First, let’s discuss our own egos. It can be easy to get puffed up because someone liked a book, or because we passed a milestone. But it’s important to stay in touch with reality — not to let our own hype cloud our minds. We’ve all heard stories about celebrities who changed after they became famous. There are a few authors like this, certainly, and to some degree, change is good. But not when it disconnects you from normal boundaries of sense and good judgment. So here are some strategies to keep yourself in check, should you attain some measure of success.
1) You’re not always right. If people argue with you, whether it’s about your book (or politics or religion), it doesn’t mean they’re automatically wrong because they share alternate opinions. Listen to what other people have to say and don’t type angry.
2) Success shouldn’t change you completely. If you find yourself cutting ties with all your old friends, that’s a problem. There was a reason you were friends in the first. Ask yourself this: is it because they don’t treat you with awe like everyone else, because they knew you in your pre-fame days? If so, then take two steps back, apologize for falling out of touch and buy your old pals dinner, because you need them to remind you where you came from.
3) Other people matter. If you start seeing folks as tools or means to an end, and you only cooperate or make nice to get what you want from them? You have an ego-swelling problem in need of emergency maintenance. Conversely, do be wary of people who eye you as a rung on the way up the ladder, but don’t let it blind you to the opportunity to make new friends. You’ll learn to tell when someone really likes and when they like the idea of knowing you.
4) Remember your struggle. Most people didn’t get where they are without some fight, whether it’s in publishing, the corporate world, or an entrepreneurial environment. If you pay it forward now and again, you’ll not only enrich your karma, but it will keep you in touch with other people who are still climbing the hill behind you.
5) Last and most important, make a reality-check friend along the way, someone who will tell you when you’re being absurd and insane and will not let you buy a pet elephant to ride down the streets of your hometown when you make your triumphant return for a whirlwind twenty city book tour. This friend will be honest with you, no matter how little you like hearing you. But it’s always up to you to listen.
But wait, there’s more! There’s not just your ego to consider. There are other people’s as well. Are you honest enough to be a reality check friend for someone else? Tell them if they’re going too far? I think I could be… for some people. With others, honestly, I would be afraid to broach the subject because I think they’ve already gone too far down that road unchecked and nothing I say will matter.
There’s also the question of kindness. Say you agree to judge a contest and you’re asked to give feedback on each submission. (This has happened to me.) But the partials you read are all really terrible. How do you give helpful feedback that won’t totally destroy someone else’s ego and leave them unable to work at all when you really think the answer is, “Try again.” It’s a hard balance between bald truth and constructive criticism, and sometimes there’s just nothing constructive to be said. The project is flawed. I’m not good at this, even now, and have started avoided judging contests for this reason.
Other situations will arise, like when you’re asked to blurb a book by someone you like but don’t know well, and the manuscript just doesn’t work for you. There are techniques I’ve learned to manage this without hurting anybody’s feelings. It all contributes to the fine art of ego management.
If you have questions, I’ll be happy to answer them.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s !unite