To help us find a compelling direction in life, self-development writers often tell us to ask ourselves “what we’d do if we couldn’t fail.” For example, we might ask, what kind of book would we write if we knew that whatever we produced was destined to be a #1 bestseller?
I’ve taken to asking myself basically the opposite question: what would I create if I knew no one would ever care about it? In other words, what would I do if I knew I would fail? Believe it or not, this question has been much more helpful to me in finding the direction and motivation I want.
Why? Because I think the reality is that much of our creative output will be ignored — or, at least, it won’t get the huge audience we’re hoping for — and that’s a reality we need to accept and even embrace.
Odds Are That They Won’t See It
For instance, I don’t know the exact statistics, but I’d wager that close to 100% of writers hope their next book will be a bestseller, or their next blog post will go massively viral, and so on. But how many of them will get what they want? I think it’s safe to say the number is much closer to 0% than 100%.
So, since most of our work is overwhelmingly likely to “fail,” in the sense that it won’t get the attention we want, “what would you do if you couldn’t fail” is an unrealistic question. We can, and will often, fail.
But I think the deeper problem with this question is that it plays into the common belief that the pleasure of creating comes from others seeing and appreciating our work, rather than from the act of creation itself.
The conventional wisdom has it that, if lots of people think our project is cool, it must be a “success.” But if it doesn’t get enough readers, pageviews, retweets, or whatever else, it’s a “failure,” and we’ve “got nothing to show for our work.”
Being Okay With Being Unseen
If being seen by others is what matters most to us, I think, we’re destined for disappointment. Here’s why: every creative project requires long periods of unseen, unappreciated work. Even a writer who produces a bestselling book must spend hundreds of hours alone, with no audience, putting it together.
If being by ourselves, unnoticed, is too painful for us, we’re going to have trouble making progress in our task. This is a big reason, I think, why many people keep “planning on” doing a big creative project, but never get around to it. They can’t bear the thought of all those solitary hours.
But what if being seen wasn’t our priority? What if we genuinely enjoyed the project we were doing so much that it didn’t matter whether anyone cared about the finished product? If we were having so much fun that it didn’t even occur to us to agonize over being unseen?
If we want to know what this kind of project would look like for us, a great question to ask is: what would I do if I knew no one would ever discover my work? If I “knew I’d fail,” by the usual standards of fame and fortune? If I knew, whatever the end result was, that I was going to have a blast?
If we can sincerely answer this question, I think, we’ll have discovered a true “labor of love.”
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