People sometimes ask me, “Don’t you feel guilty encouraging individuals to pursue their artistic dreams when the odds against success are so overwhelming?”
My answer is that that’s the wrong question to ask.
Yes, the odds-against are formidable. You and I are probably not going to win an Oscar or a Pulitzer. Our start-up is not going to get bought by Google. We may count ourselves lucky to get published by FlyByNightBooks.com.
But it’s still the wrong question. And it’s looking at the issue from the wrong direction.
The right question is, “What happens to us if we don’t pursue our dreams?”
And the right direction is from the inside-out, not the outside-in.
Here’s what it looks like from the inside-out:
I’m a musician, a software writer, a mother. In my heart are unwritten songs and unrecorded albums; videogames-in-potential and breakthrough interfaces yet-to-be-born. I’m a mother with a heart full of love to give.
What if I do nothing?
What happens to me? What happens to my children or my children-to-be? What happens to the planet?
Resistance is a supremely devious serpent (my apologies to serpents everywhere), and one of its most diabolical ploys (I’m talking about Resistance as it expresses itself as that voice-in-our-heads) is to piggyback itself onto a negative, particularly an objectively-true negative like the odds against success for an individual artist or entrepreneur.
Yes, the odds are long. Yeah, the obstacles are daunting. But Resistance, remember, is always lying and always full of shit.
First, the odds are not that long. Or how do we explain our nerd buddy from high school physics who just wrote the definitive paper on the Higgs boson?
What is success anyway? Do we have to win a Grammy or make it onto the New York Times bestseller list? What about the “long tail?” There are a lot of indie bands out there making records, touring, having fun and doing great work. There are a boatload of terrific books and papers and apps that are paying the electric bill even if they’re not (yet) sending our daughters to Harvard.
When I think of my own thirty years in the success-wilderness, a big part of me is glad I kept failing and failing. Because it made me ask (and answer) the key question: “Why am I doing this?”
Yeah, I was doing it at first for fame and recognition and money and women and to prove certain people wrong. But after a decade or two of getting none of that, those motivations began to fall away.
I began to do it for the doing itself.
That’s still why I’m doing it.
My great friend and mentor Norm Stahl, the godfather of the Foolscap Method, has a very earthy way of looking at this issue.
“Steve, a rat’s teeth grow in two directions—down from his mouth and up toward his brain. If the rat doesn’t keep gnawing on something all day every day, wearing down those teeth from the bottom, the top part will grow back up into his brain and kill him.”
Norm, remember, has made at least three hundred, maybe five hundred by now, documentaries for the History Channel and other outlets, not to mention novels, op-ed pieces, you name it. He is Mister Prolific.
“You and I are like those rats, Steve. We gotta keep gnawing. The alternative is unthinkable.”
So, my Fellow Rats: take a deep breath and keep gnawing.
We have no choice.