Have you ever daydreamed of writing a series that has touched as many people as Harry Potter? Or writing a memoir as successful as Eat, Pray, Love? I close my eyes and think about how wonderful that would be. For a moment I smile, and then something weird happens. I can actually feel the anxiety rise in my gut. My heart starts beating faster. It doesn’t feel good at all.
Not to worry, right? I’m certainly not at work on a series of high-fantasy novels titled Larry Botter. So why does just thinking about being in J.K. Rowling’s shoes cause me to twitch?
Then I saw this video from John Green, author of the very successful YA novel The Fault in Our Stars. When that book was published, he was already at work on a new manuscript. “I started to feel this intense pressure, like people were watching over my shoulder as I was writing.” He ditched that story and reimagined it, but after 100 pages that too was abandoned. “I was elated and grateful that The Fault in Our Stars had reached so many readers, but at the same time I was terrified because I felt like I could never follow it up.”
Again, this is a problem of scale that I clearly don’t have, but something in the honesty of his video made me see the universality of the fear behind his words. I’ve read similar posts and articles by writers with more commonplace levels of success, and I realize the fear is the same. The fear is the same if you’ve sold 10,000 copies or 1 million copies. And the question is the same, what next?
In her TedX Talk, Jemele Hill, a host on the ESPN2 network, suggests that we fear success because it creates expectations and stakes and accountability. Success feels more complicated than failure. It’s more demanding. That “what next” feeling is always lurking, whether you’re publishing your first story or a book that has achieved phenomenal success.
That word phenomenal made me think of an interview Oprah did with J.K. Rowling in 2011 as the last Harry Potter movie was being released.
Winfrey: But I read something recently. It was the story of Michael Jackson in the making of Thriller and in that story the writer said Michael Jackson never realized that Thriller was a phenomenon that, it being the number-one selling album of all times, is a phenomenon. That what happened when that album came out and people all over the world doing that dance and listening to every song and that he spent his life chasing the phenomenon and therefore was never satisfied.
Rowling: I read it and that really resonated with me.
Winfrey: And it really resonated with me, too and I thought “I don’t want to be that.”
Winfrey: I don’t want to be chasing the phenomenon that I know –
Rowling: I have to do it again. I have to do it again.
The fear of success stems from the pressure that we or others place on us to “do it again.” In fact Rowling goes on to say, “People say to me, ‘Well, you must just think how on earth am I going to top that?’” It can be paralyzing.
Elizabeth Gilbert knows what it’s like to come off a resounding success:
…that whole Eat, Pray, Love thing was a huge break for me. But it also left me in a really tricky position moving forward as an author trying to figure out how in the world I was ever going to write a book again that would ever please anybody, because I knew well in advance that all of those people who had adored Eat, Pray, Love were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it wasn’t going to be Eat, Pray, Love.
This all makes me sweat just a little bit. Is it possible to feel anxiety about what comes next even before there is a before? What to do? Aim for mediocrity?
Here’s Elizabeth Gilbert again:
…you have got to find your way back home again as swiftly and smoothly as you can, and if you’re wondering what your home is, here’s a hint: Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself. So that might be creativity, it might be family, it might be invention, adventure, faith, service…your home is that thing to which you can dedicate your energies with such singular devotion that the ultimate results become inconsequential.
That, I think I can do.
Have you experienced fear of success?
Have a great weekend, everyone!