or, how to keep creating without immediate reward
Are you tired of giving away your best work and seeing no return?
You’ve taken the advice of experts who say they’ve cracked the code.
It’s simple. People don’t buy from strangers, so you need to build a following. Show up consistently with great content at no cost and earn the right to offer a paid product. Frame it as service, sharing your gifts with the world, or whatever else. The expert’s smiling profile picture beckons you. It can be done and they’re the living proof.
So you work and put your words out there, and you start to see results. You get more reads and votes. Then the excitement of those early gains fades. You’re still working, but not breaking through. You work harder to produce better stuff but it doesn’t translate into bigger returns.
You’re shouting into the void.
You begin to question yourself.
How far are you along the road to success?
How much more effort do you have to put in before it bears real fruit?
Are you on the edge of a breakthrough, or should you cut your losses?
You Don’t Know How To Think About Art
Most professions have a defined path. You study certain subjects at school, get a degree, then pass further qualifications. That’s how I became a doctor. Attaining defined milestones guaranteed success. I proved myself and the world recognised my achievement.
The artist’s way is different. Each creative person brings a unique set of skills and desires to their career and there is no one true way to achieve their goals. There is no map. There is no prescribed skill set or summative assessment. There is no definitive endpoint to say you’ve made it.
How can you continue to work under those conditions?
The issue is not lack of commitment. It’s a lack of certainty. The artist must commit to the work knowing that the outcome is uncertain. Progress in art is not measured by simple metrics.
Progress is hard to measure in any creative endeavor, I think. It’s often a matter of instinct, of feeling your way through what works and what doesn’t.
A professional attains a required standard and then uses their skills to make a difference. An artist makes a difference by practising their art and sharing it. There may be different notions of what makes good art, but the artist must create and share in any case.
Embracing the essential uncertainty of the path and committing to making a difference despite the uncertainty is the keystone of the artist’s mindset. Without that acceptance, you will falter and fail. Creating something new entails taking risks and leaving the known behind. You must be willing to sacrifice some security in exchange for novelty.
Even though the artist’s path is variable, undefined and badly lit, many people have walked their own version. I believe it’s possible to find a way through.
Do Just One Thing To Guarantee Failure
You’ve already done so much, and you’re sick of it. A hundred posts, a hundred rejections, ten thousand hours, you’ve done it all.
But remember that everyone, no matter how successful now, started at zero. Zero followers, reads or votes. Zero book sales and earnings. If you are past zero on any measure then you are already succeeding at some level. Give yourself some credit, and keep going.
When you look at the successful people in your field, remember survivorship bias. Their results look better because the failures have left the field. You don’t know what combination of hard work, talent, and blind luck got them to their current position.
What you should know is that by continuing to show up, you increase your chances of being in that group of survivors. When others give in to their doubts, put your head down and keep going.
Success lies along an exponential curve. If you put in the work and practise deliberately, you’ll move along that curve until you reach the tipping point.
Two things predict arrival at the tipping point:
- Sufficient effort
- Sustained effort
You have to do the work and there is no shortcut. That means writing while implementing all the advice you’ve read, not just continuing to write the same way without implementing new techniques. That’s not real practice and doesn’t count toward the tipping point at all. Many writers don’t understand this. Act on advice so that you improve, and keep going.
If you stop before the tipping point, the rock rolls back down the hill. You’ll be crushed by the process and much less likely to try again. Go on without stopping until it starts to feel easier, and then keep going.
Only failures quit.
Stop Chasing Unicorns
Comparison is the thief of joy.
Every industry and creative endeavour has its rock stars. They are the titans whose success dwarfs all others. Each has such a massive audience that acclaim is almost guaranteed, whatever they produce.
You might notice that their later output isn’t actually stellar quality. No matter. They’re at the far end of the curve, and now receive high rewards for less effort. Their situation is the reverse of yours.
None of that matters to you.
