So there I was last Sunday, wearing my black dress and chartreuse silk scarf, all dressed up to attend an annual holiday party in Manhattan at the home of a man I’d met a few times at conferences. He’s had a career studded with highly visible and well-paid success, including becoming the first digital director of the Metropolitan Museum.
The room was packed with people, some of whom have Big Jobs at places like CNN and The New York Times and many teach at local journalism schools.
At one point, when it was a bit quieter, we were all asked to briefly introduce ourselves — like many, when I said “freelance writer” I heard some laughter, (kind? unkind? sympathetic?) as this is where so many talents now work — nowhere.
A legendary writer and war correspondent — much of her life was spent frustrated by overwhelming, unfulfilled ambition. Makes me feel better!
Thanks to social media, other people’s BIG and quantifiable successes are in my face every hour: a book deal, a TV series created from their book deal, an award, a grant, a fellowship. It can feel completely overwhelming as I work, alone, more slowly and quietly.
I do have a major piece of work that will appear nationally in late January — that I worked on between August and October.
But for now…crickets.
People are fired daily now in my industry, with even well-funded and highly regarded places like the magazine Pacific Standard disappearing overnight.
So when you’re surrounded by people with visible, credible “success”, it can feel stupidly intimidating.
So I mostly, I’m embarrassed to admit, sat in the corner of that party, eavesdropping. I really enjoyed the great Indian food, but didn’t engage in much conversation. I’ve never been a fan of chitchat — and a NYC journalism party can present a heinous pecking order.
I don’t have children or grand-children, the traditional default place to park your pride when work fails.
I’ve been full-time freelance since 2006, when I was laid off from a well-paid job at the New York Daily News. I’ve applied for staff jobs since, rarely even getting an interview. I’ve stopped applying for fellowships and had two grant applications refused this fall.
So “success” is a moving target for me, and maybe for some of you as well.
By necessity, if not desire, I look beyond work, visible accolades and high payment to my thriving marriage (20 years together, nine married); deep friendships across oceans and generations, a lovely home, generally decent health instead.
This was my most recent New York Times story, about a sailing program for New York students
I’m already booked to speak in 2020 at two major conferences (unpaid, but smart, interesting audiences, one in the U.S. and one in Canada, where I do hope to find paying clients) and we’re planning (let’s do it this year, dammit!) a three to four week holiday in England.
Thanks to a link on the blog Small Dog Syndrome, I found this powerful insight, from American comedian Jenny Slate — who was hired into the cast of Saturday Night Live (never one of my favorite TV shows but considered the pinnacle of comedy success) — then later fired.
First, I just felt really, really embarrassed and terrible. … Hardly anyone gets kicked out of a cult, because I guess they want you to stay…But suddenly I just couldn’t imagine anything worse than getting fired. And then I just thought: I have to keep going. And no one can ever take away the dream.
And nothing will ever dim the lights of that experience, which was like: getting the job, leaving 30 Rock, calling my parents and saying “I am going to be on Saturday Night Live“? That is what it is. It’s such a beautiful achievement. And it’s real and I did it…
But what had also happened at the time, and what always happens, is that: Until I eventually croak, I will not die. I truly will not lie down. And you can be kicked out of a place; I definitely believe that. But I also believe the opportunity to find self-love and creative fulfillment is not a hallway with one door guarded by a super-old man. Actually, it’s spherical, and you just have to hold it between your legs. Just look down, find your opportunity.
There’s another Alexander Chee in my mind, the one who I would be if I’d only had access to regular dental care throughout my career, down to the number of teeth in my mouth. I started inventing him on a visit to Canada in 2005 when I became unnerved by how healthy everyone looked there compared to the United States, and my sense of him grows every time I leave the country. I know I’ll have a shorter career for being American in this current age, and a shorter life also. And that is by my country’s design. It is the intention.
…Until recently, I struggled to get by, and yet I am in the top twenty percent of earners in my country. I am currently saving up for dental implants—money I could as easily use for a down payment on a house. But I’m not entirely sure I’ll see the end of a mortgage or that any of us will.
Only in America do we ask our writers to believe they don’t matter as a condition of writing. It is time to end this. Much of my time as a student was spent doubting the importance of my work, doubting the power it had to reach anyone or to do anything of significance. I was already tired of hearing about how the pen was mightier than the sword by the time I was studying writing.
And this is from a writer many others likely envy and admire.
A younger friend, who makes most of her income doing Spanish translation work, (and some journalism), posted the link on her Facebook page; almost every journalist I know today feels vulnerable, underpaid and disposable — just as Chee (who writes fiction) does.
It is deeply American to undervalue — even scorn — those who work as writers or creators of music, art, dance, theater, film, until or unless we become powerful, secure and wealthy, which (as many of us know well), may less reflect talent than acquiring useful connections and well-placed allies.
Some of the most professionally successful people I know are really good at sucking up to working well with powerful people, (who have the money and authority to hand out good jobs, plum assignments, grants, fellowships and other funding).
Others have (also) had the emotional, physical, financial and mental stamina to just stay in their field long enough to survive, rise and thrive.
Many fall by the wayside, bitter, broke and envious.
But a larger cultural and political American context elides the realities of slower progress, aiding in the deception that only the most wealthy and highly visible artists and creatives are truly successful.
