Success Soup

This article has made the rounds in the writer world today. Most of the attention has been directed at the fact that this author had the misfortune to be represented by Mark Gottlieb, an agent who has since been outed as pretty terrible on many fronts. But what I keyed into while reading it was the despair. The exhaustion. This author has been pushing that boulder up the hill for 11 years, and I get it. I’ve been there myself.

We’re bombarded daily by messages that tell us: “If you just try hard enough, you’ll get there!” That’s patently untrue. If everyone could get there, we’d all be there—wherever it is we wanted to be. But we can’t all make it as actors, writers, musicians, athletes, investment bankers, lawyers, whatever. Telling people they can be whatever they want sets them up for disappointment in the long run.

This is probably not helping anyone feel better, and in fact it angers a lot of people whenever I say it (which is fairly frequently), but I’m a realist.

The thing is: success is not a measure of talent. Success is a byproduct of a lot of ingredients, of which talent is only one (and sometimes not even necessary depending on other ingredients). Luck, timing, connections, serendipity . . . There are so many things that contribute to success. And even if you have a pantry full of talent, if you don’t have at least something to season it with, you can’t make soup.

And a lot of these things you can’t go buy at the corner grocery. You can hone your skills as a writer, you can up the chances of making connections by attending conferences and events, but some of the ingredients for success soup are like lottery prizes. You hope to win some of them, somehow. “A little luck sure would spice this soup up a bit!”

People like to say things like, “Make your own luck,” but those are the same people who already have what they want, often due to privilege (like their daddy owning the company). Again, if making luck were something we could all do, we’d all be lucky.

So before you tell someone they just didn’t try hard enough, or want something bad enough, think about the things you want and don’t have. Why don’t YOU have everything you want? Is it because you haven’t tried hard enough? Are you too lazy to have them? Is it because you lack talent or ability? And if you do have everything you want, how nice for you. But I can bet it wasn’t your own skill alone that got you there.

Don’t let not “making it”—and it’s really important to define success for yourself and not let others do it for you—make you think you’re not talented. Success soup can be made with various quantities of talent and all the other stuff I listed above, but a big bowl of talent alone won’t do it. And your access to other ingredients may be limited by gender, socio-economic status, geography, support systems (or lack thereof), and other biases. Or it may be limited by bad timing or plain bad luck.

Not everyone will make it. Not everyone can; the system doesn’t allow for that. “Anyone can be a writer.” Not true. Many writers can’t be writers, at least not in the sense of making a living at it. Anyone can put words on paper, sure, assuming they’re literate, but in a compelling way? Not everyone can tell a good story. Not everyone can sort through and organize information into a non-fiction book either, no matter how much they know about a subject. It takes skill, if not talent (not all successful people are talented, they just make up for the lack of flavor with many other ingredients). And even then, many will fall short.

Anyone who promises, “You can do it!” is telling you a lie. Sorry if that seems harsh, but let’s get real. Try hard enough, want it bad enough, and you might succeed. Write anyway. Make art anyway. If it’s in you, you won’t be able to stop yourself. Even as your heart breaks because no one else cares, you’ll keep coming back to it, again and again. And where’s the harm, aside perhaps from self-persecution? If you give up, you surely won’t succeed. If you keep writing anyway, just because you love it, you may yet get there, if only by an accidental left turn at Albuquerque.