Last week, I shared my journey to understanding what healthy ambition could look like. When we create for our own inner growth without looking to compare or compete with others, then we find ourselves in a healthy state of creativity and joy for its own sake.
Now, the question arises: what if we're trying to make a living from our creativity?
When we look to others to part with their hard-earned money in exchange for a piece of our creative output, isn't it confusing then to be told to not look outwards for validation or acceptance or livelihood?
My thoughts on this topic have changed a lot over the years, veering from one extreme to the other.
Obviously, there is no one answer to this question, but it can also be difficult to find a middle ground that we can decide to stick to early on. Very often, the path I'm able to stick to is the one I likely stumbled upon after several rounds of trial and error.
From one extreme (focussing only on the inner world) ...
On one hand are those who say that we should simply create what makes our heart sing, and the money (or audience or validation) will come of its own accord.
In a reply to a comment on his post, career author Dean Wesley Smith said:
For me, I don’t write for other people, ... I just write for me and if I can sell it, great, if not, shrug, I’ll write more for me.
This sounds very liberating, very romantic, but one could argue that something like this is easy to say for any writer who has achieved a certain measure of financial success. (Although achieving a level of success comes with its own challenges, as we'll see towards the end of this article.*)
Nevertheless, a newbie may find it very difficult to adopt such an attitude of self-assurance, especially one who is looking to others to pay him/her for his/her writing. It may be difficult for them to trust that they too can do this and go on to find an audience that would love their work and be willing to pay them for it.
... to the other (focussing only on the outer world)
It then makes more logical and practical sense to veer to the other extreme of the argument, which entails any number of variations of the following statements:
You can write what you want but then don't expect to make a lot of money unless you write/create to market/trend/trope/whatever-theme-is-hot-and-trending-at-the-moment.
Conversely, you have to write/create to market in order to be a commercial success.
The logic that underpins this argument is as follows:
- Trend A is hot right now, and everyone working in this particular area is striking gold.
- If I were to jump on the bandwagon, I could strike gold too.
- If I don't get on this bandwagon, I'd miss out on an earning potential.
When the market is riding high on optimism, we feel the tug. We feel pulled along, and it appears as if the only sensible thing to do is to go where the crowd goes.
I understand this all too well. Been there, done that.
But there are several fallacies in the above triad of arguments which reveal themselves if we look closely enough.
- A hot market provides more opportunities to succeed. But not everyone succeeds.
Possibility does not mean guarantee.
As Becca Syme has been saying off late, just because we can achieve success doesn't mean we will.
So when we think, "If I were to jump on the bandwagon, I could strike gold too," what we're not bearing in mind is the word 'could'. Which means "I could strike gold but it is also very likely that I may not."
In a buoyant market, we tend to overlook the very real possibility of failure or less-than-stellar outcomes.
And when we don't see the outcomes we were promised by others who blazed the trail before us, the outcomes we've come to expect by listening to others' success stories, we are discouraged and demotivated. We hamper our own progress and eventually burn out and give up sooner or later.
- It may appear that some individuals and businesses are excellent at reading the market and pivoting on time. What they truly excel at is riding the ups and downs over a long period of time.
Those who are skilled at pivoting are able to weather failures in some ventures and move on quickly from that to enjoying success in some others while it lasts.
As with any other skill, I'd imagine this too is something that can be learnt and is not the exclusive domain of only a select few.
There's a small store near where I live; it was my go-to place for masks during the days of the pandemic. There used to be pretty long line-ups outside the store back in those days. Now that masks are not in high demand anymore, they've turned into a printing production facility.
It's easy to look at that store from the outside and say, "Hey, that's a great business model of supply chain. We simply need to supply what's hot and trending right now and we'd be minting money."
It appears so easy, so logical and sensible, it creates the illusion that anybody could do this just as well as that particular store is doing.
On the outset it appears that all a creative needs to do is just jump from one hot trend to the other in order to strike gold. But since success is not guaranteed, sometimes you may win, and at other times you may lose.
But we also inadvertently overlook this truth when we try to chase a trend, because ...
- Most often, we hear the success stories but not the failures.
We hear from people who have found success, but we don't hear from those who tried it out but didn't find much/expected success. My guess is the former group only forms the tip of the iceberg while the latter group constitutes the vast hidden majority of the iceberg.
This further adds to the illusion that success is there for whoever ventures out. You only have to set out with a pan in your hand and the gold will find its way into it. Especially when the ones who have succeeded tend to preface their stories with that ultra-optimistic-but-not-entirely-true exhortation, "If I can do it, anybody can."
So one could conclude that what really matters then is the ability to claim successes when they happen and equally the ability to move on from failed ventures when they happen.
This sounds as though it's as easy as flipping a switch, but in reality setbacks can take a lot of toll on us, emotionally, mentally and financially, while the highs of successes can cause us to overestimate our abilities and downplay the risks.
Me personal choice will always be the inner world.
Up on the wall in front of my writing desk is a poster from Big Life Journal that is titled 'Worrying'.
In a beautiful illustration of a child walking through the woods with a torchlight in her hands, the poster lists out all that "I Can Control" within the beam of the flashlight and all that "I Can't Control" outside the beam.