In a nation that only offers affordable healthcare to the indigent, employed and old, the rest of us are left vulnerable to medical bankruptcy. I lived in Canada, ages five to 30, so I know what it’s like to live as a self-employed writer and not worry constantly about the cost of healthcare. Unless an American has lived abroad, they have no idea.
Which affects many creatives and often curtails how much time and energy we can devote to creativity.
But what defines success?
an enormous salary
lots of money in the bank
having and wielding power
owning your home
a (fancy) job (and maybe several promotions)
surviving tours in the military
having a healthy/happy child(ren)
a happy relationship with your spouse/partner
achieving an athletic goal — completing a marathon or triathlon, climbing a mountain or setting a personal record
regaining (or losing) weight
acquiring formal education, gaining enough credentials to get and keep well-paid work
helping someone else achieve their dream(s) through your mentoring and volunteer efforts
If you’re ill, it can simply mean being able to get out of bed, stand upright and complete a lucid sentence.
Some people consider me a successful writer — which is flattering, but which I also tend to shrug off, having accomplished less than I’m capable of, and with peers who have published many more books, won the fellowships I’ve lost out on, etc.
But I do feel satisfied and successful in other ways: I own a home; have a lasting and happy (second) marriage; have deep and lasting friendships, to name a few. I am very grateful for good health and some savings.
Success can be an ever-receding horizon line, one that’s forever maddeningly elusive — or one more easily claimed and enjoyed
If we don’t allow ourselves to savor, enjoy and share our smaller “wins” we can end up frustrated and enraged, neither healthy nor attractive choices.
How do you measure and define success in your life?
The ball is put into play by use of the plunger, a spring-loaded rod that strikes the ball as it rests in an entry lane, or as in some newer games, by a button that signals the game logic to fire a solenoid that strikes the ball. With both devices the result is the same: The ball is propelled upwards onto the playfield. Once a ball is in play, it tends to move downward towards the player, although the ball can move in any direction, sometimes unpredictably, due to contact with objects on the playfield or by the player’s own actions. To return the ball to the upper part of the playfield, the player makes use of one or more flippers.
I think success is a lot like a pinball machine…
You put in your money, release a ball and hope like hell to keep that ball moving, and rack up enough points by the end of the game.
But, like pinball’s bumpers and alleys and pits, some of us face multiple obstacles to overcome:
lack of self-confidence
death of a loved one
lack of education
lack of skills
lack of social capital
the larger economy
Which means, when you “fail” — and, like many of us, might then wallow in shame and frustration and self-flagellation — be a little kinder to yourself.
I see the people who succeed, at least here in sharp-elbowed New York, and know the incredible advantages some of them bring, and take for granted, whether prep school and Ivy League educations or access to decision-making people in power through their social networks, often both.
They keep winning and think: I did that! All by myself!
It was said of one American President — using a baseball metaphor — he was born on third base, confident he had hit a triple.
As that little metal ball pings and caroms around the pinball machine — as in life — we react as quickly as we can, flipping flippers and trying our best to guide it and keep it flying.
But, as in life, not every game ends in delight.
So there’s a larger, deeper, more candid conversation we need to be having about who’s winning, who’s losing and why.
In the United States, there’s a firm and fixed belief that every success — and every failure — is due only to each individual’s hard work, determination and intelligence.
Talk to a person of color.
Talk to a woman of color.
Talk to an immigrant whose graduate degrees from a foreign/unknown institution mean nothing to American employers.
Talk to someone waylaid by their partner’s terminal illness, death and grieving.
Which is why we all need to lighten up on the fantasy that success is soooo easy to achieve, which — if you look at social media — can drive you mad with envy.
We hide our struggles and defeats: the crushing student loan debt, the chronic pain, the multiple surgeries, the needy relatives or un(der) employed partner…
We also need to lose the conviction that only visible wealth, prestige, power and luxury goods mark us as “successful” while kindness, generosity, frugality, humility and wisdom remain dismissed and perpetually undervalued.
We need to be ruthlessly candid about what powerful headwinds some of us face and what tailwinds propel some of us forward with a speed and velocity that look so, so effortless
When they’re not.
Your “failure” may have very little to do with your hard work, determination, education or skills.
It’s a deeply American belief that if you never ever ever give up you’ll eventually get what you want.
It’s charming in its meritocratic faith — but it’s also often bullshit.
Some doors, for all sorts of reasons, stay shut, locked and barred to us, whether social or professional.
Maybe not forever, though.
Patience, it turns out, really can be a virtue. (Oh yeah, and tenacity, in it for the long haul.)
I recently broke through to a market I’ve been wanting to write for for, literally, a decade or more. I wanted it soooooo badly, and wrote to the editor in chief several times, even as every new one arrived.
I had all the right experience and credentials.
Then (yay!) someone who works on staff there followed me on Twitter and I asked, nicely, for an introduction to someone higher up the ladder. She did it. Now I have an assignment I’d finally given up ever attaining.
Sometimes it’s best to just lay down your tools and walk away.
We’re taught from childhood that winners never quit and quitters never win.
But sometimes it’s wisest to retreat and re-think strategy, to ask ourselves why we even want this thing we think we need so desperately.
Patience — such a Victorian ideal in this era of instant everything — can produce results.
I won a New York Times national exclusive, a story about Google, (and I don’t cover tech nor live anywhere near Silicon Valley), by waiting six months after learning about it. During those months, my contact and I exchanged more than 100 emails, as the negotiations were so delicate and protracted.
