I have bad news. You can work hard, be smart, do exactly what you want to do and still not achieve your goals.
Seriously, now, is it some kind of peculiar madness of our times, that we believe if we do everything we’re supposed to, and if we’re good at whatever we do, reward will follow? Or is this part of how humans are put together?
Is the same thing that allowed us to survive – the ability to intuit patterns of behavior and distinguish the ones most/least likely to lead to long life – as a species the thing that makes people believe “but I did x so y is supposed to happen?”
What brought this about was my husband talking about a writer (and the details are fuzzy, because he talks about these things while I’m cooking, so when a pot suddenly boils over I lose a great portion of the story) who was/is quitting writing because after ten years of trying, she’s still not a bestseller.
(Let’s ignore for a moment that for an indie to set out to be a bestseller is an unrealistic goal, since “bestseller” is a very specific thing that necessitates being stocked in the right bookstores and selling at the right velocity. You can sell very well and make a lot of money without ever being one of the recognized bestseller lists.)
Ten years. And she’s quitting because she’s not at the top of her profession. My first reaction was to grimace and say “Oh, well, ten years in I think I’d sold a short story, and they never paid me for it.”
If it were just one person, though, or even just my profession, it wouldn’t warrang writing about it. Yeah, sure, my profession attracts more people with this belief, perhaps because of how many stories about underdog makes good have become part of people’s subconscious. (This doesn’t mean we should stop writing them.)
I’ve run into any number of newbies coming to me – to me – and asking what they’re doing wrong because they have four short stories out and no award or they have two novels out and are not bestsellers. It’s mind boggling since, presumably, when they ask me for advice, they respect me, but they seem to think that awards and “bestseller” status are a measure of success. I am usually flabbergasted, but let it go. After all, as the movie sliding doors puts it “you’ll finish your novel and we’ll be rich.” Eh.
But it’s not just writers. It’s the people with degrees in puppetry and working as baristas, who sob into microphones that they “did everything right” and yet they can’t find a job in which to use their advanced degree.
In some of these cases, you have to have a heart of stone not to laugh like an hyena. I mean, puppetry? How many good paying jobs do you think are out there for that? Or, of course “Sure your mom and your cat love it, but did you really think yet another twilight clone would take you to the big time?”
But it seems to be one of those pesky human things. The idea that if you do everything right, the reward will follow inexorably. And unfortunately its converse idea, the idea that if you aren’t wildly successful at whatever, you must be doing something wrong.
Take infertility, for instance. I had no reason to think it would hit me. I got married at 22 and we started trying almost right away. When we didn’t get pregnant in a year, I went and got the books and followed the advice. We did everything right. And yet month after month our hopes were dashed.
Turned out of course my issue was more complex, probably caused by a childhood treatment for eczema, and, well, needed more than (pardon me the graphics) remaining on your back with a pillow beneath your butt after sex for an hour.
Did it stop the suspicion that somehow we were doing something wrong? Well, for us it did. Not for other people. From people who tried to slip my husband noodie magazines (yeah, because that was the problem with 20 something year olds) to my parents who, G-d help me, realized belatedly we’d never had the talk and thought I must have got it all wrong (How does one get it wrong? I DON’T know) and who tried therefore to explain to me how babies were made. At 26. Four years married. Head>desk. (Mom, dad, I’m Odd, but not that ODD.)
And then there is a vast portion of the SJWs GHHs and OWSs. They think that because things aren’t going according to plan something must have gone wrong. Of course being themselves they think OTHER PEOPLE have done the dirt to them, and that’s why things aren’t going according to plan, because they did “everything right.” And it baffles them they’re not at the top yet, so it must be someone’s fault and “the man” is holding them down.
This is normally the reaction of people who are both “good children” – i.e. conformists – and who have been spoiled and told how great they are their whole lives.
For the rest of us, the person who is failing is more likely to feel guilty. “I’m failing. What am I doing wrong?”
Now, this is a good thing. If you are failing, and you want to succeed, you should study what you’re doing wrong and try to improve. And you should seek help. (Yep, something people on this blog, starting with the writer get told rather often, right.)
But it’s not the only thing. And it also depends on what you call “success.”
Say in publishing, in the age of indie: there is no reason you shouldn’t be able to make a living from this, given enough time and a modicum of ability. (The time is my big issue. Ya’ll have noticed more guest posts? Yeah. My goal is to only write three posts a week. Hopefully (I’ve been promised) the family will step up on these. Being Hoyts and all. BUT for at least two years I need to cut back on the DAILY posting, because it does eat my other writing. I will probably do aggregator or funny stuff, too, if no guest post forthcoming. Maybe I’ll hit the gif box again.)
If you’re writing at least a short novel every three to six months and putting it up, you’ll be able to make a living from this sooner or later. (The mean seems to be two to three years.) BUT that is not the same as being a bestseller, or being acclaimed, or getting awards. Not the same thing at all.
And if you do “everything right” and go to college with a STEM degree, you’ll probably be able to support yourself. Note the probably. It depends on where you are and what you’re willing to do, because even a STEM degree is no guarantee that you’ll find something in your precise area. Are you willing to move? Learn a specialized trade? You’ll probably be able to support yourself. (The same is true, btw, if you don’t go to college and just learn a skill in demand. If I had my time again, I’d have married Dan at eighteen – okay, this also necessitates my not being clueless, but… — and taken a community college course in furniture making, instead of my fancy degree.)
Looking around our exceedingly well educated acquaintance, I don’t know a single person who works at what they studied in college. (Except maybe as a second or third degree – Hi Kate and Charlie!)
What I mean is, yeah, sure there are things you can do to increase your chances of success. Among them are trying to identify an in-demand skill, (or pursuing the thing that won’t leave you alone) learn the craft as best you can, and try and try and try again.
Does this guarantee you will succeed? Ah!
At some point I found myself in the bar of a hotel with a bunch of seasoned pros (in my field this means you’ve had a lot of vinegar poured on you.)
I thought at the time – the Shakespeare series having tanked among other reasons because of 9/11 a month before release – that I had the saddest story of all. Ah! Not even close.
Oh, sure a lot of the stories were publisher malfeasance, but find any pro who is not a bestseller 20 years in, and you’ll hear amusing/sad stories about how weird things hit each of their books/series. And you know, now that I’m one, I could tell you my own. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a plague of locusts, but I did hear of warehouses flooded by Sandy (Our first set of contributor copies for AFGM had suspicious stains and smelled funny.)
Look – in stories the plucky character often makes good. (Unless you’re reading gray goo and why would you do that?) But that’s because stories are designed to guide you in the path of the highest likelihood of success. They’re a guide, not a promise.
Stories are an ordered system. The world is a chaotic system.
You can do everything right, correct your course, and yet never succeed at your ultimate goal, particularly if it’s influenced by factors as wholly out of your control as “being a bestseller.” (Guys, the NYT doesn’t even share that formula.) Or “having eleven kids.” You can do everything right and still fail epically.
So, what does that mean? That we should read and write gray goo and consign ourselves to hopelessness?
Uh… no. Look, the stories are a guide and are supposed to show what is possible if you cultivate certain virtues. And if you do cultivate those virtues (mostly preparation, hard work, persistence) EVENTUALLY you’ll have SOME success. In writing you might very well make a decent middle class income, eventually. Will you be a bestseller? Who knows? That’s out of your hands, and you shouldn’t feel guilty if you aren’t. You should aim for it, and do the best you can, and then be happy with each step towards it, even if you never reach it.
Because in life, yeah, it’s the journey – it’s all we have. The destination is rather final for all of us.
“I did everything right. Why can’t I make it?” Maybe you haven’t tried hard enough. Try again tomorrow. Or do find something else to do, but make sure you’re not quitting everything as soon as it gets a little tough. No one has ever succeeded without setbacks.
Everything worth doing is worth failing at a few times before you finally get it right.
You’re not perfect, neither is the world. In the intersection of the two, there’s some terrible stuff that happens, but also surprises of unexpected beauty. (If I hadn’t been stupid enough to write a bunch of short stories attempting to break in, I’d never have learned to start a story fast.)
Roll with it. Cherish the success, but don’t believe you must have supreme success or be an utter failure. There’s gradations in between.
It’s where most of us live.
And when you fail, learn something from it, so next time you can fail higher up. If you keep failing upward you might, to your surprise, find yourself a success.