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.
Thanks, Steve. I needed that.
Steve, your post made me think of this quote from the Dalai Lama: “The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.”
Yes, the emphasis is on success, not on what we all contribute. Thanks for reminding us of our contributions.
Every time I stop working to read this blog, I’m encouraged to get right back to work and do it better than before. Thanks Steve!
“Keep gnawing!” I SO needed to read this today! I was up early to get in a few hours of writing before my morning walk and work, asking myself, not for the first (or last) time – “why are you doing this, who do you think you are, no one is ever going to read this crap, blah, blah, blah”…the Siren Song of Resistance. So thanks big time for the reminder Steve, that I’m doing it because I have to…and also apparently to prevent my teeth from growing into my brains and killing me. Yikes, what an image!
Thanks for your honesty, Mary. I feel that way at times.It has gotten easier as the years have passed. Do you publish?
Attributed to Beverly Sills: You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don’t try.
Mostly, it just eats you up inside, if you don’t do it. That’s the ultimate reason
Steve, my “rat” helped me write two books, both non-fiction. Now I am in the trough of being done, and I don’t have any ideas about what to write next– but I feel those “rat-teeth” getting close to my brain. Is this lack of ideas resistance? Is it exhaustion? Any suggestions about how to find what comes next? Thanks.
Lea, in my experience that “trough” is the most dangerous place a writer can be. Start on something — anything — or those rat-teeth will get you in trouble. My best guide to what idea to do: whatever scares you the most. There’s something, trust me.
Well, I guess I could write about being in the trough. It is pretty scary! Thanks. Back to my 500 words a day, no matter what.
“Whatever scares you the most”- is great advice. Namaste
Loved, needed, appreciated this! Thank you for your consistently challenging and encouraging work, Steve.
This came to me at the right time. Thank you for this.
There are, of course, so many ways to express this very idea. “Keep gnawing” is a double-edged metaphor – wearing away at the work, working a nibble at a time (taking the small steps that make a long journey) and keeping your teeth out of your head and your brain inside.
I’m so glad you addressed that first question. Of course the answer must be no, you don’t feel guilty. Your answer is the mature one: discover who you are, be grateful for what G-d has given you. That talent – musician, mother (and it takes talent to be a mother), etc. – is in you for a reason. It’s part of the individual’s uniqueness.
Fame is an immature measure, anyway. If you’re using a teeth analogy, they’re like baby teeth. Who keeps them, who remembers them? Maybe one. What was the best-seller in a particular genre last year? Five years ago?
But that letter or email from a reader/listener/child, whose life was changed, given direction, maybe even saved by a line in your poem, a chord in your song, a smile at the oddest time? That’s where the “fame” is.
And here’s another thing I take from this post: We only connect with (find) our audience when we do the work within ourselves. Isn’t that the war of art, after all?
Thanks, as always.
I love this Steve. I have a friend who takes the motivational speaker type question of “what would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail” and flips it into “what would still be worth doing even if you knew it was doomed to fail? What mountain would be worth dying on, because the climbing of it was worthwhile in and of itself, regardless of whether you ever reached the summit”
I’ve always admired that flip, but I like this post even better because it deals with the “what happens if you don’t” aspect of things. Great post.
And even though you did say “the odds can’t be that long,” I can’t help but add to that by echoing something else I’ve heard by more than a few professional writers, editors, developers, and so on, to include (I think) you and Shawn: To say that the odds are long is misleading.
It’s misleeding because either you have the craft skills to actually do the job at a professional level, or you don’t. If you have them — if you are a no-shit extraordinary screenwriter/novelist/whatever — then the odds aren’t actually long. In fact the odds are pretty good. Why? because there is a shortage of brilliant writers.
And if you don’t have the craft skills, then the odds still aren’t long; they are non-existent. No one is looking for, or hoping to read, a mediocre novelist.
In other words, the thing you can control, your mastery of craft, is the thing that counts, and not some chance “break.” As Steve Martin would say: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
So — and I’m looking in the mirror as I say this — forget contemplating “the odds,” and keep focusing on getting better at your craft.
Jeff, this is great, great advice. By aiming high and trying as hard as we can, we automatically enhance our skills. What other way is there? (And it feels good and chases the blues!)
Life is too short, jump off that cliff head first!
Gnawing Steve, gnawing.