— For the right person to get the hiring/budgetary authority to appreciate you and your skills. That might take months, even years.
— To develop the emotional intelligence to handle a situation you’re sure is yours right now. Maybe you’re really not quite ready for it.
— To nurture social capital, and its referrals to the players who can help you achieve your goals. Trust takes time!
— To polish the social skills required to network well with senior people in your field or industry. Not everyone will respond to your texts or emails just because you’re in an unholy rush. Buy and use high-quality personal stationery. (It works, I know.)
— To acquire the requisite technical skills to add real value to whomever you’re approaching. Just because you want it rightnow! doesn’t mean you’re offering what they need. Your urgency is not theirs.
— To realize, by thinking about it calmly for a while, that a golden opportunity is…not so much.
— To accumulate the savings you need to be able to ditch a crappy marriage or live-in relationship, a nasty job, abusive internship or freelance gig. Once you have a financial cushion, (or, as we call it in journalism, a fuck you fund), your choices become true options. You don’t have to rush into a decision, or stay miserably stuck in a bad situation.
— If you’re mired in endless conflict and confrontation with someone, withdrawing for a while, (maybe even years, if social/family), might be the best option while you decide what’s best for you, not just for them. It takes time to reflect deeply and to process difficult or painful emotions.
What success(es) have you gained by waiting and being patient — even when you didn’t want to?
Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, by Skype, phone or in person, have helped writers and bloggers worldwide; details here. Contact: email@example.com.
Every day I see a new book or article exhorting us all to fail — and enjoy it.
Like it’s really fun and comforting and the sort of thing you just can’t wait to blog about or tweet about or post an Instagram image of you at the elevator holding your cardboard box with all your shit in it after doing the walk of shame from your desk when they’ve just canned you.
Schools, particularly in the U.S., set us up for fixed mindsets, which means there is only one answer or that you believe talent is something you’re born with and it can’t be evolved or changed.
A person with a growth mindset, on the other hand, welcomes a challenge and enjoys doing things they’re not good at because they know they’ll learn.
Perhaps you’re learning how to read analytics and metrics. Or you’re trying to figure out how content and search engine optimization work hand-in-hand. Or you’re moving beyond media relations to do some really hard, but powerful communications work.
Whatever it may be, you have a growth mindset and fear of failure won’t paralyze you.
Talent can be learned. It can evolve and grow.
But I’m damn glad it’s 2016, because 2015 really kicked my ass in some new and excruciating ways.
Because four in a year, (and these are only a few of the bigger ones, the ones I’ll even admit to here), is a shit-ton of failure in my world.
Kelly’s don’t fail.
So that’s an issue right there.
I hate the tired phrase “comfort zone” — and yet I wholeheartedly agree with the premise we all need to flee ours, often, to try new things, stretch our wings, learn new skills and behaviors.
Failure Number One
I was hired to teach two classes a day, one day a week, at a schmancy private college, the kind where the rich kids fly home to Asia on long weekends and everyone dyes their hair purple and septum rings are de rigueur.
I had previously taught at several New York City-area colleges, no novice. I read up on millennials and what to expect.
This was different.
Tuition there runs a cool $60,000 a year, to study high-earning fields like…writing.
I loved the first semester, grateful for lively students who were warm and hard-working. What’s not to like? Half of them arrived each week 20 minutes before class began just to hang out. I really enjoyed getting to know them as individuals, not just a pile ‘o papers to grade.
The second semester was…not that. Suffice to say it started badly and ended much worse. I don’t teach there anymore and I wouldn’t if it were the last income source on earth. An MIA dean made it even more difficult.
Lesson learned:Adjunct teachers, especially of writing and especially in New York City, are more disposable than Kleenex. Without solid institutional support — of any kind! — it’s impossible to navigate complex scenarios you’ve never faced before.
Failure Number Two
I take on a web-writing assignment for a large charity, excited to work on something I believe in for people whose work I respect. The fee is fine and the people seem pleasant.
But they’ve never worked with an outside writer before and it becomes increasingly clear that they have no idea how to manage my time effectively, both being vague and micromanage-y all at once.
It gets worse week by week until finally it’s one Friday at 5:30 p.m. and we politely and cordially enough call it a day.
I lose $4,000 worth of anticipated income by failing to complete that project, and feel like a fool for not realizing how complex it would be.
Lesson learned: Ask a lot more questions before committing to a project, especially one that’s going to be edited by so many people.
Failure Number Three
I congratulate someone I know, vaguely, on Facebook about a great new managerial role he recently assumed.
Within a month, to my great surprise, he’s hired me to manage two complex, multi-part projects. The potential income is excellent and the content challenging. It does look a little hairy, but I’m a quick learner.
So I thought.
His managerial style proves to be a pendulum between charm and bullying. Our communication is both excessive and insufficient to our needs.
And the writers I need to hire and contract for work are fearful — naturally, given the state of our industry now — that they won’t be paid or paid quickly.
I reassure them, but with no sure knowledge of this man’s business ethics, or that of his employer. Which makes me very anxious indeed; he’s only one client, while my wide network of trusted colleagues is what keeps me working year after year thanks to their referrals. I don’t want to inadvertently screw anyone over!
Within weeks, I’m debating how soon to walk away, but hating the idea of letting down a large team — our initial meeting, (hello, warning sign) included 25 people.
