When Following My Dreams Nearly Crushed Me
Sharing something deeply personal with the world is a brave choice.
My debut book, Radical Acceptance: The Secret To Happy, Lasting Love, is coming out this week. It’s super personal and I have truly put my whole mind, heart and soul into it — not to mention years spent researching, developing and writing it. It’s been a long time dream of mine to write a book like this one. To say this has been a surprisingly heart-wrenching process is an epic understatement. As an entrepreneur, who dreamt of building a media company and succeeded in doing so, I have experienced what it is like to assume a massive amount of risk.
But for some reason, this creative endeavor has been on a whole other scale.
Let me provide some context and begin by saying that I am super blessed to be represented by ICM, the #1 literary agency and have a rock star agent who cares deeply about this book. I am doubly blessed to have the Atria division of Simon & Schuster publishing this book (to put that in further context, they publish The Dalai Lama and The Secret…oh! And now, um, me), along with a rock star editor, who, too, cares deeply about this book. In fact, I was triply blessed, especially as a first time-author, to have several publishers bid on my book, resulting in a protracted bidding war. Naturally, this has all led me to have incredibly high expectations of the book. Everyone’s going to love it, right?! Well, not so fast.
I forged ahead with gusto after we sold it, aiming to translate my successful, winning proposal into an even more successful, winning book.
Unfortunately, along the way, things got complicated. And unexpected.
This book has been like a colicky, beautiful, doesn’t-sleep-well-but-is-still-wonderful baby to me. But even after a million edits; painstaking care and effort; selling the audio rights, etc, I still have no idea if it’s any good.
Ok, that’s not quite right. I know it’s good.
But is it great? Incredible? Powerful and moving? Because that’s where I set the bar, so “good” would be like getting a D-. A number of advanced readers have offered wonderful feedback and some have even professed their love for it.
But…others to whom I have given advanced copies have said nothing or have offered such muted feedback that I surmise they didn’t read it or they not only didn’t love it, but didn’t really like it. Ouch.
I believe deeply in this book and couldn’t be any more committed to it. I am in love with the brilliant, inspired parts but am also painfully aware of its imperfections.
And, in just a couple more days, it’s going to be in front of the whole world to see and judge for themselves.
There’s so much more that has made this whole process unnerving. Someone with whom I am very close rejected the whole damn thing a handful of months ago. Even knowing how dear it is to me, he offered nothing but acrimony over a handful of points I initially included in the galley version. I had no idea these things would be difficult for this person to read and was shocked to find this out. Thankfully, I was able to remove those portions before going to press and have been working hard to turn off that toxic “I’m right, he’s wrong” narrative on a loop in my head and to let go of the anger and hurt that has marred this experience due to this person’s failure to support me and to understand how important it is for me. Some would say, “get over it! It’s just a book!” but it’s so much more than that to me.
Not only is this book deeply personal and replete with most of my greatest insecurities, but it’s hugely so for my marriage. And while I am grateful to have the best husband in the world (for fully supporting the book so lovingly, along with a trillion other reasons), we hit a few challenging rough patches along the way where we talked about abandoning this whole thing. They’re distant memories now, but the scar tissue remains.
Along with some additional tough extenuating circumstances, this all has led me to the pinnacle of vulnerability. It has nearly brought me to my knees. There was a day or two in there I confess I thought I was going to have a breakdown. (BTW, as a proud Aries who comes from robust German stock, I am normally the epitome of tenacity, determination and perseverance.)
I had to talk myself off the ledge a few times, as did some dear friends and my darling husband.
As I work my way through it all, I can’t help but wonder if what I am experiencing is actually more common — especially for creative people and others who really put themselves out there — than I realized.
I have learned a ton in this process that I hope can help any one who has made a giant, very visible bet and is boldly following her dreams.
Here are my four biggest takeaways from this arduous, impassioned journey:
1. People don’t always show up for you the way you’d like or expect.
What has been surprising (and difficult) has been the number of people I emailed or talked to about the book and/or have invited to attend the big, splashy launch party — how many of them have remained uttered not a peep. I wasn’t expecting everyone to blanket me with praise nor buy the book nor even come to the damn launch event but the sound of so much silence has been unnerving. (And not just via email. I actually do see some of these people in real life!)