We write because it’s painful not to. Plus, why the hell not? 🙂
Its not as if we have a choice. Thanks Steve. 🙂
Thanks so much for this!!!! I needed this…and it will be my fuel going forward…
Even though I am on a completely different journey of being an author or screen writer as “my job”. But all that you have written,Steve, that I have read more than once applies. When I first started [what I am now going to refer to as “my job” and not just a journey] it was not “to prove other’s wrong, but prove to me that I am wrong. Because how in the world could I be right with all that I was learning.” BUT, it did become for a long time “wanting to prove my point”. LOVE when it finally clicks [for me]in that Resistance is always lying and full of shit. For me, when working from the “inside out” the proof/truth I would seek and was seeking from the “outside” is no longer the way I am working at my job; and finding it to be a “sacred place to be working”; although where Resistance visits periodically as well.
Questions like the one you were asked show there’s a never ending supply of fear of creativity. Threat of “failure” and “mediocre success” are weapons used to keep creative people down. I know I will never be the next Donald Trump, my blog will most likely never win “blog of the year,” (there are far more “brilliant” writers), but I don’t care because I can’t not do what I’m doing (I already tried to stop, but can’t). I don’t know where it all will lead, so I’ll just keep gnawing. Thanks for sharing your friend and mentor’s analogy. It’s an image I won’t forget.
This made my day.
I’m going through that phase right now. I ask myself many times “why am I doing this?” I also tell myself that I’m a lunatic. Slowly but surely though, I find the layers of doing it for fame, fortune etc. shedding.
This post was great!
Thanks for the encouragement!
Wow. I really enjoyed this. Slowed down to savor every word.
I also bought the e-book “Manage your day-to-day” by 99u (shockingly good) on Amazon when I noticed you were one of the contributors.
Thanks for all you do for us, and revealing what we most need to hear.
I tried to stop, but I had to write about it first.
Success is living what’s in my soul.
I don’t conpare myself to others. Mediocre writing is published all day long. Even wind awards and is made into movies. I’m not in it.
Success is ass in chair. Close the door, shit up the world, open a vein or rub the Buddha or have a kundalini. Then do the work. Amen.
“Shut” up the world but perhaps the computer faeries mistyped that word for a reason. Blessed be.
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
~ Mahatma Gandhi
The quote is great but to get a true measure of the man read also what he had to say in the Indian Opinion a newspaper he founded in South Africa in 1904. Read also The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi and he doesn’t come up smelling like roses
Okay Steve, I can deal with the no fame – no recognition – no money.
But no women either? Seriously?
Norm Stahl must have been a great Mentor and tormentor! 😆
Thank you THANK YOU THANK YOU! I’m getting back on track again after a tired and non-productive week. Thank you. I’m looking at what is in front of me, and taking the next step for right now. I can do this. Thanks for your realistic and constant encouragement.
When I was half way through my first novel, I stalled. My writing coach recommended The War of Art, and you got me back on the horse. The only thing I know is to keep going, now that I have two novels under my belt. The blessing is that I am finding I have some important truths to tell within the confines of fiction that far and away transcend the plot. Be well, Steve, and keep encouraging us. I would rather not have a dentist grind off my fangs!
Thank you Steve
Gives “Nom, Nom, Nom” a whole new meaning!
I’ll keep chewing!
Thank you, Steve!
“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it.” Walter White.
After 4 books (3 Published and 1 at the editing stage)I don’t have a problem with the writing. A fifth book has been started, outline and research done and writing just commenced. There are ideas for at least another three books.
For me where I have to keep ‘gnawing away’ is with the editing. I appreciate how important it is but I find it tiring and tedious, especially when I am working through the book for the 4th or 5th time.
Even more of a problem is the marketing/promotion of the books. Right now I won’t even go there
I’m not religious, but I believe the work is the prayer.We have no control of the fruits of our labour.
Just got this site recomended to me, and what an excellent way to start out! Much needed words of wisdom and encouragement.
This is one of the things I love so much about this blog. It’s so much about who we are and why we have to do the work we have to do, and not all about the “____” at the end.
We also need to redefine “success” for this new age we are in. It’s no longer monolithic structures and systems that control most everything. “Story” is no longer controlled by the spin-doctors in the marketing departments of large corporations and governments. those of us out in the wilderness now have access to folks like Steve and his tribe, and they are speaking to us and with us.
Per above, “First, the odds are not that long.” and “What is success anyway?”
You and I can BE from the inside-out.
As a fellow rat I am grateful and appreciative for this post!
back to gnawing…
There’s no such thing as odds against success. Odds of getting rich, yes, staggering. Odds against success? That’s an excuse, and a bad one. That’s like saying the odds against me getting a sandwich are overwhelming. The odds of some babe showing up at my house with a free sandwich, yes, staggering.
Success, as I see it, is a condition. If I work on my art today, I am successful. I can die the same night successful, no matter the stage of completion my work is in. I rise the next morning facing the same choice.
I succeed by making art, not by having made art. No force or person in the world can stand between me and that success. I have only to reach out and claim it.