I’m also hugely relieved — and out at least a month’s income because I’ve been 100 percent focused on this thing, not marketing elsewhere.
Lesson learned: If a job or assignment feels this wrong within days, let alone weeks, it probably is. If someone lashes out at me, I don’t care how much they’re paying. I’m done. I won’t tolerate this kind of behavior at this point in my career.
Failure Number Four
I’m asked to chair a 13-member volunteer committee for a registered charity, a board I’ve served on already for six years.
I’m passionate about the mission. I have a ton of ideas and am really excited to see what we can do to advance its goals and make its value much more visible.
I choose a co-chair to help, as I know some heavy lifting lies ahead.
We have no training in how to actually run a board or a meeting.
We do our best, but are soon, at every step, ignored by half the board or undermined and criticized by three women, all former presidents of it, who have very strong opinions. Nothing we say or do is met with enthusiasm, and some of it with serious opposition.
Not a great start.
I’m soon spending more unpaid time turning to others who run or serve on other boards for advice and help. Demoralized and worn out, I end up in tears.
My husband says — just leave.
We spend weeks crafting our letter of resignation, trying to be polite but honest about why we’re quitting our roles, and the board — to be met with “I’m overjoyed” by one of these women who then sends the entire board a vicious laundry list of our personal faults.
Lesson learned: Walking away is often the only choice. No one can “lead” a group of people who have no interest in supporting your ideas.
Admitting I’ve made lousy decisions hurts.
Admitting to my weaknesses hurts.
Admitting I can’t take on, and master, new projects quickly is less difficult — but I now know for sure that opposition, whether aggressive or passive-aggressive, means guaranteed failure.
Admitting I was unable to rally the support I needed is painful and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to determine what went so wrong.
We all like to succeed.
We rarely, if ever, publicly discuss or admit to fucking up.
But we all do it.
I’m guilty of sometimes moving ahead too quickly, leaping before I look deeply enough, perhaps. As a full-time freelancer living in a costly part of the world, we need steady income in the four figures every single month. I can’t sit around twiddling my thumbs waiting for the perfect fit on every opportunity.
But I’m also forever eager to try new experiences, face new challenges and grow my skills and my network. If I stick to my knitting, that can’t happen.
Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, “was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.”
Columnist David Brooks describes this idea in his recent column, expressing a Timesian surprise at one man’s joy in his garden:
This scale of purpose is not for everyone.
What makes people happy?
Not just having the newest-shiniest-costliest thing.
Nor the most well-paid powerful job.
Nor a private jet or three nannies and a $50 m apartment — which, believe me, when you live anywhere near New York City starts to seem somehow normal.
When I see an ad for a home, a house or an apartment, costing less than $1 million, and think “Yeah, that’s a decent price” I know it’s time for a reality check.
If you grow up, as I and my half-siblings did, in a family who highly values achievement and professional success — as many do — it’s tough to celebrate smaller, quieter, less-public moments.
And social media, with its non-stop parade of others’ effortless and luxurious fabulousness, offers a terrifying hall of mirrors for the chronically insecure, like one writer I know who makes the vaunted six-figures and has two Ivy League degrees, which she easily dismisses. She still wrings her hands constantly about her value.
If you persist in clinging exclusively or primarily to the ladder of professional status, ever seeking more income, status, achievement and admiration, you’re doomed.
There’s never enough.
Nor does the larger culture of the United States, a place addicted to ever-more-feverish productivity, wealth and status, offer much encouragement to those of us who actually prefer a slower pace, the lower costs of a smaller home, an older vehicle, (only one! OMG), or none.
Are our modern lives really that much more stressful? “The answer appears to be yes,” says anxiety researcher Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a professor at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me. “Anxiety rates have risen steadily over the past seven decades, during good economic times and bad.”
She believes the rise is related to a cultural shift, over the last 70 years, away from “intrinsic” values—appreciating things like close relationships and having a real love for your work—toward more “extrinsic” ones, like money and status. In fact, her research found that anxiety rates rose at the same pace with this change in mind-set. “Recent generations have been told over and over again, ‘You can be anything you want to be. You can have the big job title. You can have the big bank account.’ And in the case of women, ‘You can have this perfect body.’
That puts a lot on a person’s shoulders—and it’s also not really true. These are things that aren’t always under your control, but that disconnect creates a lot of anxiety about how hard you need to work to achieve them—and a deep fear of failure,” she explains. “And although these extrinsic values—the latest iPad, the cutest shoes—seem important, all the evidence shows that at the end of the day they don’t leave us very happy or satisfied.”
Anyone who reads this blog, or visits my website, can see that I’m a fairly ambitious, driven and productive writer — two non-fiction books, a Canadian National Magazine Award, 100+ freelance stories in The New York Times.
I’ve ticked enough boxes.
I know a woman who’s produced four children and four books in the space of a decade. And she has yet to hit 40. What on earth will she do to fill the next four decades of her frenetic life?
She’s obsessed with being productive. I admire her financial success and her love of parenting but I don’t wish to emulate her life or its choices.
I see the insane stress so many people feel — not surprising in an era of stagnant wages, record student debt and a shaky economy in many sectors. How much work is too much? How much is enough?
It is one of the few benefits of being decades into a career and having lived frugally; we don’t face the same pressures as some people I know, certainly those in their 20s, 30s and 40s juggling work/commute/kids/aging parents.