It’s been amazing to observe how quickly silence translates into rejection when you’re feeling irrationally self-conscious.
I was sharing with my friend Skye, whose son goes to school with mine, how I have been surprised that so many of the parents I am friendly with at our kids’ school have said nothing to me as we say good morning in the hallway dropping our kids off at school, leaving me to wonder, “Did they not get the email? Maybe it went into their spam file?”
She posited, “Maybe they’re jealous?” Sure, some may be. But I think for the vast majority of them it is far less sinister: they are tuned out, stressed out, have other priorities, haven’t read their email, the email actually did go into spam or got buried, etc etc.
What I have finally concluded was a big AH HA. And it didn’t come a moment to soon.
It’s not about me.
Yes, of course, my book is very much about me (and so many of my shortcomings and inadequacies, which is what is mostly at the heart of all this vulnerability), but I realize now that for so many of the people I expected to say congrats or RSVP to the launch event or acknowledge this in even the smallest way, they’re tuned out for whatever reason and I simply cannot take it personally.
Having worked with my beloved uncle on his book, my wise cousin Siri told me to be prepared for some friends and family to pooh-pooh mine along the way. Kind of surprising, but great advice. Some won’t like it. Some won’t care. Some may even be jealous. I’ll never know why and there’s no point in agonizing over it.
That said, an amazing, incredible core of family members and friends (including a handful of parents from the boys’ school) have been extremely generous in their enthusiastic support. A ton have pre-ordered copies (some as many as 20 to give to a bunch of their friends and relatives!) and some have even flown in from far and wide to attend my big event.
So, it’s not at all to say no one is tuned in. What was initially tough to shake was how many people who were indifferent.
There’s something called symbiotic consciousness that has helped me better understand what’s going on here. I talk about this in my book and it’s very helpful to understand it because apparently it’s the cause of the vast majority of conflict, big and small. Symbiotic consciousness means that we basically think everyone thinks like we do. And when they don’t think like we do or don’t behave like we would, we often get cranky.
Worse: We assign judgment to them too. (They’re thoughtless! They’re dumb! They’re clueless and uncaring!)
Symbiotic consciousness was staring me in the face as I wondered why more people didn’t respond to my news how I would respond if it was their news. As the perennial energetic, optimistic people-pleasing cheerleader type, I respond to most things proactively with enthusiasm and praise. And a lot of exclamation points!!!
Rather than harboring more doubt and wondering if what I have written is great, I have chosen to tell myself again (and again) that looking for external validation is a fool’s errand and that I simply must believe in myself and the integrity of my work; that I cannot not wait around for the various people in my life to validate my work nor — more importantly — validate me.
2. You can’t control the outcome, no matter how hard you try.
While I have been working super hard to promote the book, I am trying equally hard to not be attached to a particular outcome in terms of sales, buzz, or critical acclaim. This is very hard for me, both as an over-achiever and as an entrepreneur used to measuring things to objectively determine their value.
Coming face to face with the risk of putting myself out there in a really big way and having very little control of the outcome is a little like torture.
It’s my voice, my ideas, my passion — it’s me! Flaws and all. Yes, I have had incredible help from some top-notch, truly-committed-to-this cause publishing professionals, but it’s ultimately about having invested everything that I could to write the best book possible and to promote it as aggressively as I could. (Not to mention a million other details, including going through many dozens of over designs to conjure up the best cover possible…and while that process was a complete pain in the neck, I’m grateful to note that my book has a truly kick ass, beautiful cover.)
3. Putting yourself out there with vulnerability and authenticity is a powerful, albeit scary, way to connect and inspire.
I was feeling down and a bit stressed last week and so I went for a run in Central Park. As I ran home, after listening to Guns and Roses at full blast, one of the ultimate true originals started singing to me. David Bowie.
Not sure how Spotify went from GNR to David Bowie but it was a cogent reminder of how the artists we admire the most, often risk the most.
Gaga. Bowie. Prince. Dylan. All true originals.
Yes, it helps that they were/are extraordinarily talented (each also with a clear penchant for showpersonship!) But what I admire most is that they truly put themselves out there. They truly showed themselves. Their authenticity radiates, enabling us to fall in love with them and connect so powerfully to them and their work.
