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TED2014

Elizabeth Gilbert: Success, failure and the drive to keep creating

March 19, 2014

Elizabeth Gilbert was once an "unpublished diner waitress," devastated by rejection letters. And yet, in the wake of the success of 'Eat, Pray, Love,' she found herself identifying strongly with her former self. With beautiful insight, Gilbert reflects on why success can be as disorienting as failure and offers a simple -- though hard -- way to carry on, regardless of outcomes.

Elizabeth Gilbert - Writer
The author of 'Eat, Pray, Love,' Elizabeth Gilbert has thought long and hard about some big topics. Her fascinations: genius, creativity and how we get in our own way when it comes to both. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
So, a few years ago I was at JFK Airport
00:12
about to get on a flight,
00:15
when I was approached by two women
00:17
who I do not think would be insulted
00:19
to hear themselves described
00:21
as tiny old tough-talking Italian-American broads.
00:22
The taller one, who is like up here,
00:26
she comes marching up to me, and she goes,
00:29
"Honey, I gotta ask you something.
00:31
You got something to do with that whole
00:33
'Eat, Pray, Love' thing that's been going on lately?"
00:35
And I said, "Yes, I did."
00:38
And she smacks her friend and she goes,
00:40
"See, I told you, I said, that's that girl.
00:42
That's that girl who wrote that book
00:44
based on that movie."
00:46
(Laughter)
00:48
So that's who I am.
00:50
And believe me, I'm extremely
grateful to be that person,
00:52
because that whole "Eat, Pray, Love" thing
00:56
was a huge break for me.
00:58
But it also left me in a really tricky position
01:00
moving forward as an author
01:02
trying to figure out how in the world
01:04
I was ever going to write a book again
01:06
that would ever please anybody,
01:07
because I knew well in advance
01:09
that all of those people who
had adored "Eat, Pray, Love"
01:11
were going to be incredibly disappointed
01:14
in whatever I wrote next
01:15
because it wasn't going to be "Eat, Pray, Love,"
01:17
and all of those people who
had hated "Eat, Pray, Love"
01:19
were going to be incredibly disappointed
01:21
in whatever I wrote next
01:22
because it would provide evidence that I still lived.
01:24
So I knew that I had no way to win,
01:26
and knowing that I had no way to win
01:30
made me seriously consider for a while
01:32
just quitting the game
01:34
and moving to the country to raise corgis.
01:35
But if I had done that, if I had given up writing,
01:39
I would have lost my beloved vocation,
01:41
so I knew that the task was that I had to find
01:43
some way to gin up the inspiration
01:45
to write the next book
01:48
regardless of its inevitable negative outcome.
01:49
In other words, I had to find a way to make sure
01:52
that my creativity survived its own success.
01:53
And I did, in the end, find that inspiration,
01:56
but I found it in the most unlikely
01:58
and unexpected place.
02:00
I found it in lessons that I had learned earlier in life
02:01
about how creativity can survive its own failure.
02:04
So just to back up and explain,
02:08
the only thing I have ever wanted to be
02:09
for my whole life was a writer.
02:11
I wrote all through childhood,
all through adolescence,
02:13
by the time I was a teenager I was sending
02:15
my very bad stories to The New Yorker,
02:17
hoping to be discovered.
02:19
After college, I got a job as a diner waitress,
02:20
kept working, kept writing,
02:23
kept trying really hard to get published,
02:25
and failing at it.
02:27
I failed at getting published
02:29
for almost six years.
02:30
So for almost six years, every single day,
02:32
I had nothing but rejection letters
02:34
waiting for me in my mailbox.
02:35
And it was devastating every single time,
02:37
and every single time, I had to ask myself
02:39
if I should just quit while I was behind
02:41
and give up and spare myself this pain.
02:43
But then I would find my resolve,
02:47
and always in the same way,
02:48
by saying, "I'm not going to quit,
02:50
I'm going home."
02:52
And you have to understand that for me,
02:54
going home did not mean
returning to my family's farm.
02:55
For me, going home
02:58
meant returning to the work of writing
03:00
because writing was my home,
03:01
because I loved writing more
than I hated failing at writing,
03:03
which is to say that I loved writing
03:06
more than I loved my own ego,
03:08
which is ultimately to say
03:09
that I loved writing more than I loved myself.
03:11
And that's how I pushed through it.
03:13
But the weird thing is that 20 years later,
03:15
during the crazy ride of "Eat, Pray, Love,"
03:17
I found myself identifying all over again
03:19
with that unpublished young diner waitress
03:21
who I used to be, thinking about her constantly,
03:24
and feeling like I was her again,
03:26
which made no rational sense whatsoever
03:28
because our lives could not
have been more different.
03:30
She had failed constantly.
03:32
I had succeeded beyond my wildest expectation.
03:33
We had nothing in common.
03:36
Why did I suddenly feel like I was her all over again?
03:37
And it was only when I was trying to unthread that
03:40
that I finally began to comprehend
03:43
the strange and unlikely psychological connection
03:44
in our lives between the way
we experience great failure
03:47
and the way we experience great success.
03:49
So think of it like this:
03:51
For most of your life, you live out your existence
03:53
here in the middle of the chain of human experience
03:55
where everything is normal
and reassuring and regular,
03:57
but failure catapults you abruptly way out over here
04:00
into the blinding darkness of disappointment.
04:04
Success catapults you just as abruptly but just as far
04:06
way out over here
04:10
into the equally blinding glare
04:11
of fame and recognition and praise.
04:13
And one of these fates
04:16
is objectively seen by the world as bad,
04:17
and the other one is objectively
seen by the world as good,
04:20
but your subconscious is completely incapable
04:22
of discerning the difference between bad and good.
04:24
The only thing that it is capable of feeling
04:27
is the absolute value of this emotional equation,
04:29
the exact distance that you have been flung
04:33
from yourself.
04:35
And there's a real equal danger in both cases
04:37
of getting lost out there
04:39
in the hinterlands of the psyche.
04:40
But in both cases, it turns out that there is
04:42
also the same remedy for self-restoration,
04:44
and that is that you have got to
find your way back home again
04:47
as swiftly and smoothly as you can,
04:50
and if you're wondering what your home is,
04:52
here's a hint:
04:54
Your home is whatever in this world you love
04:55
more than you love yourself.
04:57
So that might be creativity, it might be family,
04:59
it might be invention, adventure,
05:01
faith, service, it might be raising corgis,
05:03
I don't know, your home is that thing
05:06
to which you can dedicate your energies
05:08
with such singular devotion
05:10
that the ultimate results become inconsequential.
05:12
For me, that home has always been writing.
05:15
So after the weird, disorienting success
05:18
that I went through with "Eat, Pray, Love,"
05:20
I realized that all I had to do was exactly
05:22
the same thing that I used to have to do all the time
05:23
when I was an equally disoriented failure.
05:25
I had to get my ass back to work,
05:27
and that's what I did, and that's how, in 2010,
05:29
I was able to publish the dreaded follow-up
05:32
to "Eat, Pray, Love."
05:34
And you know what happened with that book?
05:35
It bombed, and I was fine.
05:37
Actually, I kind of felt bulletproof,
05:39
because I knew that I had broken the spell
05:41
and I had found my way back home
05:43
to writing for the sheer devotion of it.
05:45
And I stayed in my home of writing after that,
05:48
and I wrote another book that just came out last year
05:50
and that one was really beautifully received,
05:51
which is very nice, but not my point.
05:53
My point is that I'm writing another one now,
05:55
and I'll write another book after that
05:57
and another and another and another
05:58
and many of them will fail,
06:00
and some of them might succeed,
06:01
but I will always be safe
06:03
from the random hurricanes of outcome
06:04
as long as I never forget where I rightfully live.
06:07
Look, I don't know where you rightfully live,
06:10
but I know that there's something in this world
06:13
that you love more than you love yourself.
06:14
Something worthy, by the way,
06:16
so addiction and infatuation don't count,
06:18
because we all know that those
are not safe places to live. Right?
06:20
The only trick is that you've got to identify
06:24
the best, worthiest thing that you love most,
06:26
and then build your house right on top of it
06:28
and don't budge from it.
06:31
And if you should someday, somehow
06:33
get vaulted out of your home
06:35
by either great failure or great success,
06:37
then your job is to fight your
way back to that home
06:39
the only way that it has ever been done,
06:42
by putting your head down and performing
06:43
with diligence and devotion
06:46
and respect and reverence
06:47
whatever the task is that love
06:49
is calling forth from you next.
06:51
You just do that, and keep doing that
06:53
again and again and again,
06:55
and I can absolutely promise you,
from long personal experience
06:57
in every direction, I can assure you
07:00
that it's all going to be okay.
07:02
Thank you.
07:04
(Applause)
07:06

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Elizabeth Gilbert - Writer
The author of 'Eat, Pray, Love,' Elizabeth Gilbert has thought long and hard about some big topics. Her fascinations: genius, creativity and how we get in our own way when it comes to both.

Why you should listen

Elizabeth Gilbert faced down a premidlife crisis by doing what we all secretly dream of -- running off for a year. Her travels through Italy, India and Indonesia resulted in the megabestselling and deeply beloved memoir Eat, Pray, Love, about her process of finding herself by leaving home.

She's a longtime magazine writer -- covering music and politics for Spin and GQ -- as well as a novelist and short-story writer. Her books include the story collection Pilgrims, the novel Stern Men (about lobster fishermen in Maine) and a biography of the woodsman Eustace Conway, called The Last American Man. Her work has been the basis for two movies so far (Coyote Ugly, based on her own tale of working at the famously raunchy bar in New York City), and Eat, Pray, Love, with the part of Gilbert played by Julia Roberts. Not bad for a year off.

In 2010, Elizabeth published Committed, a memoir exploring her ambivalent feelings about the institution of marriage. And her 2013 novel, The Signature of All Things, is "a sprawling tale of 19th century botanical exploration."

Gilbert also owns and runs the import shop Two Buttons in Frenchtown, New Jersey.

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