I’m writing this while sitting on our top-floor balcony, the only sounds that of birds and the wind in the leaves. We have stunning Hudson River views and sunsets that vary every day in their beauty.
I value taking time off, whenever possible.
I enjoy naps, whenever necessary.
I make time to meet friends face to face over a long, delicious meal or a walk instead of chasing yet another client.
I value our strong marriage.
I value our good health.
I value our dear friends, people who welcome us into their homes in Dublin, Paris, Toronto, London, Maine, Arizona.
What we may lack in prestige/power and visible tokens of fiscal wealth we enjoy in abundance in other forms.
Sure I’d like to write a best-seller or win a fancy fellowship.
But my boxes are mostly ticked and, for now, I’m focusing on small(er) wins and pleasures.
As some of you know, I was a nationally ranked saber fencer in my 30s, a sport I took up when I moved from Canada to New York. I’ve been athletic since childhood — competing in swimming, diving, sailing and other sports, and recreationally playing squash, softball, badminton and skiing, horseback riding, cycling and skating.
But working with a two-time Olympian as my coach forever changed the way I think, behave and react to stressful situations.
Having just finished a 15-week semester teaching college writing and blogging, it became clearer to me once more what useful lessons any creative person can learn from competitive/serious/elite athletes, like:
Pain is inevitable, suffering optional
We’re all facing challenges, whether finding clients, paying our bills, drumming up ideas, collecting late or missing payments, seeking inspiration. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and depressed when it piles up, but much of this is — sadly — quite normal. Knowing that others are facing similar issues, and finding solutions to them, will give you a necessary sense of perspective. We all struggle! Some show it more than others. The most successful, though, are able to pick up and keep going.
Your competitors are fierce, determined and well-prepared — are you?
It’s naive and foolish to think your success is going to happen quickly and smoothly. If it does, cool! Champagne! For most creatives — whether you’re a fine artist, graphic artist, writer, photographer, film-maker — it’s a road filled with people every bit as determined to succeed as you are. Possibly much more so. Find the smartest and toughest mentors possible; take classes and workshops to sharpen your skills; attend conferences to see what everyone else is up to.
A great coach is essential
I would never have considered it possible to compete at a national level were it not for a tough coach who pushed hard and knew exactly what excellence looked like — and what it required to achieve. It’s hard to get up to speed if the only people you turn to for help and advice are all working at the same level as you, or below. Aim high!
Practice, practice, practice
I’m amused by people who say they want to write — but never do. Nor they read. That’s a toughie, really. Athletes spend hours watching footage of themselves and their competitors to analyze what’s working and what’s not. Then they get to work on their weaknesses. It won’t happen if all you do is wish and hope and read blogs about other people succeeding. You have to do it, too. A lot.
Your mind and body need to rest, recover and recharge
In a gogogogogogogo culture, where everyone is always tweeting and trumpeting their latest success — a grant, a fellowship, a new book, a big fat gig — it’s tempting to compare yourself unfavorably and feel you’re falling behind the pack. No matter how hard you practice, train and compete, you also need downtime to rest your mind and body. Take a hooky day. Sleep in. Play with your kids/dog/cat. Take in a matinee or a museum show. Pleasure refreshes our spirits. Rest recharges our minds and bodies.
Stamina is key!
It’s tiring to stay in the game, week after week, month after month, year after year. It’s also difficult to stay if and when you’re weary, fed up, hurting from rejections. Stamina — which includes mental toughness — is often what separates champions from also-rans.
What are your competitors doing better — and how can you do so, too?
No matter your creative field, you need to stay abreast of developments. What new skills do you need to be acquiring? Do you need to find a new teacher?
Someone is always going to lose. Sometimes that’s going to be you
Yes, it hurts! No one likes losing and it can feel like the end of the world when you do. Take it as a testament to the strength and dedication of your competitors.
Is this your best sport?
If things are going badly, no matter how hard you try, maybe this isn’t your game. It can be very painful to admit defeat (or what looks like it) but it might be worth considering if your very best efforts keep producing little satisfaction or success.
Working through pain is simply part of the process
We live in a world that focuses all its energy on winning, happiness and success. But we’re all likely to have down times — illness, lost clients, a period of creative frustration. Knowing it’s all part of the game reminds us of that. A pain-free, disappointment-proof life is usually unrealistic…and resilience a key component of creative success.
It’s graduation season, and time — for the fortunate — to step into their first full-time staff jobs, whether a permanent position or a summer internship.
If you’ve snagged a paid spot (or, likely, an unpaid one), congrats! Time to rock it!
As someone who has hired and managed less-experienced researchers and assistants, and has watched some newsroom interns succeed — or fail — a few hints:
Put down your phone, look people in the eye and give them your undivided attention. Old folks — anyone over 30 — expect you to look at them while they’re speaking to you, not IM or text. Especially if you’re working in any sort of customer-facing work like PR, retail, hospitality or food service — where high quality customer service is expected — this is crucial.
Your ability to soak up information quickly and accurately will make or break you. You may also have to convey key information to other people and need to be sure you’ve got everything right. You may well need to remind your boss of meetings, travel appointments or other tasks. They’re offloading onto you and counting on you to be helpful.
Use whatever method is easiest and most reliable, whether a pen and paper, Ipad or verbal dictation. Double-check the spelling of even the simplest names and figures: Jon Smythe, for example. Never assume you automatically know the right answer; even if you do, check to be sure.
