Do you ever have those moments when you think to yourself, I have no freaking clue what I am doing and life is just so hard and I will never have anything figured out?
If you answered yes, keep reading. I’ll let you in on a little secret. (If not, well, maybe you could let me in on your secret and tell me how you do it?)
Anyway, here’s the thing…Over the past couple of weeks, I had a few articles of mine get a fair amount of attention (this one, this one, and this one). I’m not really sure what it means for a post to go “viral,” but this is about the closest I have ever come. Since these are accomplishments that I have been striving for over the past few years, I should have been thrilled, elated, over the moon.
And I was. For about a minute.
But then the number watching started. How many likes did the article get? How many shares? How many new followers? How many tweets?
And that quickly led to the Comparison Game. Instead of focusing on the progress that I had made, I focused on how much farther I still had to go. I started looking at all of these other writers who I admire and enjoy, and zoomed in on all of the ways that I fell short of what they had achieved. That article got a gazillion likes. That writer has a bazillion followers. And that writer? Well, she’s hugely popular and highly successful and so damn cute on top of it.
The cycle of number-watching and comparison-making and not-enough-ness and I’ll-never-be-as-good-as-them-ness continued for few days until, honestly, I was kind of driving myself crazy.
I have written before about my question to embrace imperfection and stop number-watching and just quit the Comparison Game. And I am getting better at this. Really, I am. I am making progress in a slow, two-step-forward-one-step-back kind of a way.
But every once in a while, I will take such a giant step backward that it really feels like I giant leap backward. And since I write about trying to do better and be better and live better, these backward steps can sometimes make me feel like a hypocrite. How can you write about the numbers that count and smashing windows when you’re still so caught up in the number-watching and the Comparison Game?, I think.
Well, here’s the thing, folks. This living a life thing is a WORK IN PROGRESS. I am a work in progress, as we all are. I don’t have all the answers and I’m trying to figure things out as I go. I stumble, step backward, maybe even fall, but then I get back up. Last week may have been a step backward in the number-watching and Comparison Game, but this week I will try to take a tiny step forward.
Because here’s the thing about the number-watching and comparison-making that I am realizing: It isn’t always bad and we can’t always escape it. We just need to strike a healthy balance – one that uses number-watching as a means of self-motivation and inspiration, and not as means of self-judging and soul-crushing. (Unfortunately, I kind of stink at the whole “balance” thing. Hence, the tiny steps forward and the big stumbles backward.)
The writer’s world is a funny place. In many ways, it is like one big popularity contest with everyone screaming “LOOK AT ME!” and “LIKE ME!” and “TELL EVERYONE ABOUT ME!” Instead of selling a product or a service, we are selling our words and our ideas, and in order to be considered “successful” (by traditional definitions, at least), we need to be liked. We need to be popular. It is a numbers-focused business in what has become an increasingly number-focused world.
Plenty of people in the publishing and the literary world like to pretend that this isn’t true so we use words like “platform” and “audience” when we really mean popularity and people who like you. And like so many other things in life, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, with an inner circle of reputability that, at times, seems nearly impossible to penetrate.
Everything – absolutely everything – about this rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s because I was never really “the popular girl.” Or maybe it’s because pairing art and creativity with words like platform and popularity just seems all wrong. Or maybe it’s just because I’m just too damn old to worry about being popular anymore. Whatever it is I just can’t handle the number-watching and comparison-making hangover anymore.
I know that I’m not the only person to fall victim to this endless cycle of number-watching and comparison-making. In fact, my friend Michelle’s husband recently wrote a really great post about the number-watching that is inherent to the writer’s world, but I’m sure that writers aren’t the only ones who fall victim to this dangerous cycle. In fact, there are a million ways that we can number-watch and compare based on external metrics. For writers, it might be things like book sales and followers and page views. For lawyers, it might be billable hours; for consultants, it might be things like value added or return on investment (whatever the heck those things mean). Even teachers are evaluated based on their students’ test scores nowadays (and don’t even get me started on the absurdity of that one!). Salaries, bank accounts, property values, sales, revenues, profits, GPAs, grades, pounds on the scale, you name it, there are countless numbers that we watch and compare.
