Why Sometimes Things Don't Feel Like Success
Not long ago I received a congratulatory note from a woman who used to support me as a publicist. She offered kudos for the number of books sold, and praised me for being successful.
I was surprised. While I am quite happy with all my books and audio sets, I hardly feel like a big success. So I asked her to tell me more.
It turns out that every year over 300,000 books are published in the U.S. Most of those do not sell more than 100 copies. So anything more than that threshold is actually fairly successful. I was quite surprised.
I remembered an author telling me his publisher had jettisoned him because his last book did not sell more than 10,000 copies. Something just didn’t seem to add up. If 100 books is a success, but 10,000 is not enough to hold onto a publishing contract, what the hell?
Upon much reflection, it turns out that our perceptions and expectations are a bit off the mark. For every million-copy book release, or major performing artist tour, or mega-star athlete announcement, there are countless talented, creative success stories that we never hear. And yet the standard to which we aspire is this extremely small segment of the whole.
I flashed back to a concert hall in Asheville, North Carolina some years ago. The singer on the stage was so very good. I could not fathom why she was touring on small stages when clearly she was as talented as some very big name performers.
Therein lies the problem. Our mental benchmark for success is skewed. We compare ourselves and our experiences in unfair ways.
Here are other examples. Every time we see a beautiful, romantic story on the big screen, something that sweeps us into our feelings, we cannot help but compare our own relationships to these glorious ones. Each time we watch the world’s best athletes deliver remarkable performances, invariably we contrast them to our own. Even the successes of our friends can cause our own to seemingly pale.
It turns out that most if not all of the problem is a perceptual one. And it is made all the more challenging because it is so difficult to appraise ourselves and our lives without some basis of comparison.
Turning this philosophy back to myself, I was forced to examine my assumptions and conclusions.
Why do I feel diminished when my books and audio sets don't sell millions? Because without any awareness I unconsciously feel that without marketplace validation my work doesn't matter. And therefore I don’t matter.
Why is my sense of well-being threatened by others’ happiness? Because I fear I will be left out. That happiness is not available to me. At worst, I fear that something is wrong with me.
Why can’t I measure myself, my life, and my actions only by my own inner standards? Because for so long I have accepted external standards suggested to or imposed upon me. It is very hard to unlearn them.
What conclusion do I then draw? That all external appraisal may be invalid. Not that the feedback it contains is not valuable, but that the way I interpret it should be examined quite carefully.
There is a truism in the rooms of recovery that demonstrates great wisdom - stop comparing your insides to their outsides.
Seeing True™ in Action
Here’s a neat little trick to challenge your assumptions about yourself, your life and your actions.
Pick some area in which you feel you have fallen short. Write at length about how and why you perceive that. Then pick someone you trust, who knows you well enough, and without telling them the details of how you perceive it, ask them how they perceive it. Take notes. You are likely to be in for some surprises, and valuable information.
While it may not be wise to compare ourselves to others and their perceptions, it is certainly valuable to have our own perspectives challenged by other viewpoints. Then some truth can find its way to us.