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“Success is a consequence and must not be a goal.”

“Success is a consequence and must not be a goal.”

Taught a class on overcoming writer’s block at Grub Street Writers , yesterday, and as usual advised students to focus on the process of writing and not the result they hope to obtain. “But what about artistic merit?” the students asked. “What about getting published? How do you achieve those important goals without focusing on them?”

In reply, I trotted out my “big gun,” Gustave Flaubert, who said, “Success is a consequence and must not be a goal.” I believe that is because:

1) Striving consciously for artistic or commercial success corrupts the creative process and distorts the result.

2) Focusing on the audience can inhibit you, especially if you’re writing something personal or controversial. Here’s Erica Jong on her novel Fear of Flying: “I wrote...telling myself no one would ever read it.”

3) Setting a high bar for success can trigger fear of failure, anxiety and writer’s block.

So the artist, activist, or other ambitious dreamer really needs to mostly ignore the outcome, and just focus on the process. Your primary goal should always be simply to finish the work, hopefully enjoying the process as much as possible. Your secondary goal can be to attain some measure of success, but it is important to keep this goal firmly subordinate to the first one.

I know this from personal experience. Whenever I got stuck writing The Lifelong Activist, it was usually because I had reached a difficult patch in the writing and started to worry that I wasn’t producing good work. Once I reminded myself that my primary goal was, “simply to finish the book,” and that was enough to alleviate my fears and help me get back on track.

Many of my students worry that if they follow my advice, the resulting work will lack artistic merit, salability, etc. Not so. If you’ve spent a lifetime reading, writing and otherwise loving words, quality and salability will be “hard-wired” into you and automagically emerge in your work. Besides, that’s what revisions and editing are for, although you have to focus on the process during those tasks as well.

Happily, I’ve got some timely corroboration on all this. Today’s New York Times has a Superbowl-day article entitled Perfection Is Afterthought, Perfect Examples Say on elite athletes’ attitudes toward success. I don’t know if any of those quoted are fans of Flaubert, but they obviously share his philosophy:

Olympic “10” scoring gymnast Nadia Comenici: “Athletes don’t think about history when making history. They think about what they’re doing, and that’s how it gets done.” And: “I did not even look at the scoreboard when my routine was done in 1976. My teammates started pointing because there was this uproar.”

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on the upcoming Superbowl game: “I know it’s a very important game, but we cannot play it like that, like it’s history being played out...It is a football game we want to win, and the only way to do that is to treat it like a football game.”

Olympic multiple-gold-medalist (speed skating) Eric Hayden: “I never once thought about the consequences or legacy of my efforts — a perfect Olympics never entered my consideration.”

John Wooden, UCLA basketball coach: “I never even mentioned trying to win games to my teams. I did talk about perfection. I said it was not possible. But I said it’s not impossible to try for it. That’s what we did in every practice and game.”

Read the whole article!

So, if you are blocked or procrastinating in your writing or other endeavor, chances are that one reason is that you are focusing too hard on success relative to the process. Try to reorient your thinking - talk to a mentor, if need be, for help.

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