One of the consequences of doing anything well, is that it tends to look effortless. If you’re doing something professionally, it is of course desirable to look as good as you can while doing it. Success is attractive. Relaxed capability is attractive. You want people looking at the elegant swan you’ve put into the world, not all the frantic paddling below the surface required to keep it there.
The problem with this – and I see it a lot – is that a significant number of people will assume it is indeed, effortless for you to do what you do. If they can’t see how much time and effort went into getting you to the point whereby it is indeed easy, they’ll use words like ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ and maybe ‘lucky’. This can have consequences. It can leave other people assuming that they should be that good for no effort. Or they may assume that because they aren’t instantly that good, there’s no point even trying. Neither idea is useful.
The general wisdom is that to master something takes 10,000 hours of work. The effortless performance, the relaxed artistic flourish… are possible because of the many hours of study and practice underpinning them. There’s also a lot of planning in the mix. Films have a nasty habit of showing us creators producing amazing work in a single frenzied round. Most of us don’t work that way. Paintings are planned and sketched for. Stories and pieces of music are built up in stages. And so on.
The same is often true of other things. Cooking. Gardening. Self employment. The effortless coasting towards success is often just a superficial appearance. People who get results usually have to work for them. If they can do it easily now, it’s because they already put in the work. Right now, Tom and I are starting to enjoy the benefits of the Hopeless Maine project – in terms of money, recognition, opportunities and whatnot. We’ve worked together on this for about a decade, Tom’s been on it longer. As one if my publishers used to say ‘it takes years of work to become an overnight success.’
We like the stories of people who come out of nowhere to achieve wild, unexpected success. We don’t tell stories about years of quietly chipping away at it, slowly building a following, and having modest success, but that’s often how it goes. We also don’t tell stories about people being able to invest in their own projects because their families support them and cover their bills, help them make time and give them space. It’s easier to be creative if you’ve already got money – are retired, or have a supportive spouse. This kind of information tends to vanish from the story of how the successful individual got to where they are.
It’s always tempting to create stories that make us look as good as possible. However, I think it’s ultimately harmful to create the impression of great talent welling up to achieve great things, and not mentioning the levels of work and dedication required. I also think its problematic to let people assume you’re making it as a creator when you aren’t.
At the moment, my household is getting by on the money I make as a book publicist. We get top-ups from the creative side, which is always cheering. It looks feasible that in the next few years, the Hopeless Maine project will start laying golden eggs for us. This is because we’ve made a choice to invest time in the creative stuff rather than Tom mostly working for other people. If we make this work, it will be because of the massive amount of time he’s invested, and because I’ve been able to pay the bills. I intend to keep talking about this because there are myths I want to dispel.