as competence, but I find it hard to stand up and say my work is important and worth something, even if it addresses the most important health crisis on the planet right now.

So to do this campaign at all was a challenge to my self-esteem like none I've ever encountered. To do it as Sisyphus was harder still. To do it while losing friends... well, people have been contacting me to ask if I am OK. (I feel especially thankful to Scott, Kristin, and G. Lydia, too.)

What helped the most, though, was a book called the Art of Asking. It's by Amanda Palmer, a singer and the speaker in a popular TED talk of the same name. Amanda Palmer is a musician who has famously crowd-sourced her living -- from staying with fans to crowd-funding $1.2 million for her last album.

Her book came out yesterday, so I went to the bookstore, got a clerk to get the very first copy out of the storeroom, and read the whole thing in one sitting. It was great. It really helped.

Amanda makes it clear that crowd-funding is hard for basically everyone, including her, and that she's built towards her current success with a lot of time and effort. She says that giving can be a boon to the giver, not just to the one who asks -- and that the shame about asking is denying us all a good experience.

As I read the book, I began thinking about other times my work have been repetitive or difficult. I've been frustrated at work before. I've endured criticisms -- including one way harsher than this one woman's vague BS. I've had the grit to push through those things. I was -- and am -- ready to do the actual work in West Africa, which is difficult (but joyful) too. This crowd-funding thing was hard because of the way it played on my fear of feeling unworthy.

But there are a bunch of people who have told me that I'm worthy. People have read this blog, shared my pitch online, favorited Tweets about this work. People have supported the project to the tune of $3,865 dollars. That's not nothing. That's a huge sign that my work is worth something.

What Amanda Palmer knows is that successful crowd-funding is all about joy and love and community. The point is well-taken.

She says less about this, but it relies on having a clear purpose, too. So, on this very last day before my crowd-funding campaign (probably) fails, I'm reminding myself of my mission. I'm a writer forever, and I want my audience -- any English-speaker who cares about global health -- to have the benefit of insight into the complexities of the epidemic beyond the clinic door. I want the impact to be more compassion and better health for West Africans and for all of us. And I'm going to keep working to achieve that whether this crowd-funding round succeeds or not.

Thanks, Amanda.

Love,

Sisyphus.

Update: The project got funded, but just barely, when we lowered the minimum. It has since accumulated a fair amount more. Life is alright.