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.

Work Sucks: Why We Hate Our Jobs & Are Unsatisfied With Our Lives

The definition of success is one that is relatively simple and straightforward. According to the dictionary, success is:

  1. the favourable outcome of something attempted
  2. the attainment of wealth, fame, etc
  3. an action, performance, etc, that is characterized by success
  4. a person or thing that is successful

In other words, success is merely a result. A book launch can be a success, a clean & jerk can be a success, a party can be a success. A success is, as number 1 states, “the favourable outcome of something attempted”. Unfortunately this word has been perverted in recent times into a phrase, to be successful, and we can see this in both definition 2 and 4. This means that success is no longer describing a result, but a state of being, which raises all kinds of questions:

If a business is successful for a decade and has a couple of years with shrinking profit, is it all of a sudden not successful?

Does one have to continue to achieve things constantly to be considered successful?

At what point could someone be considered a successful musician? Do they have to play regular gigs for decent cash at bars, do they have to have a recording contract, do they have to win an award?

If I have a one hit wonder, does that make me a successful artist, or is it just a fluke?

You can see the problems that arise when you take success from a result to a state of being. Now it is all in the eye of the beholder, or the media, or society, or anyone who wants to weigh in. Let’s face it, for the vast majority of the population, success comes down to how much money one makes in their job and/or how much power they wield. No one is going to look at the most loved and respected nurse and say that they are more successful than Donald Trump, no matter how poorly he acts or how racist he gets.

If we look back even just a century, however, we see that the concept of being successful is a rather odd idea. The people at the top of society, known as “old money” were seen as the most prestigious and therefore “best” people. It did not matter that their wealth was inherited, it was the fact that they had been brought up around wealth and thus knew how to act and comport themselves in a manner befitting of such a social strata. They were never considered successful though — such a concept did not exist at the time. They were just seen as the old aristocracy in Europe was: better than everyone else.

On the other hand the “new money”, the people who had actually earned their way to the top, were looked down upon by the old money and seen as less than them. Right now they are essentially our gods in the 21st century of capitalism; those self made men who managed to become wealthy through their business acumen and hard work. At the time though, they wouldn’t have been considered successful (again, it wasn’t really a concept back then), they were looked down upon because they had to earn their own money.

It’s interesting to note that regardless of what the definition of being successful may be, it is almost always measured in comparison to other people. It is never absolute. It matters little that a man may have complete financial independence with $60k of income per year, have close, fulfilling relationships and be extraordinarily happy. That would almost never be considered successful. This is because he is compared to workaholic billionaires who never see their families and have few meaningful relationships in their lives. We measure success by tangibles such as money, without considering an individual’s perspective on life.

Having money, status or both in modern times causes one to be seen as “better” than everyone else. It matters little how this wealth or status is attained (think Kim Kardashian), just that it is. Once someone becomes a part of this club they are revered by the middle class and looked up to as gods who are somehow special for what they have attained. They are held up as the definition of success, because in a culture obsessed with consumerism they are the people who are able to consume the most. As such, their voices become the most important and listened to, because we equate wealth with worth.

Before the industrial age, one’s station in life was considered to be the result of the divine. Religion decreed that if your father was a baker then that was God’s plan for you as well. The ruling class were bowed and scraped for, looked up to as “better” because they had been born into their position, meaning they ruled by divine right which was further entrenched by the clergy. They were your betters and you just accepted this fact. You didn’t aspire to be like them or lust after what they had, because such notions at that time were absurd. If God wanted you to have that, he would have made you a prince rather than the son of a baker.

It would make sense then that in the modern world where such religious ideas are thought of even by their adherents as ridiculous that we would have a different perspective. We should be able to look objectively at all the reasons someone has reached a certain level on the career ladder; what advantages helped them progress faster or what disadvantages held them back. It would be reasonable to assume that someone from a minority group who has grown up with a single parent on welfare has a number of disadvantages when it comes to where they will end up in their career. Their level of success and satisfaction will likely be very different from a person in the ethnic majority with hard working parents who put significant time and money into their education and transition into work.

