"Failure is Impossible" Might Not Mean What You Think
And I should know: It's my newest tattoo.
Last week, I got the words “Failure is impossible” tattooed on my arm along with lilacs and tulips, which are pretty iconic here in Rochester (there’s even a renowned annual lilac festival every May, and the enormous park that’s a stone’s throw from my house is covered with the the stunning syringa vulgaris … and yes, I googled that).
A stone’s throw in the other direction from the park with the lilac festival is a giant cemetery where some true greats are buried; you can see Frederick Douglass’ grave from my attic window without cocking your head too much.
Also buried there is Susan B. Anthony, who famously said “Failure is impossible” during her very last speech about suffrage. She didn’t live to see women get to vote, but as is evidenced by the “I voted!” stickers and pins that adorn her gravesite, her legacy lives on.
My friend Danielle—who got a matching tattoo—and I decided on this quote because of how inspired we were by Anthony’s unwavering dedication against all odds. During my birthday last year, a friend gifted me a private tour of the cemetery as my party, with a focus on the tombstones and stories of activists and writers.
It is mind-boggling to me that these historic figures, and so many more change-makers (both famous and relatively unknown), are buried right outside my house. Some people get the heebie-jeebies from graveyards, but I personally love them and find them peaceful, inspiring, and moving.
I have been thinking about the words now permanently etched on my arm: “Failure is impossible,” and two sides of this dollar coin (first minted the year I was born, 1979) have emerged.
Both of the meanings resonate deeply. And each of them carry a very different message perfect for the people I imagine are reading this Substack, as these meanings include ripples of self-growth, perspective, and advocating for those less lucky. Let’s break them down.
“Failure is impossible.”
As in, we must fight for what is just no matter what is thrown at us.
We must be firm in our resolve. We must keep going.
This, I believe, is what Anthony probably meant when she delivered these words. In the context of her speech—and given the fact that her life’s work had not been realized—“we mustn’t give up” feels a bit apt, and a powerful way of passing the torch to the activists who followed.
As an animal activist who exists in a world where—although veganism is more and more the norm—animals are still horrifically exploited and that is considered completely normal and fine, I get it. I pretty much can’t explain to you how hard I (and other animal activists) have to work to compartmentalize how we feel. Otherwise, we’d probably die of despair, because animal oppression is literally everywhere.
So we create coping mechanisms, mental separations between ideology and strategy, and then (if we’re lucky) we find and foster safe spaces with others who get it. That doesn't mean we think we’re better than other people, but it does mean that even though there are tremendous joys that come with being vegan, there’s also a lot of emotional labor required sometimes in that we have to witness the end results of animal cruelty everywhere we look—from restaurant menus to certain clothing at stores to breeding to animals used for sports to animal testing for cosmetics, and the list goes on.
It’s a tall ask for us to embrace the mindset that “failure is impossible,” but it’s true. It has to be. Either that or the animals will continue to unnecessarily be harmed and killed for the pleasure and profit of humans, even though there are other ways. And the disenfranchised workers—mostly immigrants and people of color—will also continue to be exploited as they do the dirty work of killing individuals so that we don’t have to.
And that’s really hard to think about, so I try not to. The thing that gets me through is that failure is impossible. That gives me focus, strength, courage, community, and purpose.
A different kind of impossible
But let’s take “failure is impossible” a completely different way. Coincidentally, this way is very on brand with what I’ve been working on personally.
I’m Jewish and Italian, so naturally, I’m a kvetcher. If I don’t work hard on managing my mindset around certain issues relating to my personal and professional ambition and purpose, I can be “a woman who’s never been satisfied,” as the Hamilton song goes.
So I work on it quite rigorously, and I’m happy to report that it’s becoming easier for me to find satisfaction and (gasp!) even joy in my everyday life, including in the small moments. (Don’t hold me to this the next time I kvetch at you.)
Failure is impossible. Another way of interpreting this is that as long as we are moving forward, self-bettering, doing those things within our control, being kind to ourselves and one another, then failure is impossible. As in, everything we do, in a way, measures success.
So, for example: I am frustrated that I don’t have another book sold yet. But I wrote a whole novel (in 3.5 weeks), and separately from that, I wrote a whole book proposal, and they are both in the right hands right now—and so failure is impossible.
Hopefully they will both get published, but if they don’t, then what? As is the case for another book proposal I wrote that didn’t get published (I try to not make a habit of this), I repurposed those chapter samples as essays and am actively trying to get them placed. I also took one of those essays and reworked it as a monologue that will likely become part of a solo show.
All of this is to say: things that I want to shake out will indeed shake out, but I can’t predict how. Making failure—yep—impossible.
And so as I gaze upon my newest addition to my nearly fully tattooed arms and growing collection of non-arm tattoos—each of which holds great meaning for me and represents a different moment in my life—I am pleased that “Failure is impossible” not only represents my new city (sitting on my forearm next to my NYC rattoo and my LA palm trees—but also stands for both personal growth and activist-based drive.
I will look at it each time I want a reminder that home—just like family—can be something we choose. I will also let it help me stay grounded, humble, and open-minded when I think I haven’t succeeded at a project—since I have absolutely no idea if it will succeed in the long run, or how it will succeed in the interim.
Susan B. Anthony didn’t live to see the incredible payoff of her hard work, but she paved the way for one of the biggest successes in the women’s rights movement. We never know what we are paving the way for. We never know what will become of what we’ve started creating.
Failure is impossible—and that, by itself, is a liberation mindset.