There are two tragedies in life, Oscar Wilde once said: not getting what you want and getting everything you want. The last, he lamented, is much worse.
I wanted to be a writer. I don’t know when that dream started, but for a very long time, I craved accomplishment in this creative calling that very few are lucky enough to make a living in, let alone find success in.
Of course, like most people, I also fantasized about what it would be like to have money, or more specifically, to have lots of it. It’d be cool to be a little famous too, while I was at it. To be connected with or have influence over important people, to be sought after for advice or input. That has to be awesome too, right?
Maybe, apart from the genuine love of writing, that’s what attracted me to being an author. It was a way to have all those things. And indeed, in the last year or so, it has become harder to deny that I have accomplished most of them.
My books have sold extremely well. They have been reviewed in major newspapers and are translated in dozens of languages. Looking at my bank account here, as I write this, I am relieved to say that I don’t really need to think about money anymore. Few authors make that life-changing, generational kind of wealth, but I’ve done well enough to have my and my family’s needs met without worry, probably for good. If that weren’t lucky enough, I regularly get invited to speak with all sorts of interesting people from the worlds of politics, finance, sports, and entrepreneurship, to name a few.
So how does that feel? How does it feel to have everything you ever wanted in life? To have it earlier than you ever could have realistically expected?
I can tell you: It feels like nothing.
Hitting #1 on the bestseller list?
Looking at a comfortable bank balance?
Sitting across the table from some powerful person as they hang on your every word?
In the new Taylor Swift documentary she talks about that moment where 1989 came out and utterly dominated the music industry. “Oh god that was all you wanted,” was the only thought in her head as she won Album of the Year for the second time. “That was all you wanted. That was all you focused on…. You get to the mountaintop and you look around and you’re like, ‘Oh God, what now?’
Ten years ago, I probably would have scoffed at that, whether I was hearing it from a mega-famous mega-millionaire or a grandparent. I know that was my reaction a long time ago to a beautiful passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“From that period I remember riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky; I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.”
But today, I get it. I understand that existential angst. You work so long and hard to accomplish what feel like crazy pie-in-the-sky dreams, then when the opportunity knocks, you answer, and success comes flooding in, you expect the high to last. You expect it will feel wonderful and exciting, but it doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t really feel like anything at all.
Maybe it feels even worse than nothing because you expected something so different.
I was mowing the lawn when I found out my book hit #1 this year. I saw the email come in and went right back to mowing the lawn. Nothing was different. Nothing changed. I was still me. And when I hit it two more times over the next twelve months? The same…only less because the novelty had worn off. The news wasn’t new anymore.
I wish I could tell you that this feeling is the exception, but it’s probably closer to the rule.
It’s what Olympic medalists feel, it’s what politicians feel the day they are sworn in, it’s what actors feel when they win an Oscar, it’s what scientists feel when they are awarded the Nobel Prize.
We all think some external accomplishment is going to change everything, but it never seems to. It doesn’t change how you see yourself, it doesn’t change how you go through the world, it doesn’t change what you feel like when you wake up in the morning.
Yet even as I write those words, I know most people won’t hear me. We’re hard-wired not to—and to delete them instead. It makes complete sense from an evolutionary point of view why we would believe that achievement will make life better, why it will be worth all the sacrifice and pain, how it will transform and change everything bad in our lives into something good. It’s that drive that has sent many an explorer off on another dangerous voyage into the unknown, kept an inventor in their workshop despite all the wealth and admiration in the world, it’s what made someone want to be not just a king but the king of kings. But just because something is good for progress, doesn’t mean it’s good for a person. You have to learn the lie of our biology by experience.
To be clear, I am not writing this to the person who is still early in their career, who has yet to put that first big win on the board. That person is not ready to hear what I am saying. I am instead writing to the person who has already done it, who is asking, as Taylor Swift and countless other people have before and since asked: What now? What do I do now?
First: Do not deceive yourself. The ‘nothing’ you feel is not because what you did is nothing, or not enough. A second ring is not the answer. It does not prove the existence of the first ring, nor increase its luster. Proving to yourself and critics that this was not an accident is not possible. Advancing higher in the ranks, moving the goalposts a little further back, telling yourself that it will be different next time—this is the definition of insanity (expecting new results from the same inputs).
Second: Do not despair. The problem for most people is that they have put so much pressure on this moment—not when the work is complete, but rather when the achievement is recognized—that when it comes it wrecks them. They turn to drugs. They act out and self-sabotage. Or they quit and walk away. The grief over this lost hope can destroy you. Because you’re not sure what to live for now, you’re even less sure how to keep going.
What you must do instead is realize that what you have been doing is not the problem, it’s the why. You thought that doing important or impressive work will make you happy. This was precisely wrong. It’s that being happy will help us do important and impressive work, quite possibly better and more pure work.
There is a story I wrote about in Stillness is the Key in which Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, the authors of Slaughterhouse Five and Catch-22, respectively, were once at a fancy party in New York. As they stood in the home of some billionaire, Vonnegut needled his friend.
“Joe,” he said, “how does it feel that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel has earned in its entire history?”
“I’ve got something he can never have,” Heller replied.
“And what on earth could that be?” Vonnegut asked.
“The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
This is actually the best place to work from, to live from.
Over the last year, I have tried to see if I can’t operate from a place of fullness rather than craving, realizing that I already have everything I want and, in fact, have since the moment I was born. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped working—Joseph Heller didn’t—but it means that I now see the results as extra, not as entitlements or rewards or just dues.
“We are here as if immersed in water head and shoulders underneath the great oceans,” the great Zen master Gensha once said, “and yet how piteously we are extended our hands for water.”
To be alive, that is the accomplishment. To have your health. To have people you love. This is winning. To get to do the work—that’s the reward, not whether the work is recognized. Which is all we control anyway.
Theodore Roosevelt was a published author by age 23. He had wealth, fame, medals and power. But eventually he realized that “far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
I’ve come to realize along those lines that there is a difference between being a writer and an author. What I love, what I should chase is the writing, being an author is about results. That’s why I always found rewards underwhelming. I was focusing on the wrong prize, missing that I had it along.
The irony is that winning great prizes not only feels like nothing, but understood properly should change absolutely nothing! We should accept the honors with gratitude, we should cash the checks (saving the money responsibly), we should enjoy the parties or the praise, and then we should, as soon as possible, get back down to work.
Do the verb, rather than be the noun.
Not to prove anything to anyone. Not to scale a higher mountain because it will feel different. Not to really get our parents to notice this time. Not because flying private is even better than flying first class is better than economy.
We get back to work because the dream is the doing. The lucky break is the opportunity. It’s the process that we have always loved, it’s the joy of realizing our potential that should never get old or let us down.
It is the only fruit that doesn’t underwhelm or spoil.
P.S. My latest book Stillness is the Key was an instant #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal Bestseller. Whether you’ve achieved everything you dreamed of and don’t know what to do now, or you’re feeling overwhelmed, or you need a simple but inspiring antidote to the stress of 24/7 news and social media, Stillness is the Key is for you. I think it’s the best writing I’ve ever done, and I also think it’s the most important topic I have ever written about.