Unfortunately, a large amount of the population, rather than recognising that someone from a minority group may need assistance just to have the right psychology for a successful career will instead chalk their situation up to something else: laziness.

While it’s easy to recognise that the concept of divine intention in our station of life is ridiculous, the idea that career success is down to individual laziness or hard work is much more insidious and extremely damaging to anyone who isn’t sitting at the top. Now it isn’t just that you’re unlucky or unfavoured by God, it’s your fault. Business leaders, entrepreneurs and those at the top frequently espouse that the most important ingredient in their rise was the fact that they worked hard. This is in no doubt — one does not build a business or make it to the position of CEO without putting in a gargantuan amount of effort.

Unfortunately for the rest of the working population, this implies that they aren’t on top simply because they haven’t worked hard enough. Rarely mentioned are the other ingredients that make up such a level of success. Surely if hard work is the equivalent of flour in baking a cake, we also have the equivalents of sugar, eggs and water in the form of luck, connections, timing and good advice or mentoring. These things are not mere trivialities that hard work can overcome, they are vital. Going to the right schools, having the right parents, even just being in the right place at the right time (like Silicon Valley during the tech boom) have an enormous impact on the level of career success one can expect.

We should also look at this from another perspective: imagine telling a stressed out office worker who puts in 10–12 hour days for $50k a year that she just isn’t working hard enough, that she is on a low income because she doesn’t work as hard as those above her. Anyone with an ounce of sense can see that this is utter nonsense, but it’s become the capitalist narrative. Everyone’s current position in life is apparently based solely on how hard that person has worked and they deserve to be where they are. If you’re not rich or powerful, you aren’t successful. And if you aren’t successful, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough, you weren’t innovative enough, you haven’t done enough.

You aren’t enough.

1 percenters such as Sam Zell have even said recently that they shouldn’t be persecuted because they just “work harder than everyone else”. Unfortunately many at the top develop a narrative in their heads that their level of success is all down to their own hard work, that they are special in some way and everyone else is lazy. It is rare to hear a millionaire or billionaire recognise the advantages they might have had growing up, the things that went their way at the right time or what they were able to leverage once they gained a little power which accelerated their rise.

It’s all enough to depress even the most level headed person.

What if we began to look at career success through the lens of happiness, job satisfaction and even contribution to humanity and society? Many of the people we now look up to as successful would all of a sudden be thought of as much more normal and provoke much less envy. Society never considers nurses (for example) to be successful, but the quality of their work and the care that they provide is a vital service to anyone that is in hospital. No one ever asks career or life advice from the person that works an average paying job, despite the fact they may display an ordinary genius in living a simple, peaceful and fulfilling life.

No, we look to the rich, to the people that have made it to the top of the pile to tell us how to be like them because we assume that they are better than we are and are happier than we are.

“No wonder I’m a little twitchy on a Sunday, you know I’ve got my dreams on one hand and my reality on the other and the gap is too large and I feel desperate. No wonder we feel that, because that is what the whole system helps us and makes us feel.” — Alain de Botton

How often have you had an existential crisis on a Sunday evening? We’ve all had one at some point or another; for some they are few and far between, for many they are all too regular. Work is a large and important part of our lives, this is in no doubt whatsoever. When we are spending 8+ hours a day there in addition to commuting 5 out of 7 days a week, that is a large chunk of our time, so when we are in a terrible job it is of course vital that we get out of it as soon as we possibly can.

That said, the general population looks at work the wrong way the majority of the time. We say that we aren’t advancing fast enough, we aren’t getting paid enough, we don’t like our boss, our commute is too long. When we aren’t happy we look at all the negatives of our job and career, reinforcing our unhappiness and perpetuating the cycle. We in the West have been conditioned with destination syndrome, whereby we are always expecting to be happy and satisfied when we meet the next milestone. Of course if we have such a worldview, we are going to become breathless with anxiety at the thought that the next milestone might be a long way away, therefore we cannot be happy in the meantime.