But, like I said, I am realizing that this isn’t always a bad thing. As a writer, it is important to read lots of other writers who I admire and respect. It isn’t always harmful to compare my writing to theirs, or to look to them for advice or guidance. The same can be true for any role that we fill, I suppose. By comparing where we are with where we want to be, we can gain valuable insight, inspiration, and ideas.
The trouble comes in, however, when instead of using the numbers, measurements, and maybe even the comparisons as a means of motivation, we let the number-watching and comparison-making divert us from our purpose, rob us of our joy, and essentially kill our spirit. And I have realized that, from time to time, I develop this nasty habit of using the number-watching and comparison-making as a means of judging myself, my worth, and my talent. I have this tendency of looking at all these people around me – writers, mentors, and even family and friends – comparing myself to what I see, and then tallying up all of the ways that I don’t measure up either to other people or my own expectations for myself.
Last week, instead of feeling proud of myself for the progress that has been made in recent weeks and months, I became absolutely fixated on all of my shortcomings. I’m not a part of this elite circle of writers. I don’t have nearly as many followers as that writer. I’m not as witty or funny as that author. I’m not as cute, as smart, as popular, as whatever as that person.
When I first started writing, I told myself that if just one person connected with what I wrote, then my efforts had been worthwhile. Yet, from time to time (like last week), I find myself drifting away from this singular purpose. The negative voices sound louder than the positive ones, and a sense of lacking and not-enough-ness overpowers the feelings of worthiness and more-than-enough-ness.
I have come to realize that regardless of the task or role – whether it is writing, parenting, teaching, lawyering, cooking, engineering, taking pictures, being a friend, whatever – one of the primary source of satisfaction comes from connection. Connection with our readers, our children, or our students. Connection with our clients, our customers, or our co-workers. Connection with a project, our craft, or ourselves.
And connection – real and meaningful connection – is made with people and individuals, not numbers and comparisons. Connection is formed person-by-person, not in blanket appeals to the masses. Connection can only be measured by internal satisfaction, and not by external metrics or standards.
I am very much aware that the writer’s world is a number-focused business and we are living in a number-watching world. We are all number-watchers to some extent. I do it, you do it, we all do it. And as I gear up for the release of my first book in a couple months, I am fully prepared for the imminent weight that the number-watching will soon take. Heck, just last week, I put out a shameless call on Facebook for help spreading the word about my book. The numbers – whatever numbers we’re watching – do matter…to some extent.
And although the numbers will always play a role, when the number-watching and comparison-making become the primary purpose of what we do or they become the primary source of satisfaction that we risk sacrificing the potential for deep and meaningful connection that is really what this is all about.
While it is okay – maybe even necessary – to number-watch from time to time, I am finding that I occasionally need to recalibrate a bit and remind myself of the fundamental purpose of writing, and life for that matter, can only happen by focusing on people and not numbers, on connections and not comparisons.
I am confiding in you and confessing my over-reliance on number-watching and comparison-making in the hopes of one thing: connection. Because I have the sneaking suspicion that you might feel this way sometimes, too. And when we share things and talk about things and are open about things, we all feel a little less alone.
While I don’t think that we can stop all the number-watching entirely, maybe we could just take a little break from it now and then? Maybe today we could take a breath and be content right where we are? Tomorrow we can go back to number-watching, but today? Maybe today could be about things like laughing and smiling and talking and feeling and hoping and dreaming and connecting and all those other things that can’t ever be measured?
So I am NOT going to ask you to share this post. I won’t even ask you to like it or tweet it or “pin” it. Instead, this post will be our little secret. I will try my hardest to be kind to myself, to not judge, and to not to compare – and hope that you will do the same. And I will ignore the numbers…for today.
(But the next post? And the next one? And the one after that? Well, if you could go ahead and share, like, tweet, and pin the hell out of those posts, well, that would be just GREAT. Because you know, it would really help my numbers.)