I don’t mean to compare my talents with some of history’s greatest creative geniuses, but I do take solace in reminding myself that — like them — I have been as authentic and true to myself as I could be. I have sought to show my humanity and share stories (along with a ton of great research and other very relatable, engaging bits) in order to express myself, and hopefully make connections with other human beings who will relate to and benefit from what I have put out there.
So there’s that.
4. You have to tell your ego to STFU.
OK, this is THE most important point. Glad I saved it til last.
Ego has NO PLACE in the creative process. None. Passion? Joy? Reflection? Pain? Uncertainty? Yes, sure. Plenty of constructive criticism, too, has it’s place — obviously we can’t tell ourselves that every word (or stroke or gesture) is perfectly inspired.
But ego? Decisively not. That inner critic who sits grandly in judgment and stirs up waves of doubt deserves a very distant back seat, at best.
In fact, I am getting a little tired of telling my ego to STFU.
The Creative Director of New York Theatre Workshop, Jim Nicolla, who’s a creative genius with a big heart and incredible vision, once said that artists are modern shamans.
I have quoted him a million times as I love how succinctly this statement articulates the importance of artists (of all stripes) to our world: to emote, explain, absorb, ignite, describe, channel, validate, presage, and, fundamentally: to show us ourselves, our humanity.
How I admire these brave, talented people.
Painters, musicians, sculptors, actors, lighting designers, directors, writers, performance artists (did you ever see THOTH in Central Park doing prayerformance?!), and other creative types who put themselves out there, who tell hard truths or uncover unexpected beauty or find other ways to reveal what’s common in our humanity, ultimately providing tremendous value in opening our minds and filling our hearts. And sure, some do the opposite, but there’s a reason for that and artistic value there, too, of course.
It occurred to me that I’m now part of this anointed collective.
Not quite up there yet with Tony Kushner or Toni Morrison. But nevertheless, as an artist who has risked something and has opened herself up in the service of a larger truth and a great sense of purpose.
It’s an unexpected, albeit joyful, change in my identity because I have a background in engineering, finance and entrepreneurship. I never thought of myself as an artist.
But then again, as the CEO of YourTango, a purpose-driven media company focused on love and relationships, we always counsel our writers to share their deeply personal stories, difficult truths, and strongly held opinions (even if they’re not popular) as that is the powerful currency of artists.
I KNOW intellectually that expressing myself in a way that is authentic and thoughtful IS a powerful means to connect with other people. It IS about finding our common humanity — vulnerable and flawed, as well as triumphant and profoundly validating. That is the creative path.
I guess what it comes down to is … you can’t really do it and avoid being seen or avoid being vulnerable. I suppose that’s also the path of love, which is what my book is really about. There are no guarantees, even if you work super hard, sacrifice a ton, and put your whole heart and soul into something.
I keep telling myself this. And I remind myself that I would have regretted leaving anything on the table, especially given what an incredibly long-held dream it has been to write a successful book. I simply had to do it. I had to follow my heart and ultimately let the process transform me.
And so, if you are putting yourself out there and taking what feels like, truly, deeply personal risk — if you’re following your dreams and it’s scary as hell, let those waves of terror, doubt, disappointment and excruciating vulnerability wash right over you.
Do not be attached to the outcome nor what others will think nor how they’ll reply (or not reply.) Do not look for external validation.
This is hard to do. But you must, for your sake, and the sake of your work. It deserves your steadfast belief. After all, it is you. Not all of you of course, but an important part of you.
Tell your ego to STFU. Tell mine to, also, while you’re at it. It can use the reminder.
Savor the courage you had to go for it. Savor your willingness to expose your truth and what’s inside of you.
That is what true bravery looks like.
I have come to think of my book a little like one of my children — beautiful, brilliant, original, and filled with love, yet nevertheless imperfect and, in some ways, extremely challenging.
Like my actual children, who have taught me so very much, who have opened my mind and filled my heart more than I every thought possible, I realize this offspring will also have a life well beyond my reach and control. That it will do things and impact people in positive, even profound ways that I will NEVER have ANY CLUE about.
A lot of artists find inspiration in the divine. I can’t help but feel touched by Grace when I think about it like that.
Andrea Miller is the author of the book, Radical Acceptance: The Secret To Happy, Lasting Love, on sale now.