Don’t Squander Your Time in Obscurity – It’s an Artist’s Greatest Gift

This year has been a wild ride for me so far. After a quiet start on Medium, I had a couple of posts hit the top 10 within a few days of each other. I subsequently got an offer to work over at Observer.com and since the end of March I’ve put out an article a week for them. This last week I hit a point I never believed possible — I published a piece on Bernie Sanders that went well and truly viral. As in, half a million page views and over a hundred thousand shares viral. It’s still the top story too, so while it might be slowing down because it’s the weekend, who knows how many views it will end up with. It may spike again next week and hit a million.

A lot of people have asked me how I feel about it. It’s pretty nice, but to be honest a number that large, I can’t even really fathom it. It’s too big. I remember not so long ago having a piece do 10k or even 20k page views would leave me giddy with excitement. This time I didn’t actually feel any kind of exhilaration or enormous high, because I had a really important change in mindset recently — that of finding happiness in doing great work, rather than finding happiness in the result of the work. Believe me, it took a long time to get to that point, and that’s what I want to talk about.

Let’s rewind the clock 7 or so years. I started my first blog intended for an audience about 2009. It was similar to what Art of Manliness is, but a little less in depth. I guess you could say it was somewhere between AoM and a printed magazine like GQ. I kept going at that for a few years not really knowing about using social media or how to get an audience. The result was I had maybe 15k views for that entire period. I spent a lot of that time copying what other sites were doing and adding my own spin, really just experimenting and trying to get my voice out there.

I eventually stopped doing it because I figured people just weren’t interested — it was probably a wasted opportunity.

Then a few years ago, I started my current blog. This time, this time was going to be a success. I’d been reading Tim Ferriss, Derek Halpern and Ramit Sethi and thought I had it all worked out. I knew all the social media avenues, how to get traffic and so on. Well, it worked out ok. Certainly not great, but ok. I worked hard on doing what I thought would get lots of traffic and bombarded social media with my stuff. Unfortunately, it never really took off at the level that I wanted or expected it to. I published my first 3 books, two of which sank like a stone without a trace of a sale, one of which has at least done passably well (passably well = over 200 sales, which is apparently the average number of copies a book sells, skewed upwards by the bestsellers).

I started to get mad. I got mad and I got jealous. Jealous at the fact that there were people out there who proclaimed they were making a living off of their blogs/books with material that I though was either derivative or just shit. “Why is the universe so against me?” I thought. “Why am I toiling away in obscurity, when I have so many better things to say than them?” See, this is what so many gurus just don’t get. They’ll tell you to stay positive about it, that you aren’t entitled to success and that if you just stay positive you’ll make it. But the negativity was good for me, because being mad made me work like a demon. It made me think that if people with sub par work can be making a lot of money off of this, why the fuck shouldn’t I? Where is my share dammit!? So I expanded. I started writing for other major publications and had some great results, but none of it brought me what I thought I wanted — lots of email subscribers and people paying for my books.

And after that frenzy of work and nothing paying off, I was dejected. I felt exhausted, defeated and completely deflated. I didn’t write for months and I just left my blog there to rot.

After a while I returned to my blog just to clean up all of the spam comments out of my filter and found myself reading through old posts. My oldest made me cringe at how bad they were. I steadily made my way through, finding myself surprised here and there at older posts I’d actually still be proud of if I wrote them today. I finally made it to the present day and found something that made me really happy: the standard of my work at that point was far better than when I started. I didn’t realise it during that time, but I had grown a lot as a writer and thinker. This was tempered with a sobering fact though— when I looked at my recent posts, I realised they weren’t really that good, that I wasn’t as good a writer as I wanted to be.

That was late last year. Since then all of my energy has been spent just getting better. My “marketing” is limited to posting my stuff on Medium, Facebook and Twitter. If you want to read it, great. If you don’t, I don’t care. I found myself becoming increasingly happy, because rather than writing and hitting publish, I’d be spending weeks on each piece. I’d usually go back at least ten times, changing words or sentences here and there, challenging my own assumptions on what I had written and in some cases rewriting large portions or scrapping a piece altogether. It’s gotten to the point where I can leave what looks like a finished, polished piece of work for a week, come back and see that a certain paragraph just doesn’t sit with the flow of the piece. Or maybe a single sentence needs changing. Looking at my finished pieces since the start of this year I feel incredibly proud of what I’ve put out there, even if no one reads them.

