Episode 17: Feeling Successful
Today’s is the eighth episode in the nine-part series “How Purpose Heals Depression,” a series based on my book The Van Gogh Blues, which has just appeared in paperback. In this series we look at the relationships among creativity, meaning, and depression and answer some fundamental questions about why creative people like you and me have an extra measure of depression to deal with, the measure that arrives because of our existential concerns and because of the way that we experience meaning as challenging and problematic. In today’s show, we examine the idea that purpose wanes if we do not experience success—or at least the feeling of success.
Today’s is the eighth episode in the nine-part series “How Purpose Heals Depression,” a series based on my book The Van Gogh Blues, which has just appeared in paperback. In this series we look at the relationships among creativity, meaning, and depression and answer some fundamental questions about why creative people like you and me have an extra measure of depression to deal with, the measure that arrives because of our existential concerns and because of the way that we experience meaning as challenging and problematic. In today’s show, called “Feeling Successful,” we examine the idea that purpose wanes if we do not experience success—or at least the feeling of success. Let’s begin!
Our depression is kept at bay at those times when we have a felt sense that our life is meaningful and when we are at peace with the facts of existence. A lack of success is a meaning drain on both scores. Even if we believe that our creative efforts are meaningful by virtue of the fact that we are walking a path with heart, going deep, wrestling with good ideas, and so forth, if our efforts continually come up short or if they meet only with indifference, it takes a very unusual person, an evolved master or philosopher king, to smile and say, “I find my life good.”
Most creators feel miserable if few or none of their creative efforts succeed. This misery may be culturally-induced and the end result of the humanist thread in history, a thread that proclaims individual effort and individual reward the natural goals of a well-lived life. Whatever its roots, this misery is a reality for creators who do not succeed. Scratch a depressed creator and you are likely to find a person who is not happy with his creative efforts and not happy with the fact that the world is taking no interest in him.
Since creators are likely to set the bar high, wanting their scientific ideas to prove major breakthroughs, their novels to affect readers as they themselves were affected by the novels of their youth, their paintings to be the “next great thing” in art, their small successes--writing a strong paragraph, mixing a beautiful blue, having an interesting thought--count for nothing or next to nothing. Therefore on most days nothing feels like much of a success. Who wouldn’t be depressed?
Many would-be creators are aware from an early age of the possibility that success may prove a rare commodity and is likely to elude them if they pursue their passion for writing or painting; so they opt out of creating. They decline to choose the creative life because of the fear that writing fiction, playing in a rock band, or some other love of theirs will never bring them success. They reckon that they will be better off, practically and emotionally speaking, if they choose a profession that guarantees them some success. By choosing this route, they are doing nothing more unreasonable than trying their best to reckon with the facts of existence and make a good decision about how to live their life. But there are almost always nasty consequences to this reasonable decision.
Cynthia, a writer and creativity coach, related the following story: I recently found myself at a dinner party, talking about creativity coaching. A friend of mine, a project manager for a computer game company, started talking about how he thought of being an artist when he started school but then switched to engineering so that he could have more objective indicators of success. For an hour we chatted about the life decisions he had made, the career decisions he had made, what was creative about his current job and his life and what was uncreative. I think by the end he had a better understanding about the course his life had taken. He had been devaluing what he had done and didn't give himself credit for the decisions that he had made. By the end of the evening he seemed more empowered to take an active stance in creating his life in the future.
Would-be creators who chose to put success first are likely to devalue their chosen line of work and their professional efforts, feel bored, despise themselves for not having braved a riskier course, and live in the shadow of constant depression. What they learn is that by selecting a sensible profession they harmed their meaning-making chances. For them, the essence of self-support is finding ways to invest meaning in new creative efforts, even though they may believe that it is too late to start and even though they are still made anxious by the thought of creating.
If you chose the riskier path and decided to spend your life as a creator, you have the job of feeling successful no matter what your objective successes look like. You must train yourself to feel successful, despite what your heart and the world tell you about your lack of success. No objective success will ever feel like a success unless you have trained yourself to feel successful and gotten into the habit of feeling successful. The publishing professional Evan Marshall explained:
Sad to say, in my years as an editor and agent, I have known a large number of novelists who have achieved the stereotypical view of writing success but who are not at peace, not happy or creatively fulfilled by what they have accomplished. In fact, they are anything but. They are perpetually unhappy, driven by a desire to be richer, more famous, to sell more books, to make their publishers love them more. If you asked these unhappy writers what they’re aiming for, what it would take to make them happy, they would have no answer because they don’t really know. They’ve never stopped to figure out what success really means to them.
A vital aspect of self-support is reminding yourself that success is not a measure but a feeling. You can wake up, walk straight to your computer, write for two hours on your novel, and feel successful for that day, if you care to feel successful. You can wake up, go to your day job, put in eight hours there, come home, and do a tiny thing in support of your creative life, and call your day successful. You can accept yourself, call yourself the beauty in life, and feel successful for having taking your side and not opposed yourself, if you decide to. You can make peace with the facts of existence, let go of your anger and sadness, and feel successful for having chosen life.
Creators who do not habituate themselves to feeling successful have no chance at success. To acquire this feeling, you must have a long heart-to-heart talk with yourself and convince yourself that it is in your own best interests to stop measuring success and to start feeling successful. Having convinced yourself of this, you offer yourself ongoing support by reminding yourself at every opportunity to feel successful: because you painted for an hour, because you finished a poem, or regularly for no reason whatsoever.
That ends today’s show. Tune in next week for another episode in the “How Purpose Heals Depression” series. To learn more about this subject, please take a look at my book The Van Gogh Blues, which just appeared in paperback from New World Library. To subscribe to “your purpose-centered life,” please visit personallifemedia.com, where you’ll also find my blog. You can drop me an email at [email protected]; and I hope that you’ll visit my website to learn more about my books and services. That’s ericmaisel.com—(spelled out).
Thank you for listening!