Ask lots of questions
Don’t be annoying and sleeve-tugging, but learn what is expected of you, whether hourly, daily, or weekly. If you’ve been asked to prepare a conference room for a meeting, go there ahead of time and make sure everything your boss(es) and co-workers will need is in there, and if not, get it!
Get to know all support and administrative staff and be kind and respectful to them. They hold a lot of power.
Also, find out how your boss and coworkers prefer to communicate — whether face to face, texts, email, phone or Skype. Just because you and your friends prefer texting does not mean those paying you do as well.
Memorize the phrase: “No problem!”
And mean it. After you’ve gotten your responsibilities clear, and you know who to ask or call for help in an emergency, it’s up to you to figure stuff out for yourself. It’s called being resourceful. Your value to your organization is not simply doing the job they hired you into, but to notice and anticipate other issues you might be able to help solve.
Take care of yourself: eat right, sleep 8 hours a night, limit alcohol intake
Don’t underestimate the stress — (and excitement!) — of a full-time job pleasing many new and demanding strangers. They’re not your Mom or coach or professors and (sorry!) many just don’t really care if you’re happy or having fun or even if you succeed. So it’s up to you to take the best care of your body and soul as possible, especially in an economy with few great jobs and little to no room for error, sloppiness, oversights or slip-ups.
Being well-rested and properly nourished will help you stay on top of your game; (i.e. do not arrive at work, ever, hungover. Nor share those details if you do.)
And no draaaaaaaama. Ever. No public tears or tantrums. (That includes stairwells, elevators and bathrooms. The walls have ears and you never know who’s listening.)
Check in with your boss(es)
If something they have asked you to do is heading south, let them know as soon as possible so there are no ugly last-minute surprises they can’t fix.
Don’t constantly ask co-workers or bosses for “feedback” or praise
Seriously! No matter how badly you crave approval or are used to being told — “Thanks! Great job!” — don’t hold your breath waiting for this at work. And don’t freak out if you never hear it there, no matter how much extra effort you put in. We’re all running 100,000 miles per hour these days and anyone who even has a job, let alone a senior position of any authority, is already plenty stressed and tired.
They are in no mood to coddle you as well.
Don’t take shit personally — unless it’s aimed at you specifically
If someone rips your head off, don’t take it personally. They might be a bitch to everyone all the time, or their dog just died or their husband is having an affair or they just got a lousy diagnosis. Get a feel for office politics and culture so you know when someone is really just like that, or when you really are screwing up and deserved to get your head sliced off, GOT-style.
Do everything to 187 percent of your ability. Everything!
That means getting coffee, running to Staples, booking your boss’s flight, whatever your boss needs. People who run their own business, especially, rely on helpful, cheerful team players — no one is “too important” to do the smallest of tasks, no matter how silly or tedious or un-sexy they appear to be. People really value workers who consistently offer them good cheer, high energy and empathy.
Your primary job is to make everyone else’s job easier
Don’t focus on your job title or description, if you even have one. Never say out loud, or post anywhere on social media: “That’s not my job!” If your boss says it’s your job, guess what…
Your most valuable skill, certainly as someone new to the workforce building your skills and your networks for the future, is being sensitive to others’ needs and making their lives easier, while accomplishing your own tasks on or ahead of schedule. No one, even at the opera, wants to work with a diva.
Most people agree that what distinguishes those who become famously creative is their resilience. While creativity at times is very rewarding, it is not about happiness. Staw says a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.”
To live creatively is a choice. You must make a commitment to your own mind and the possibility that you will not be accepted. You have to let go of satisfying people, often even yourself.
My subconscious conjured an image of a fabulous party, filled with other writers and publishing types. A place where I could walk in the door to a chorus of cheers, the “Norm” moment, where guard could be let down completely, where there was only shared vocabulary and a fluid ease that would make the jitters go away. There was a social circle that would be the payout for all the rejection and worry and sweat equity I poured into my books. When I talked about it with my brother, I simply described it as “that.” I wanted to have “that.”
All I had to do was get a book deal. I would break out of the world I knew and set up in some secret corner of the social fabric, a backstage pass to the world of writers that I just *knew* was out there, even though I had never seen it before…
There is no party. Not beyond the hour or two at a con or publishing event where you get to show off for a shining moment, bask in the accolades for a few minutes, fan boy gush face to face over someone whose work you admire but never hoped to meet.
And then it’s over, and you’re left with the work.
My husband Jose recently passed a major professional milestone: 30 years as a photographer and photo editor at The New York Times. On 9/11, the day he was to have moved into my apartment in suburban New York from his home in Brooklyn, he instead unpacked his scanner, printer and computer — and helped his colleagues transmit their horrific images from his apartment. His grace under fire helped the paper win that year’s team Pulitzer Prize for photo editing.
He grew up poor, the son of a Baptist preacher in Santa Fe, NM, far from the centers of media power and influence. He attended state school on scholarship. He’s slight, quiet, modest. Everyone else in his family became teachers.
One day, shooting for the Associated Press, the White House press corps — accompanying then First Lady Rosalynn Carter, landed in El Paso.
“Someday that’s going to be me,” said Jose, as he saw its four or five wire service photographers emerge from the plane.
Several colleagues snickered at his hubris.
And then he was, during his eight-year career in the White House Press Corps, photographing Presidents Bush, Reagan and Clinton.