I Can Control: practising self-care, being kind to myself, my attitude, choosing hobbies that help me find calm, my actions, my response, talking about what's on my mind.
I Can't Control: past mistakes, what might happen, if I win or not, what happens around me, what people think of me, others' choices & actions.
To me, the answer is clear. My choice between the inner and outer world will always be the inner world.
If we are intent on chasing a trend on the outside, we need to ask ourselves what exactly it is we're seeking.
I don't know about other people but I find myself chasing trends when (a) I want some short-term success really badly and (b) I mistakenly believe that chasing this particular trend will guarantee some near-term success.
For instance, this desire to look outwards crops up when I've been writing and publishing for months but not seeing much progress in terms of sales or increase in audience.
Then I become quite desperate, terrified that I've been operating in a vacuum, and I turn my attention outwards, looking for any and every opportunity that would help me sell more books and/or find a vaster audience.
To me, an increase in sales and/or an increase in audience are definite markers of progress and success. If more people are reading my books, it makes me believe that my books are worth reading.
Which brings me to the question: how does one start and keep going when there is little feedback to fall upon?
This is a very pertinent question because in this day and age, when the Internet and physical spaces are overflowing with everyone's and their offspring's creations, how does one even gain visibility and discoverability in the marketplace?
Discoverability is a very long-term game. Fans and patrons of our work come and go. The market is always in flux. Not every fan will like everything that we create. People have lots of things going on in their lives which detracts them from continuing to support our work and art.
It takes a really, really long time for someone to come across our work and read it and like it enough to want to read other works of ours. There are so many factors in this reader's journey that are simply not in our control.
For instance, I've been devouring the Hercule Poirot books that contemporary British author, Sophie Hannah, has been commissioned by the Estate of Agatha Christie to write.
I first read Book 4, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, not realizing it was the fourth book in the series and promptly read books 1 and 2 right after. But I'm taking a bit of a breather now. I think I'd like to read something else instead of Book 3 right away even though I really loved what I've read so far.
Perhaps I want to keep the last book for now for savouring at a later date, quite like how I haven't been able to bring myself to read Book 5 of The Last Vampire series by Christopher Pike because I can't bear the story of Sita to come to an end.
Perhaps I want to keep watching episode after episode of The Vampire Diaries instead of reading at night.
And none of these choices and decisions I make as a reader have anything to do with the amazing books that Hannah has written and created.
In the same way, discoverability and audience retention are not entirely in our control. Sometimes it may take a very long time for us to reach the right audience.
If I were to rely on external factors to keep writing, then I'd be doomed. I would find no motivation in writing without an audience guaranteed to love it. In which case I'd never write enough to find that kind of an audience in the first place.
*We also mistakenly believe that achieving a certain measure of success will keep encouraging us to create more.
One of the things that DWS advises is to never look at reviews. He goes on to say that good reviews hurt us even more badly than bad reviews. This may sound counterintuitive at first, but think about it.
When we receive a bad review, we may wallow for a bit, then pick ourselves up and try to learn from the feedback or decide it was the wrong kind of feedback or that we landed upon the wrong audience and move on with our next project.
But when we receive a great review, we begin to put pressure on ourselves to meet those standards that we believe a reader has come to expect from us. We worry so much about our next product not being good enough that we paralyze ourselves from creating it in the first place.
This also reminds me of an interview with JK Rowling. The interviewer asked JKR about how the success of Harry Potter has set her up for future ventures and I remember JKR answering that she was under no illusion that she'd be able to recreate the success she enjoyed from the Harry Potter franchise.
She gave an example of how Michael Jackson enjoyed tremendous success with Thriller to the extent that he kept trying to recreate that success with every new album he made but couldn't.
I had never heard anyone say something to this effect before and the gist of her message has stayed with me ever since.
When we achieve success, we are taught to aim even higher. But so much pertaining to worldly success is not in our control, and this is something we forget so quickly.
One stroke of success doesn't guarantee success forevermore, if we were to stick to the conventional definition of success.
So where does this leave us?
The way that works for me in dealing with this conundrum is the one that brings me back to why I'm even writing in the first place.
I write because that is how I best express myself. I write because I love writing. It's an art form that I love and wish to constantly keep doing and keep improving in.
Ultimately, I love writing. I don't really have a reason to write. But I know when I don't write, it's as if a piece of my soul has been hacked away and I can't get it back unless I've gone to the writing desk and written/typed out several words.
I have no idea which of my writings will resonate with people and which won't. In fact, there is no body of work that is universally loved.
Looking at reviews only gives us a part of the picture because it does not capture the views of those who haven't presented their views, whether good or bad, in the first place.
Instead of attempting the imaginary and impossible task of pleasing an entire audience, I'm much better off both in the near and long term if I were to focus on improving my craft and improving myself as a person in this journey of writing.
I don't have to be the best at something, but I can certainly focus on being and showing up as my best self.
In parting, I will leave you with the words of the late American novelist, Flannery O'Connor
When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God's business.
~ Flannery O'Connor