Something that I suspect a lot of people think about, especially people who do something like releasing their work out into the world, is what success means.
The struggle to work out exactly where I want to be in life has been… well, lifelong, and is still ongoing. Some people just seem to know exactly what it is they want to do, so they take all the steps to get there – a cousin of mine decided when she was about five, or something, that she wanted to be a marine biologist, so she worked hard in science at school and then went to college and university to study relevant things and then got useful experience and then ended up making a living diving off the coast of Australia or somewhere like that. Not bad. This is a sort of destination-first planning, a working-backwards approach to making decisions in pursuit of an ultimate goal.
The other approach is of course to not know what the goal is and to hope that doing things that seem interesting and enjoyable at the time ought to naturally lead to a destination that’s also interesting and enjoyable. Which is… great, in theory, but doesn’t always work. There comes a point where you realise that you’ve done most of the stuff that seemed as if it were the path and the destination is no nearer (and you still don’t really know what it is).
I’m of the latter persuasion, as you’ve probably guessed. I picked activities, hobbies, a degree, on the grounds that they seemed like things I would find fulfilling and enjoyable, but didn’t really look too far ahead to wonder what they might lead to. Now I’m, like, a full-on adult or something, supposedly, and I find that I really don’t know what I would consider succeeding in my life.
About a month and a half ago, I published Each Little Universe, which was… awesome. I finally did this thing that I’d been meaning to do for ages, and I think I was hoping that just doing that would be enough to make me go ‘ah, cool, I’ve achieved something’.
What I don’t think I realised is that success, if you don’t feel like you’re earning or achieving it, is a really hard mental state to get into – at least for me. I had a few thoughts before ELU launched about what I would consider a ‘successful’ publication, but I didn’t want to make them too concrete or get too attached to them. If I defined success as a certain number of sales, I’d be setting myself up not to reach that number, and then I’d feel bad. If I said I’d think it was a success if the book got a five-star review on Goodreads (it has had multiple, in fact, and I’m grateful for all of them!), would I think I’d failed if that didn’t happen?
The only thing I could really settle on, in the end, was a single, simple criterion: If I publish this book – at all, regardless of whatever does or doesn’t happen after that – then I have achieved a success.
Problem is, I don’t think I believed that.
Here’s the issue.
It’s all well and good rationalising a definition of success, but unless you internalise it and actually believe it, it doesn’t mean much. What ended up happening immediately after ELU launched was that I tried to tell myself that I’d done it, I’d got this work out into the world and that was the only important thing, but in fact I was (unwillingly) tied to a definition of success that was always a bit better than where I was. Got ten sales? OK, well, fifty would be a success. Get to fifty? I mean, not bad, but a hundred would be the real win… and so on.
I was moving my own goalposts constantly, in a way that was so clearly and undeniably unhelpful. Like, I can think of no benefit to doing that to myself. It didn’t make me more motivated to take steps to reach those next milestones, it just made me feel increasingly terrible about this thing that I’d done, this thing I was supposed to be really proud of.
And what sucked, really sucked, was that I’ve written stuff on the Internet for ages, most of which nobody really paid much attention to, and I was totally fine with never having any real traction as a games blogger or whatever because in my head that was part of the journey. I think some fantasy world where I released a book and then immediately somehow got unbelievably lucky and successful was the destination in my head, although I didn’t want to admit that to myself. I forgot to do it just because I love it, and thought instead that I had to live up to some standard.
Why am I saying all this, anyway? Why am I ranting about how bad I felt? What’s the point of that?
Well, I wanna say that it did in fact get better. After a little while, I was far enough removed from the immediate post-launch pressure that I could in fact just enjoy the fact that I’d done it, and now I just really really really wanna write and publish more stuff. So that’s good, and I’m feeling really good about the stuff that’s in the works at the moment (vague information about that can be found here, and more concrete details may well be coming shortly).
I also just wanted to let anyone who might be experiencing something similar know that what you’re feeling is totally understandable. I won’t say ‘normal’ because I don’t know everyone’s experience and I can’t generalise like that, but if you find yourself feeling not-so-great even when you think you should be feeling accomplished… I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, and perhaps just knowing that will help to some extent.
I don’t know that I have anything to teach here, though. I doubt I’ll learn my own lesson for next time, but perhaps I’ll be a little bit more able to relinquish any harmful (‘cos they are, there was no benefit to them at all) conceptions of what I have to do in order not to have failed, and instead just be able to enjoy doing it.
Maybe the moral of the story, if there is one, is something like ‘don’t confuse journey with destination’, because if you start thinking that some step you’re taking (publishing a book, in my case) is The Final Goal and then it turns out not to be impossibly brilliant, that can be difficult. Heck, perhaps just accepting that there might not be a destination is much more freeing, allowing you to enjoy every bit of the journey rather than fail to appreciate it because you’re too hung up on where it’s going, or might already have gone.
This stuff is easy to say and hard to do, though. Just knowing that I probably shouldn’t put pressure on myself, that I should just enjoy the ride, is unlikely to mean that I actually follow that advice and never feel this way again, but… eh. What else are we supposed to do but learn and keep trying?
Here’s my commitment to you, though. If you have something that you’ve created – whether you’ve published a book, written a blog post, uploaded a video – or indeed something that you’re currently working on, let me know in the comments here and tell me what would help you to feel that you’ve succeeded with it. If there’s something I can do to help you with that, I will do my best to do so.