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Why Success is Hard

photo by Ryan McGuire [1] via Flickr

It’s even hard to type that word, especially when thinking of oneself. Success. What is it, exactly? Specifically? What would it be like for you, in your life?

One of the things that I often suggest to writers when thinking about what their protagonist enters the story already wanting is something I call the “Eyes Wide Shut” test.  Meaning: can you close your eyes and see, specifically, what would actually, really, literally have to happen for them to attain their goal? That is: achieve success. And, going even deeper, can you see (read: feel) what it would then mean to them?

And I don’t mean “feel” as in: they’d be happy, sad, bewildered, or that their heart would pound, tears would pool, or stomach butterflies flutter. But “feel” as in: what would they be thinking? What would they realize? What new insight would they have? And most potent: How is this moment different than what they expected it to feel like back when it was still a far off, much hoped-for goal?

Because there is almost always a massive difference between what we expect something will be like, feel like, and mean to us, and what it actually is like once we get there.

When it comes to success, the one area we don’t tend to focus on is this: the collateral damage.  Not damage in the “you broke it” sense, but damage in the “now your life is going to change” sense. As Anatole France so poetically opined, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy, for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter into another.”

Okay, that is a tad dramatic, but still. It gets the point across. And the thing about success is that it’s so easy to imagine it as a “destination,” when it actually forces us to keep moving, to up our game, do more, try harder.  Because having achieved success means that now there is another mountain to scale, and the pressure is even greater. It’s an ongoing process that never, ever lets up.

Who knew? Not me.

I thought success was that moment when what you’ve worked hard for comes to fruition, and now you have time to kick back, to relax into it, and then, at long last, things become easier.  I know, what a dope.

Which brings me to something that it is hard to say, on so many levels.

First, it’s hard to admit that one has had success. It feels brazen. Braggy. Like you’re Robert Goulet singing “C’est Moi [2]” from Camelot (give it a listen, it’s hilarious).

But okay, here goes. I have had some success doing what I most love: talking story, helping writers zero in on the content of the story they want to tell, and busting the myths that keep them from it.  I never thought I could have a book published. Now, I have two. I am asked to speak all over the place. It honestly astounds me – because not long ago I saw myself as nothing more than the schlubby woman in line at Trader Joe’s trying to get the cashier to like me (that actually still happens). And like I said, it’s even hard to type that word – success – when talking about myself. But when I look back at what I set out to do, and what I’ve done – things that, in the beginning, I never in a million years thought I could actually achieve – I have achieved them. I have been successful.

And what I’ve realized is that while that’s definitely, unequivocally, made my life much, much better, instead of making my life easier, it’s made it harder.  Success has done to me exactly what life does to the protagonist on the first page of a story: it’s given me no choice but to deal with unavoidable change.

One of those changes is that I’ve made the hard decision to stop writing this column for Writer Unboxed. This will be my last post, and I can already feel the bittersweet tug, knowing that I am indeed leaving a part of myself behind. I love the community, the idea exchange and the camaraderie of writers here, but I’m now woefully short on the one thing that none of us can create: time.  As I’ve said many times here, I am an embarrassingly slow writer, and it takes me two days to write a post, and longer to edit them.  As some of you have noted, I rarely respond to comments –- but it’s not because I don’t read them, or don’t want to respond, but simply because it would take me another full day or two to do it.  I will forever be jealous of those of you who can sit down and write quickly and succinctly.  I’d kill for that skill.

I will miss you, but I’m sure our paths will cross again in the near future. The writing world is both wide, and at the same time, intimate, close and companionable.

I’ll leave you with the question I started with: what would success be like for you? How might your life change? What hard choices would you have to make?

Adios! For now.

About Lisa Cron [3]

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence [4] and Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste 3 Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). [5] Her video tutorial, Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, can be found at Lynda.com [6]. Her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, [7] opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity. A frequent speaker at writers conferences, schools and universities, Lisa's passion has always been story. She currently works as a story coach helping writers, nonprofits, educators and journalists wrangle the story they're telling onto the page; contact her here. [8]