Success! And Not!

Yesterday I offered the incredibly nebulous and not at all satisfying off-handed comment that ‘success is complicated’ which can go into the pile along with my similar expressions like ‘success is random, basicallly,’ which I’d like to expand on now as a sort of signal of hope for the people around me and as a way to tangle with my own success, or rather, my own grotesque lack of it.  The challenge in addressing this is that when put to it I’ll wind up talking about things I do like and things I don’t like and wind up saying something rude about a piece of media you do like, and I know that tends to upset people so if you don’t want to hear me being mean to books or games or tv shows, maybe just head somewhere else and chill out for a bit. Anyway. Anyway, one of the things that’s kind of important to understand when you sit down and work on your own creative project is that success is random, that is to say, succeeding at a thing is not, in any real way, directly correlated with quality of the thing you have made. I don’t just mean in the sort of vague market-factor view of things where projects like Betamax and Linux have languished despite being ‘superior’ to other products, but I mean in the form of expressive pieces of art and culture and the consumable media we all enjoy and quietly and covertly wish we could get paid to create.

Now there are a lot of things that are very successful that I do not like at all, and that is therefore sort of first place lessons in that ‘good’ and ‘successful’ are not linked concepts, but I’d go a step further and say that ‘good’ is a load of crap and whenever we say ‘X is a good Y’ we are just shortcutting the conversation in a way that’s very acceptable and useful but should never really be taken as more than ‘I found X good,’ when presented on its own. I know people who are proud to point to Harry Potter as an excellent book series full of good goodness that is good and all the bad badness that is bad doesn’t really count, who are also quite likely to consider Twilight to be bad badness that is all bad and see absolutely no similarity between these positions.

Harry Potter is a book series that it makes sense to see as very popular to me, but not because it is in fact a well-written wonderfully-crafted piece of literary greatness whose values and characters are excellent and resonate with a wide variety of people closely but rather because it was happily The Thing At The Right Time as Web 2.0 got its first major influx of teenage attention and the great aggregation system of the internet pointed randomly at A Thing. Note that there’s a whole industry trying to get the internet’s system to point at A Thing, and it’s called marketing, and they themselves will admit, when pressed, that mostly going viral is a matter of randomness, where they will use such terms as ‘x factor.’ Marketers are of course one of the only category of people who are allowed readily to be awful at their jobs, and get to live in this wonderful bubble of actual-Popper-style pseudoscience so don’t take their word too far, but do acknowledge that there is, to some extent, a random sorting order on these things.

Now structural and institutional reasons make up success, such as the fact is if your surname starts with a X or Y there’s a good chance a publisher will literally never get around to reading your work, or if your name ‘reads black’ or comes from ‘black addresses’ you’re similarly hosed, or if you live in a country without unemployment benefits, writing an entire book in your spare time may wind up just being functionally impossible. There’s also the way that mediocre media with evocative elements tends to do reasonably well, and therefore, systems are in place to encourage more of it.Even if you break out of the mould and make a thing that you Put Out There On The Internet For Free, trying to subvert those systems, the fact is, lots of people won’t even bother. You can put things out there for free and overwhelmingly people will pass on the information – ‘hey you can get a free thing here’ – more than they will ever bother to get the free thing.

Now, this isn’t even assuming success is defined as stardom, like being Twilight or Harry Potter or Undertale, it’s assuming success is defined as being enough to make you feel like you didn’t waste your time. And that’s really hard, because there is, thanks to the attention economy a ton of stuff out there that’s all really good and it’s very hard to find that stuff, let alone find the stuff you like the best, and now we’re into discoverability. Bonus, the task of being good at discoverability is also tainted and success in that field is generally not good either, since again, lots of structural problems and the fundamentally random nature of attention.

It is however not all doom and gloom and it is not to say there’s no point doing anything, but rather, it serves me well to have a hearty understanding that my current state is not a function of my personal failures or inadequacies, nor would it be my fault if it were the opposite. Success is a massive lottery, and all your actions do in your own creative work is maximise the result if your number comes up. Don’t feel bad if you make a thing and put it out there and nobody cares. Don’t feel bad if you make a thing for one person and put it out there and they don’t even care. Because the success or failure of things is as good as random, and on this journey through imagination we must, in time, learn to love the act of creating itself.

It does really suck though, yeah. No lies. Just enjoying making stuff is part of why I have to keep doing it.

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