Write for Your Life’s Work, Not Your Big Break
A lawyer in Germany, some time ago, decided that he had had enough of writing. He wrote often on the side, when he wasn’t doing his day job of whatever it is that lawyers do. So, one day, he decided to destroy all of his work. Luckily, someone stopped him from doing it.
His name was Franz Kafka and this is a quote from him.
Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.
A young American journalist almost gave up writing. He was in his twenties when it happened. He was going on a trip with his wife. While at the train station, however, a case which contents were the entirety of his life’s work went inexplicably missing. He lost everything — everything — he had ever created. This was almost enough to make him quit writing forever.
His name was Ernest Hemingway and this is a quote from him written in a letter to a friend.
“I suppose you heard about the loss of my Juvenalia? I went up to Paris last week to see what was left and found that Hadley had made the job complete by including all carbons, duplicates, etc. All that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem which was later scrapped, some correspondence between John McClure and me, and some journalistic carbons. You, naturally, would say, ‘Good’ etc. But don’t say it to me. I ain’t yet reached that mood.”
A young dutch painter had nearly failed at everything he tried. He couldn’t preach. He couldn’t sell. And he didn’t know how to paint — not really. In fact, he didn’t even bother to pick up a brush until the ripe old age of twenty-eight. He then continued to paint everyday for the next eight years.
His reward? He sold one painting. Just one.
That painter’s name was Vincent Van Gough, and this is a quote from him.
“Why, I say to myself, should the spots of light in the firmament be less accessible to us than the black spots on the map of France.
Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star. What’s certainly true in this argument is that while alive, we cannot go to a star, any more than once dead we’d be able to take the train. So it seems to me not impossible that cholera, the stone, consumption, cancer are celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses and the railway are terrestrial ones.
To die peacefully of old age would be to go there on foot.”
If you were to look carefully at any great creator from history — call them artists, writers, or what you will — you would not have to look hard in order to find many more stories similar to these. Great success does not come without setbacks.
We do not even need to look so far back as these writers and painters in order to see stories of successful people overcoming great adversity. Much more recent examples also exist. Very infrequently is the path to success wrought in ivory and ease.
However, people today are very much in desire of a shortcut. Perhaps more than ever it is possible to become an “overnight sensation” or success, thanks to the viral nature of the internet. It is perhaps the one thing that every person on social media (which is just about almost every person) dreams of. The viral nature of social media, too, has led us to believe that it is something that has the potential to occur at any moment.
Has technology made a shortcut for us to success?
Many of us hope so. I know writers who wake up every morning in order to check their statistics, and the number of their followers. In the back of their minds is the possibility that one of their posts went viral today, and they dance at the excitement of that possibility.
This new reality has led many of us to the wrong conclusion as we look at our careers that lie ahead, our creative process, and even our day to day lives.
The promise of overnight success, or the one big break, leaves us forever in poverty, as we choose to have not today, in order to have at some undisclosed time in the future. Surely though, not today, tomorrow will hold the secret to our big discovery, our big break?
Chances Are Not Good
What we often do not take into account, however, is the hard work required to build up the skills and portfolio needed to leverage viral success from the internet.
In fact, your chances of actually going viral in a meaningful way are very, very slim. Not only because getting a viral amount of interaction with your content is hard enough, but because even if your content appears to have gone “viral” there is still a very good chance that a large, large amount of people have not meaningfully engaged in the content. Statistics are misleading.
Disadvantages of “The Big Break” Mindset
Some people are always looking for their big break, and I want to really break down what the real disadvantages of this mindset are.
To begin with, you focus more on the trends today and less on creating something that is evergreen. Yes, we know that stunts and buzz worthy videos go viral on YouTube. But overtime, these stunts lose their impact.
Compare this to great works that never go out of style.
It Isn’t Attainable
What is the big break you are looking for? Chances are it will remain elusively before you forever, but just out of reach.
It Leads to Dissatisfaction
If you are always looking for your next big break –the next time you are featured on a big publication, or the next time you are featured on a talk show, or whatever that big break moment might look like to you, you’ll never really arrive. You’ll live in a state of constant limbo.
Meanwhile, everyone else around you is already getting on with their lives, and enjoying themselves.
What To do Instead
It’s not that wanting to make a living at this is bad. Artists create, they express themselves, writers write, for themselves or for others. Creative skills are not only beneficial to others, they are very much in demand today.
And there are many things you can do to become a successful and fulfilled creative person today that do not rely solely on making the big break. These strategies are:
Consistency In Creating
Create everyday. At least every weekday. There’s never a reason you shouldn’t create something. If that’s what you’re good at, then don’t be ashamed of creating something less than what you’re capable of at your very best. Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.
Building An Audience Overtime.
We weren’t all Disney channel stars when we were little (thank goodness). We can’t all have built in fan bases that make people want to hire us. What we can do, however, is build an audience over time. This isn’t done by buying followers. It’s not done by cheating an algorithm, either. This is done by creating compelling content and engagements with people over days, weeks, months and years.
You can do all of this and still not have your big break. But it’s sure a heck of a lot better than sitting around a dingy room with a coffee cup and unpaid bills lying under the door.
Take the Job
Any job. Good job. Bad job. And then take the next one. Each job you take will lead you to another, better job. Believe in your creative gift, that it will learn what needs to be learned, and always move forward. Never feel too good for your job. There is always something to be learned from every situation.
Creativity Lies in Your Life’s Work
I have a lot of journals lying around, and pieces of paper, and notebooks, and files on my computer. One day, I’m going to organize them. But I’m definitely not going to throw them out.
Thankfully, I have someone, and others, who believe in me, and keep me from doing anything as silly as giving up on writing. I hope you do, too. But never throw out your life’s work.
The things that you have created, ever since you were small, were necessary steps in the journey that led you to now, and will lead you into some future tomorrow.
Be proud of your life’s work, treat it with respect, and let it build into something. Let it take its time, and don’t be consumed with the desire to be known today, published today, heard today.
Like the writers and artists I mentioned before, it took time for them. And it will take time for you, too.