They struggled in the beginning and stayed the course to make it. And the environment in which they succeeded is not like yours, because time has passed and everything changes. Their past success has nothing to do with your future success and does not prevent you from seeking it.
Stop reading them and indulging in self-flagellation or angry rants about their content. This is the embodiment of drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. It hurts you and only you.
Compare yourself only to past you. Are you moving in the right direction? Don’t chase unicorns, chase your future.
Serve Your People Better
“I haven’t got an audience,” you say. But you’re here and I guess you have a few followers or readers. The number isn’t big enough for you yet, but it’s not zero.
So what are you doing for those people? Are you like those annoying corporations who woo new customers with all their best offers and leave their existing customers in the cold? You’re so focused on the people who don’t know you that you turned your back on those who do.
Some people are watching. Some people have shown interest and faith in your work. Think of them as individuals, which is what they are. What are their needs, fears, and dreams?
Then ask yourself how you can meet their needs, nurture their dreams, inform and support and entertain. You’re here to serve in some way, so dive deeper. Give your fans 100% of your effort and knowledge and insight.
Discover the problems your actual audience has right now, and offer solutions.
An Inconvenient Truth
When you’re used to putting in the work and seeing direct results, this is a particularly hard pill to swallow. The action ⇢ result switch appears to be broken because you acted but nothing happened.
This is true — but only in the short term. If you continue and keep faith in the process, you’ll find that what you’re seeing is not failure, but delayed success. Keep going.
Time For A Reality Check
I know you want to give up because I want to stop too. The things I want seem too far away, and my efforts are too small to make a difference. I’m tired.
At this point, you need to remind yourself of your effectiveness. When you feel useless, it bleeds out into a generalised despair. But you’re not a total failure. You’ve succeeded at many things already both large and small. You’ve survived life so far.
I had a professional mentor once who I found almost impossible to work with. I needed the six-month placement to complete my training. Most of my days were spent just surviving because you can tolerate any job for six months, right?
I barely made it.
Almost nothing of what he tried to teach me remains, except this. He advised me to keep a compliments file. Since it was inevitable that someone would complain about my work, and I would feel bad about myself, the compliments file provided a reality check.
You feel like you’re useless and everybody hates you. But other people enjoy and are grateful for your work. Print out those comments and emails. Keep them in an actual file that you can see and feel. Person A felt your words helped them. Person B found your advice useful. Person C loved your way with words.
Recall your life successes, whether it’s a diploma awarded or a joke well told. Balance your negative with all the positive you can muster. Go find your nice comment, print it out so it’s tangible, and look at it to remind yourself you’ve won before, and you can win again.
You Can Conquer The Swamp of Suck on Your Path to Greatness
You’ll always have good and bad days. Know yourself and your triggers to navigate your downswings more easily. When you feel better again, think about how you got there and what you need to avoid or mitigate the trigger.
Cherish positive comments and hoard them for encouragement in difficult times.
Every win is a treasure. Track them, acknowledge them, be grateful for them.
Celebrate when you reach a milestone. Don’t just shrug it off and look at the next goal. Attach a treat to each milestone because the top of the mountain is a long way off. Even those who conquer Everest make camp along the way.
List your goals and write a reward next to each one. The only rules are
- the reward must be within your power to give and
- the reward must make you smile.
Do it now.
Your Engine Is Inside The Car
We quickly adjust to new situations, whether it’s more money, a bigger car, or the next thousand followers. These things lose their ability to motivate us and we say familiarity breeds contempt.
Extrinsic motivators like metrics and fame work for a while to pull you along. But if you don’t have them yet — and even when you do — you need intrinsic motivation. This is your engine. The small voice that won’t be silenced, that says after all this struggle you are still gonna write anyway and be damned because not writing is even worse than writing without immediate reward.
It is the combination of reasonable talent and the ability to keep going in the face of defeat that leads to success.
So go forward, and write anyway. What else are you going to do? Take what you have, and keep going. I’ll see you there.
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