Here’s his brand-new blog, Frame36a, (which refers to the extra frame we used to be able to squeeze from a 36-image roll of film), which will offer advice, insights and fantastic back-stories to some of his best photos.
We all won’t have a career like his.
But anyone with creative ambition — musical, artistic, photographic, literary, choreographic — will face obstacles, whether you’re 17, 27 or 57: lack of funds, no representation, a lost prize or fellowship or scholarship.
After a decade or so, they’ll probably morph into different challenges, but it’s rarely easy.
If you think it should be, this isn’t the world for you.
You don’t have to start out by winning a major prize or selling your work for a lot of money. You just have to get started. I began my career as a photographer, and one of my first sales was to my own high school, an image they bought for the school library. Was I scared to pitch our principal? Hell, yes! But it worked. I also had a show of my images in a Toronto library, again, because I dared to ask. The smaller the ask, the less scary it should be. Those initial triumphs are essential baby steps to your self-confidence as a creative person able to find, and sell into, the marketplace of ideas.
Don’t wait for permission to create! You don’t need a certificate or degree from anyone, anywhere, to create interesting, challenging and worthwhile work. Don’t be terrified if your competitor graduated from RISD or has a Phd from Harvard or was a star at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. If you have the passion and drive to find the toughest teachers out there — and they might be someone you meet at a conference or class — you’ll be on your way. I sold my first photos, three magazine covers, when I was still in high school. Jose was selling his photos while a freshman in college to the Associated Press; by the time we both graduated, we had large and impressive portfolios of nationally-published work. We were far, far ahead of our 22-year-old peers competing for work and jobs.
Don’t give up if you fail the first (second, third) time
I’m amazed how quickly some people give up. I interviewed three times at Newsweek and was never hired there. No harm, no foul. I’ve had an awesome life and career without them. I’ve applied two (three?) times for the Alicia Patterson Fellowship, and was one of 14 finalists (of 347 applicants) last time. I’ll probably apply a few more times until I get it. In the meantime, I just keep improving my skills and strategies.
If you’re really aiming high, you’re always competing against highly-educated, smart, talented and well-prepared competitors. Expect it and arm yourself accordingly. If you want it badly enough — whatever it is — you’ll keep coming back to get it. Or you’ll find something more interesting instead.
Both of my non-fiction books, both of which were published by major New York houses to excellent reviews, were each rejected by 25 publishers first. Fun!
It’s too easy to watch others win awards and prizes and fellowships and hate them. Bandage your ego and get back in the game.
Find people whose work inspire you
This is essential. People who have succeeded in your field have likely hit (and surmounted) many of the same obstacles along the way that you’re facing. Read, listen to and watch them: at conferences, in TED talks, their websites or blogs or books. Follow them on social media like Instagram and Twitter.
If you’re feeling bold, reply to them or re-tweet their words. A relationship with someone who’s already carved their path is helpful. Don’t expect them to mentor you, though. Successful creatives are really busy!
Understand your industry or field: who has power and why?
The best way to get ahead creatively is not to shut yourself away in your studio or a hut in the woods, no matter how romantic that sounds. If you don’t keep up with the movements, controversies and players in your field, you’re too isolated and have no real idea how to access the powers-that-be, the ones whose choices are going to affect your ability to succeed as well.
Make sure to attend at least one conference a year in your industry so you can hear the latest and network with your peers. Showing up in person helps to prove your commitment; people see that and respond accordingly.
Self-doubt and self-confidence will perpetually war within you
It’s the ultimate paradox: to create means taking a risk, putting your skills and ideas into public view for possible rejection or criticism, but it also requires and demands enough confidence in your work to put it out there in the first place.
No creative person I know, or know of, hasn’t suffered — sometimes mightily — from this internal war.
Writers, even the most visibly accomplished, the ones we envy and admire, (who now have a reputation they might squander), lose their nerve or voice. Performers vomit and tremble before setting foot on stage. Artists burn work they’ve spent months or years to produce.
We’re human. It happens.
Make peace with your fears. Name and number them — “Oh, yeah, self-doubt 34a, how the hell are you these days?”
Then keep moving.
You will have to hustle, self-promote and shout louder than you might ever prefer
If you are a modest, gentle soul — like my lovely Jose — you may find the creative path more difficult, surrounded by arrogant, shouty chest-beaters. If you truly crave Big Success, however you choose define it, you may have to toot your own horn loud and long, no matter how declasse your family or friends or native culture consider that.
Volunteer your time and skills within your creative community
I think this is overlooked as a key to long-term success.
You don’t have time? Make it. People most respect, value and reach out to help those they respect personally — not just someone whose work they read about or saw in a show or in concert. I was only 19, still in college, when I volunteered to interview lions of Canada’s journalism industry for a book. How else could I ever have met or spoken to them, let alone learned their wisdom? Then they also knew who I was. Win-win.
I’ve served for years on volunteer boards for writers’ groups. It helped to hone my people skills, (still a work in progress!), taught me about fund-raising and how to defend and explain my ideas to a skeptical group.
It also shows clients and colleagues my pride in, and commitment to, my larger creative community.
Find, or create, a group that meets weekly, or monthly. Create an on-line listserv or Facebook group. Mentoring others comes back in waves of generosity, for years.
Make time to reflect, recharge and revive your spirit
No matter what you hope to create or produce, make time to recharge. Sit still in silence every day. Stare at the sky, no matter what the weather. Make notes whenever you get an idea. Keep them!
