Saturday, November 08, 2008

Mistaking Model For Formula

In life there are models to be imitated and formulas to be followed. One guarantees a specific result, the other guarantees nothing. And this is an important distinction. Make the mistake of thinking you are following a formula when you're just imitating a model can lead you to a lot of frustration and heartache. I know. I'm there.

One of the hallmarks of the United States is our adherence to "the great American dream", the model of hard work leading to success. It is a beautiful model, with some wonderful stories to support it. Personally I love the story told in the movie Pursuit of Happyness. It is a heartwarming tear-jerker about a down on his luck salesman who risks all his life savings to pursue a career in the stock market. His wife leaves him and he and his son live on the streets while he pursues this dream. In the end he succeeds and winds up owning his own firm, becoming a millionaire. What I love most about this story is that it's true.

Here's the catch: a lot of people (myself included) derive a formula from this model. It goes something like this: hard work plus determination equals success (HW+D=S). We think that if we work hard and persist at working hard that finally what we are working toward will come to us. And we're tricked into thinking this is a guaranteed result by the people around us who do just that - who work hard and get rewarded for it. Thankfully most places of employment in this country operate on that model.

The marketplace on the other hand does not. Should someone decide to self-publish a book a year ago, with the thought of launching it at a national conference for an organization that should be happy to support it, they will find that life is not so easy. The book will not arrive in time for the conference. The organization will not even acknowledge the copies sent to its leaders. Someone might then remember the "determination" part of the equation and persist in trying to get the book out there, going way beyond her natural bents and inclinations. She may work many hours and seek a variety of venues to sell the book. When single copy sells here and a dozen friends are kind enough to buy copies there, someone celebrates these tiny successes and reminds herself that it's going to take more determination. And she continues on.

In the meantime around her are these models of success that fool her into thinking that if she just works harder and persists longer her success will come too. A friend bithely self-publishes and sells more in a couple of weeks than someone has in over a year. And someone wonders what she has done wrong, how much harder, how much longer she needs to go at it before she'll succeed. Until she finally sees her error.

It's not a formula. It's a model. Like many people in this country right now, she's seeing that it's a broken model. It simply does not work any more. Then she remembers a visit to Springfield last month. She remembers standing in front of a time line of President Lincoln's life and pointing out to her daughter the large string of failures he had before becoming President of the United States. Maybe that's the current model: expect failure - lots of it.

I just don't know whether I'd say to expect success to come along later. It just might not.

Post Script: Literary agent, Terry Whalin, addresses the tough nature of "success" in the world of books and publishing today on his blog, without suggesting one should throw in the towel. And he gives some more examples along the lines of what I said about Lincoln. I might just need a new dose of determination here. That and a revised perspective (thank you, everydayMom).

3 musings:

mominthemoon said...

It's so important to remind ourselves of these kinds of things. The parameters of "success" are so narrowly defined by human nature that it's easy for us to feel defeated. But remembering the struggles of others who failed yet persevered to eventually achieve levels of greatness is important to point out as you did. Additinally, I was also once told that the winners' names of Nobel prizes, Academy Awards, Olympic medals and the like are more often forgotten than remembered. But the names and actions of those who did the most to help us become good human beings are never forgotten; those of parents, teachers, coaches, etc., who do seemingly simple work but have arguably the most signficant impact on how each generation turns out.

A Musing Mom said...

Mominthemoon - well said and a good reminder of what matters. Makes me realize that even if I had a NY Times bestseller, it still couldn't hold a candle to the words I hear every night from my second-grader: "You're the best mom in the world". Now that's some real success!

everydayMOM said...

I felt so bad when I first read your post, just knowing how down you sounded... just wanted to add my two cents in writing.

It's so funny how we see ourselves so differently from how others see us. We all are so hard on ourselves (I usually think I'm the BIGGEST loser around), but others see us as successful! I was so busy seeing all of your successes that I didn't even notice you were struggling. So, I apologize for not being a better friend.

But your success is not determined by the number of books that you sell. Your determination has resulted in so many types of successes... speaking engagements, radio shows, etc. Whether these result in extra sales of THIS book or whether they are going to be the experience and contacts you need in the future, you are planting seeds.

And in the BIG picture, that is so much more important than the sales of this one book.

Yes... sometimes you do have to change your goal, change course or even just quit for awhile and focus elsewhere. But keep your eye on the big picture, rather than the stack of books waiting to be sold.

The indifference of the one group you mentioned is discouraging. But it's one of those things where you have to learn from it and move on. Don't let it drag you down or steal your joy in what you do so well!

And, by the way, YOU ROCK! I read your whole book and I thought it was awesome! Thanks for sharing your heart.