Patient: Doctor, it hurts when I do this.
Doctor: Then don’t do that!
An acquaintance of mine recently won first place in a very prestigious writers’ competition, a major step towards legitimate publication and success as a professional author. Congratulations, right? Okay, sure. I know that she has had a very strong support system, offering her encouragement and telling her to reach for the stars and all that, that she would soon accomplish great things. And, lo and behold, she has. So it’s ironic that she has been one of many people telling me not to be so focused on getting published, and to just enjoy the writing for itself. “Just have fun,” they all tell me. “If it’s not fun, why would you even do it?” It’s rather like the old vaudeville chestnut. I turn to them for help getting through the painful parts, and they just tell me not to do it if it’s painful.
This is odd indeed, because, from her own comments, she reached this achievement by hanging in there, by forcing herself to stay at it during times when it most definitely wasn’t fun. In other words, by not following her own advice to me. So why this difference? Why have people been telling her she was bound for greatness, while telling me to just write for my own enjoyment. Unfortunately, and despite their insistence to the contrary, it’s hard to see any reason except one.
“It’s not about winning.” That’s the lie we spread to our children when they play youth sports. That is, it’s what we tell some of them. After the game, we tell the winning team, “You guys are great. Keep working and you’ll make the State Championship!” But we tell the losing team, “Hey, you had fun playing, right? That’s what’s important. Having fun. It’s not about winning.” Of course it’s about winning. That’s why we keep score. The only people who say winning doesn’t matter are the ones who have no chance of winning. And that’s what I keep hearing people say to me.
Oh yeah, they also say, “Believe in yourself.” Well, that’s pretty hard to do when they keep saying not to worry about getting published. It would be a whole lot easier to believe in myself if I thought others believed in me. The way they believed in the writer who won.
Part of the problem is that I work with writers at all levels of ambition. Some are self-publishing, others have little real interest in publishing at all and are writing just because they can’t not write. These people write to have fun. That’s fine for them, and I wouldn’t dare to say that that’s not the right reason to do it. Yet they don’t hesitate to tell me that writing with the express intent of getting published is the wrong reason. That is, if I’m not doing it for the same reason they are, then it’s invalid. Gee, thanks.
Why am I saying this? Not simply to complain, although these recent events have sent me into a downward spin I’m still struggling to pull myself out of. Rather I offer advice to everyone who knows someone with an ambition, especially one that doesn’t strike you as realistic. And, make no mistake, my ambition of being a successful writer is a long shot, I know. I just don’t need others to keep pointing that out. Neither do the people you know.
I’ve recently been watching ice skating competition on TV. I’m not a skater. Anything that combines falling down and freezing isn’t for me. But I love to watch it. The grace, the skill. And the dedication. It’s why I’m that rare bird who prefers the Winter Olympics. I have nothing but admiration for someone who makes it to the Olympics. Maybe you know someone like that.
Someone who’s training for the Olympics started skating because she loves to skate. But she realized she was good, and she decided she was going to compete. Training is brutal. There isn’t a day that she doesn’t end up bruised, exhausted, probably in tears, with every muscle on fire, and knowing that it starts all over again tomorrow. Definitely not fun. So why does she do it? Because she wants to skate on Olympic ice. She wants to stand on the medal platform. She wants to win gold. And she is surrounded by people who understand that, who encourage her to carry on, no matter how awful it is, who remind her what it’s all about: reaching the goal. And they don’t distract her with nonsense about how she should “just have fun.”
Maybe you know someone like that, someone with an ambition, someone who wants the prize more than anything on earth. Then encourage them. You may not share that goal, but it helps them not at all if you point that out, and tell them it’s the wrong reason to do it. Don’t tell them to have fun. Tell them to hang in there. Tell them they’re going to make it. Tell them you believe in them. Unless you don’t. And they can tell if that’s the case, regardless of what you say. And in that case, say nothing. They don’t need a consolation prize. I guarantee they will not be appreciative. Especially if you went ahead and won the prize after telling them not to worry so much about winning.