Travel as far and as often as you can afford
There’s no better way to sharpen your senses than to step out of habitual behaviors and routines: taking the same subway line or bus route; eating the same cereal at breakfast; seeing the same faces at work. Even a two-hour road trip to a nearby town or city or nature preserve can offer you new ideas and insights.
Have a clear vision of what you hope to accomplish, today and/or in a decade
You can’t get there, wherever there is, without a clear idea what it is. Only by naming it can you start to lay the necessary groundwork — whether admission to the best program of study, a fellowship, a job, access to a busy mentor, publication of your novel or a gallery show. It’s too daunting to stare only at the cloud-shrouded Everest of your final goal. Focus on the foothills!
I recently started a writers’ group and called it Story Sherpas — no one gets there alone, without the help and support of a team along the way.
Study the work of the very best in your field
Don’t assume the best are working today. They might have powerful lessons to offer from their endeavors — possibly centuries ago.
Save a lot of money!
Creative “success” can, and often does, evaporate overnight — and with it your ability to dick around and await your muse.
Read this cautionary tale, from a New York writer whose book advance was a stunning $200,000, way more than any writer I know has ever received. She blew it.
Don’t ever rest on your laurels. They can wither mighty fast.
I have gotten into baseball recently, and whenever I have trouble writing, I think about the pace of baseball. It’s slow. You strike out a lot, even if you’re great. It’s mostly individual, but when you have to work together, it must be perfect. My desktop picture is of the Red Sox during the World Series. They aren’t winning; they’re just grinding out another play. This, for me, is very helpful to have in my mind while writing.
I play softball, and it’s taught me a lot, as sports will do, about how I handle or manage my emotions and failure, on or off the field.
Many new writers, quivering (Rocky Horror Picture show-style) with anticipation,are quite firmly persuaded that they are going to be become rich, famous, adored by millions. This lies in distinctly naive/annoying contrast to the lived experience of thousands of talented, accomplished, award-winning writers who have never had, and never will have, a best-seller or a movie made of their work.
Working artists get up every day and step up to the plate, as it were, and swing. We might hit a single, or a double. On a very good day, we’ll hit a triple.
A home run? If we focused on achieving that, and only that, we’d probably stay in bed in the fetal position.
The creative life looks so alluring — wake up at noon, sip an espresso, read, do your artistic thing for a few hours. You know, be creative.
…one of America’s most influential men of letters. As editor in chief and managing director of Pantheon Books, a Random House imprint where making money was never the main point, he published novels and books of cultural, social and political significance by an international array of mostly highbrow, left-leaning authors.
Taking risks, running losses, resisting financial pressures and compromises, Mr. Schiffrin championed the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Günter Grass, Studs Terkel, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Noam Chomsky, Julio Cortázar, Marguerite Duras, Roy Medvedev, Gunnar Myrdal, George Kennan, Anita Brookner, R. D. Laing and many others.
But in 1990, after 28 years at Pantheon, Mr. Schiffrin was fired by Alberto Vitale, the chief executive of Random House, in a dispute over chronic losses and Mr. Schiffrin’s refusal to accept cutbacks and other changes. His departure made headlines, prompted resignations by colleagues, led to a protest march joined by world-renowned authors, and reverberated across the publishing industry in articles and debates.
Many in publishing spoke against the dismissal, calling it an assault on American culture by Random House’s billionaire owner, S. I. Newhouse Jr., who was accused of blocking a channel for contrary voices in favor of lucrative self-help books and ghostwritten memoirs for the sake of the bottom line.
You have to want creative success (let alone a livable income), quite badly, as this recent New York Times piece reminds us:
The point of work should not be just to provide the material goods we need to survive.Since work typically takes the largest part of our time, it should also be an important part of what gives our life meaning. Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the
material rewards it brings…But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic
system has almost nothing to offer…
The situation is even worse for those who want to produce the literary, musical and artistic works that sustain our humanistic culture. Even highly gifted and relatively successful writers, artists and musicians generally are not able earn a living from their talents. The very few who become superstars are very well rewarded. But almost all the others — poets, novelists, actors, singers, artists — must either have a partnerwhose income supports them or a “day job” to pay the bills. Even writers who are regularly published by major houses or win major prizes cannot always live on their earnings.
Payment for writers — or persistent, bald-faced lack of it — was the huge elephant in the room. No one dared challenge the confident 20 and 30-somethings up on the stage, with their ponytails and costly new shoes, about their insistence they need great writing to actually fill up their sites.
While offering little or no money to writers.
I found this sad, infuriating and highly instructive. I spoke to a few young journalists in the hall — who shared stories of a life without health insurance, flitting desperately from one freelance, part-time or contract job to the next, their hunger for some handhold palpable and often financially unresolvable.
Ironically, the only people who didn’t reek of desperation were those still writing freelance for old-legacy print media (as I do) or those with coveted, rare full-time jobs inside someone’s corporate newsroom where — as one legendary editor suggested from the stage — “find the formula and mimic it. That’s half the battle.”
If you hunger for creative success — what are you willing to give up to get it?
THIS WEEK’S WEBINAR — THE LAST OF THE SUPER-SUCCESSFUL FALL SERIES — IS “YOU, INC: THE BUSINESS OF FREELANCING”; 4:00 p.m. EST DEC. 14. (THE SERIES REPEATS IN FEBRUARY.)