In short, I’ve found a deep love in making great art.

It’s that love that has allowed me to put my recent success in perspective. Writing something that over half a million people see could very well be my peak of popularity. After all, the next level would probably be publishing a bestseller, something even fewer people are able to pull off. The old me would have been frantically trying to capitalise on this success, or even worse, trying to put out another article that I think would garner lots of traffic.

But I don’t want to do that. I want to keep writing things that are important to me. I want to write things because I have something to say. Every now and then, something will come out like that Bernie piece that will strike a chord with people, that will hit in the right place at the right time. That’s cool, but as a writer, it’s incredibly dangerous to tie one’s happiness to results like that. When we do, we end up depressed and bitter, because we put our happiness in the opinions of other people. And people are fickle. When you learn to find happiness and fulfillment in the act of making art, in putting the best of yourself into something you can be proud of, you’ll be happy anytime you create. The only way you’ll do that is by spending all of those years toiling away in obscurity, when the only person who cares what you’re doing is you.

The other great thing about obscurity is that I learned to never read the comments, because there was never anything in there anyway. I had to learn to make my own judgement on what was good, and rely on a few friends who could walk a fine line between not sugar coating and not devastating me with their feedback. Now when I check the comments, there is no shortage of people ready to tell me how stupid I am, how terrible my writing is, that I don’t know what I’m talking about and any number of other pointless criticisms. I have my own internal radar though, so I don’t feel any need to even look at the comments, let alone take them to heart.

Most importantly, what the time in obscurity and this recent success has shown me is that even if I really have peaked in terms of popularity, I certainly haven’t in terms of my skill as an artist. Not even close. With any luck, I’ll look back at my work in 3 years time and think it’s trash. Maybe I’ll have another big hit, maybe I won’t. Either way, I can be happy and fulfilled knowing that I can always create, and make each effort better than the last.

A Further Note on Why Talent is Bullshit


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I wrote in my book School’s Over…Now What? that the concept of talent is bullshit, and went into how achievement in any field is based on hard work and smart skill development. What I didn’t go into in the book, which I will today, is the concept that anyone can come into a field and have some skill. You might be in a sport and you see a newcomer one night who is already good. They’re one of those people that just seem to “pick things up”, as though they just have this God given talent (there’s that word again).

This concept is bullshit as well. Why? Because these “newcomers” that seem to be so much better than all the other people that have been doing something for a year or two most likely have experience in a similar field. Judo training was a great example. You’d see a guy come along that had barely any athletic experience – maybe he was in his 30s already, he’d spent his adult life behind a desk and while he might have been kinda fit from running, he hadn’t spent any time in sports before. Every single inch of improvement was a struggle, and for years (if he stayed that long) he would look lanky, uncoordinated and out of his element.

Contrast this with a rugby player that comes along to his first lesson of judo. People marvel at how quickly he picks things up, how he’s confident and comfortable grappling with people. People say “wow he’s talented!” Well of course he’s going to pick it up quickly! He might be new to judo, but if he’s spent his entire childhood in a sport where he is in close contact with people, where he’s wrestling with people, where he has to be tough, of course he’s going to do great in judo. It doesn’t even have to be football, maybe he’s played a sport for years where agility was hugely important, so he’s light on his feet.

That same gangly person from before? Maybe he spent most of his time studying when he was at school. Maybe he and the rugby player take a computer programming class. The rugby player is discouraged because this guy seems to have a natural talent for it, he picks it up so much quicker. Well of course he’s going to pick it up quicker, he’s spent a large portion of his time growing up studying, and the other guy played football! This has nothing to do with some mystical talent bestowed by the gods.

This is why people appear to pick certain skills up quickly. It’s not because they’re more talented, it’s because they have previous experience in a related field. Someone with experience in mathematics will pick up physics or accounting quicker than someone with experience in literature. That same person with experience in literature will have a greater ability to pick up creative writing. So the next time you are on that course and you see people that are picking it up easier than you, don’t get discouraged! They’ve done their hard yards already, they’ve just done it in a different field that has crossover in this field.

The greatest determinant of where your ability in any field will top out is related to two factors and two factors only: time and effectiveness of practice. It has nothing to do with ‘talent’. Talent is bullshit.