We aren’t taught by anyone in our lives, be it our teachers, parents or other authority figures to look for the positives in our job and our life. The solution given to us is always simple: if you don’t like your job, quit. This is pointless advice, because it ignores the very psychology that is programmed into us about work and life in the first place. Very often it isn’t our job that we hate, it’s our lack of advancement and our level of status. This is because, in addition to destination syndrome, we are conditioned to always compare ourselves to everyone else, which means we only ever see the things we don’t have and assume the other person, by virtue of having things that we don’t, is thus happier than us. We aren’t ever taught that we need to go searching for the positives in our jobs, our careers and our lives. No. It is the way of the West to look at all the things we don’t have, so it is little wonder then that we feel eternally poor and miserable. This is why I found the concept of journaling at the end of each day, just to write down a few positive points and wins from each day, had a profound effect. My mind shifted towards finding positives in everything and I felt happier and richer for it. Some will never stumble upon this important perspective and the few that do will likely come to it after going through some existential crisis.

This is because from a very young age, we learn not to address the elephant in the room: that we will all die one day. Even if we conquer the world we cannot take it with us, and when we realise this truth, thoughts of power, riches and advancing up the corporate ladder more quickly begin to pale in comparison to the desire to be happy and at peace. We often see that perspective (happiness and peace) as somewhat quaint, being the domain of the cheerful peasant who doesn’t know any better. We are of course more intelligent, live in a more complicated world and have bigger things to think about. When we have such delusions of grandeur and pretense that we are something more than people who have less than us, it’s important to go back and consider those articles we see pop up from time to time on the regrets of the dying. The common theme is that they spent too much time working, too much time worrying about career advancement and things that weren’t important in the grand scheme of things. For most, it isn’t until the onset of mortality that they realise their anxiety over career and status was a waste of their time, which is a tragedy.

This serves as a stark reminder that what we value isn’t necessarily what we should value. When we have only one life, with a short span of 80 years if we’re lucky, happiness all of a sudden becomes hugely important. The problem is that we are taught and conditioned to believe that we have to impress other people with our status, and this will make us feel happy in addition to all the things we can buy. We need to earn lots of money and have lots of power so we’ll be respected and thought highly of by people. The question is, which people? Our friends rarely care about such things, because usually our deepest friendships have nothing to do with our work. Our families usually (and should always) love us for who we are, not what we do. Unfortunately many parents fall into the trap of wanting their children to be successful to boost their own status. I’ve heard them before, almost breathless with anxiety at the fact that little Johnny has turned 18 and he still doesn’t know what to do with his life. It’s a shame that the casual eavesdropper can see how ridiculous the mother is being but she cannot.

If you’re obsessed with “becoming successful”, I’m curious to know why. Is it because you want to be respected? Is it because you want status? Wealth? The glory of being at the top? Power? I’ll wager that you yourself probably don’t even know why, but you’ve read enough magazines, listicles on how to be successful and been sufficiently programmed by the media to believe that’s what you want. For many people, it takes an entire lifetime to realise that they wasted their time chasing after what was sold or programmed into them. What’s it going to be for you?

The One Thing to Remember on Your Path to Success

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If you’re reading this website, you are no doubt an entrepreneur, a small business owner or you’re trying to work your way up the corporate ladder. You have dreams of making it big, you hustle your ass off and you do everything you can to ensure you make it to the top. If you’re anything like me, jealousy and impatience creeps in every now and again. You feel like you aren’t moving on up fast enough, like some people that seem far less deserving get their big break before you do and things just aren’t working out how you’d like. Trust me, I feel you and I get it. This is common on the Internet where everyone is clamouring to get their name out there and can make you can feel invisible when things aren’t working out. Whenever you feel like this though, I want you to come back to this article, and look at the feature picture in this article. Continue reading “The One Thing to Remember on Your Path to Success”