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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: achievement

Treasure maps don't inspire me — real people do

Stephen H. Provost

If you’re successful, please resist the urge to utter these five words: “You can do it, too!”

You may think they’re encouraging, but what if they have the opposite effect? How many J.K. Rowlings or James Pattersons are there? I can do it, too? Really?

Still, I’ve heard this kind of statement often enough from writers who’ve found success. I’m sure other creative people – visual artists, musicians, poets – have heard it, too. But let’s change it up for a moment. How would it sound coming from a Wall Street executive telling someone in the inner city how to succeed in business? Do the words “presumptuous” or “clueless” come to mind?

But for some reason, it’s considered OK – even “inspiring” – to speak to creative people like that. Kind of like the old saying that anyone can grow up to be president of the United States. Well, no, not just anyone can. Only people who receive millions of dollars in donations, are nominated by a major political party and receive a majority of Electoral College votes can do it. Oh, and you’ve got to be a citizen by birth and at least 35 years of age. If you’re a naturalized citizen or wind up dying before you hit 35, you’re out of luck.

I know this sounds cynical, but I’m not writing this from a cynical perspective. I’m trying to illustrate how people who have “made it” often view the world through the lens of their own narrative ... and then try to apply it to everyone else. Yet how they feel about their own success is informed by their hindsight; they might remember how hard it was to be a poor or struggling artist, but they no longer feel things from that perspective (not would they, I suspect, wish to do so).

Some people do this intentionally, to augment their income. They want to make everything seem “easy peasy” so they can sell you how-to books containing a “sure-fire” formula for success. But the only thing sure-fire about these books – even those that contain helpful advice, and some of them do – is that the author is going to be making money off each sale.

Most successful people, however, do it unintentionally. Some may suffer from impostor syndrome and can’t believe they deserve what they’ve achieved. They see themselves as frauds, and if they can fake their way to stardom, they assume others can do the same. Others look at how far they’ve come and sincerely want to encourage others – to share the “secret to their success.”

But the effect can be just the opposite: Instead of instilling hope, it can encourage people to place expectations on themselves that they have no way of ever fulfilling, because every situation is different, and everyone has a unique story to tell.

I’m not you

Whenever I hear someone say, “You can do it, too,” the little voice inside me says, “No, I can’t. Not the way you did it.” I want to tell them not to sell themselves short with false humility, because they have a talent I can’t replicate. Nor would I want to, because I’m not them. I can’t do what they’ve done, because what they’ve done is uniquely amazing and should be recognized as such, not downplayed as some sort of happy accident that can be duplicated by me or anyone else.

That being said, there is luck involved in any success, and I’m just as likely to duplicate a successful person’s luck as I am to match their skill.

What most people probably mean when they say, “You can do it, too,” is that they worked their asses off, and they view their success as the payoff for that hard work. Our nation’s Protestant work ethic has drummed it into us: We believe that hard work is the key to success, as though one automatically follows the other. Of course, it doesn’t. Any more than innate talent or even a single stroke of luck does. It’s just not as simple as that.

A successful person’s story can, indeed, be inspiring. I’m not for a moment suggesting that those who have found success “shut the hell up about it.” On the contrary. Those stories are part of what made them who they are, and they should be told – so we can get to know that person and celebrate their successes along with them.

But to suggest that “you can do it, too” is to cheapen those stories, to make them seem more pedestrian than they really are. I can’t live another person’s life or achieve someone else’s success; I can only live and achieve my own. When all is said and done, it will look different than that of another author who made more or less money, sold more or fewer books, became more or less well-known than I did. That’s not only OK, that’s how it should be.

Even if we don’t write books, each of us has a unique story to tell. It’s not a template for someone else’s story, because we aren’t cookie-cutter clones of some ideal. Each of us is unique, and each of our stories is, too. Someone once compared my writing to Stephen King’s, which is certainly flattering, but I’m not the next Stephen King ... and no one will be the next me.

When we stop trying to follow someone else’s treasure map, we stop trying to adopt their expectations as our own. Then, we’re free to appreciate their story as truly theirs, and learn about what makes them uniquely who they are. That’s authenticity, and it’s how we really get to know one another – not as “role models” but as real people.

And it’s real people who inspire me, whether they’re authors working their asses off, people juggling two jobs to make ends meet, stay-at-home parents or scientific geniuses. I’m encouraged by hearing about their unique life journeys, not by listening to two-dimensional success stories that end with false promises that “you can do this, too.”

I already know I can’t. And that’s part of what makes life beautiful.