Or: good advice from my husband

I wish I could take credit for this fantastic idea. But this was an image that was shared with me today from my husband.

For whatever reason (maybe feeling sore over my wonky shoulder, after injuring it earlier this week?) I was in a bit of a funk today.

I feel like as I’ve gotten older and spent longer as a writer, I’ve gotten better at focusing on what is in front of me – my own work and life – rather than getting distracted by comparisons to the wider world.

But this was one of those days where I just felt so profoundly how much I am falling short of some imaginary standard.

I think it’s really natural to have a drive for excellence and mastery, and to feel disappointed when we don’t measure up to our hopes. (And I suppose if, like me, you’re someone who likes to keep a lot of irons in the fire, that sort of ends up multiplying the number of ways in which you feel this.)

Even though it’s unhealthy and unhelpful to fixate on status, we are animals who construct hierarchies to live within. And feeling like you’re not where you want to be on that hierarchy is painful. (Primate studies are fascinating to see how status and wellbeing play out with our animal kingdom cousins.)

I regularly cycle through this pattern – and I think most other artists do as well, even if they aren’t willing to admit it openly.

There are so many ways where I feel like I’m not yet where I want to be in my career. I love the work and feel proud of the way I am growing, but I feel embarrassed that I haven’t come further. Even though there are parts that look really good from the outside, I see the failures, the missed opportunities, and the disappointments.

I know how many plays are still sitting in my drawer.

So I was moping.

And fortunately, Zach came and found me.

He let me unload for a little bit first. Then, with a twinkle, he reminded me of two important things:

  1. In creative work, success is 200% subjective.

    There’s critical acclaim, there’s money, there’s personal satisfaction, there’s audience popularity, there’s respect from peers, there’s awards, there’s media attention, and on and on and on…

    Which one of those – or magical combination – means ‘success’? No one knows! Of course we want the awards and the money and everything else. Who wouldn’t? But if you believe in what you are doing, that is enough to make your creative endeavours worthwhile, even if they don’t achieve the external success that you would hope.
  2. “A creative career is like a combination lock.”

    Talent is not irrelevant, but it has very little to do with success. I know this because I’ve seen some of the most talented writers I know drop out of the business. While others whose work seems less immediately compelling seem to thrive.

    Having a project land in the right way, or a career trajectory take off, is like fiddling with a combination lock. So many things have to line up in just the right way, at the right time, in the right order for the thing to pop open.

    All we can really control is the work we choose to do, and how we launch that out into the world.

    What happens once it is out there is beyond our control – it’s the magic that happens unseen within the lock. If we line up our bits, the odds are better that the other things will happen. But there is also a certain amount of faith and patience required.

    But it doesn’t mean you’ve failed if that lock hasn’t popped open and given you all the riches of life. As long as you are doing your part looking after the choices you can make, the rest is in life’s hands.

Perhaps this blog post would have been better if it were shorter. Or if it were a poem. Perhaps I have gone on too long and ended up clouding my own vision about this perfect image. But I wanted to get this down while it was fresh to come back to this image the next time that I need it.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash