How to burnout at writing (hint: do it for the wrong reasons)

Over the years, I’ve read more than a few Rolling Stone profiles. And, like every genre, there are the standard tropes that gets recycled precisely because they are true. Here’s one that could be assigned to almost any male musician of the last fifty years: “Why did I first learn to play guitar? Girls, of course!” 

While questionable motives probably served as the catalyst for some of the greatest music ever made, at some point in the story, the successful musician will always claim to have discovered a genuine love for the music. Then, he’s hooked. What started off as a perhaps less-than-noble pursuit transforms into a different sort of burning passion.

The best musicians — the artists — care more about the work than about the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll that come with fame (even if they sometimes indulge on the spoils of success).

And I suppose that, when it comes to writers, the pen isn’t all that different from the guitar.

Becoming a rock star is hard. Or maybe it just requires luck? If you want to be a minor celebrity, and not risk starving, political journalism is much wiser. The odds of making it to the top as a rock star, movie star, or professional athlete are slim, and the disparity between the elite few who make it to the top, and the struggling ham-and-eggers who barely eke out a living at it is huge.

Think of it this way: If you were the 100th best guitarist in America — as amazing as you would surely be — the odds are you’d still be playing covers at the Des Moines Holiday Inn. Conversely, the 100th best political journalist will make a nice living, and likely even enjoy 15 minutes of what passes for fame in political circles.

I’m not the first one to figure this out. So, as you can imagine, this attracts a certain crowd. Political journalism, like politics itself, often serves as second act for starving artists and failed musicians (politicians and the journalists who cover them are, in some ways, surprisingly similar). That’s not to say this applies to every ink-stained scribbler, but it is to say that political journalism — especially in the cable news era — is an attractive gig for the ambitious young person who secretly wants to be famous.

When one considers the serious responsibility of journalism, this is a frightening motivation. But the hope, of course, is that, over time, ambition for personal success turns into something like a love for the game.  This sort of transition is not merely good for society (who depends on these people to report and interpret the news), but also a survival instinct for the journalist — if he or she wants to have a long career and endure the ups and downs and slings and arrows that come with sticking around any profession long enough.

Throughout history, some of the greatest writers have struggled with this. Consider this from Tolstoy:

During that time I began to write from vanity, covetousness, and pride. In my writings I did the same as in my life. To get fame and money, for the sake of which I wrote, it was necessary to hide the good and to display the evil. And I did so. How often in my writings I contrived to hide under the guise of indifference, or even of banter, those strivings of mine towards goodness which gave meaning to my life! And I succeeded in this and was praised.

I’m not sure why, but in the past couple of days, I’ve seen a lot of smart people wrestling with this very issue. I’ll try my best to weave them together, because that’s what I do. It may or may not be seamless.

Let’s begin with Rod Dreher, who has penned a piece on how Dante cured him of a midlife crisis. Dreher notes that, in hell, Dante encounters his old teacher Brunetto, who gives him some bum advice:

Brunetto, a teacher who was like a father to Dante, misleads him in two crucial ways: by counseling that the purpose of writing is to win worldly fame and by instructing the pilgrim that he should plot his course through life not by following the divine plan but by seeking his own interests.

This is what landed Brunetto in Hell and rendered his writing sterile. As the pilgrim will learn by the end of his journey, the only way a true artist can be fruitful is by seeking to set his course by the divine plan and making his art serve truth and virtue, not the almighty self.

Of course, a certain amount of ambition can be good — perhaps even vital. But it’s important to be ambitious for the right things, and — in the course of your life — you will probably need to evaluate (and reevaluate) your priorities.

As Charles Murray recently wrote,

I look with suspicion on any talented 20-something who doesn’t feel that way. I wish you luck.

But suppose you arrive at age 40, and you enjoy your work, have found your soul mate, are raising a couple of terrific kids—and recognize that you will probably never become either rich or famous. At that point, it is important to supplement your youthful ambition with mature understanding.

(Note: We discussed this in my recent conversation with Charles Murray about his new book, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead.)

The truth is that, in the long run, it’s hard to be successful at something you’re doing for the wrong reasons. The search for fame or praise might be a nice byproduct, but it shouldn’t be the driving force of your work life. It’s got to be about the work.

Along those lines, a recent blog post, author Seth Godin examines five behaviors which lead us to nowhere. They include “big dreams” coupled with four other behaviors like “lottery thinking” — the notion that you will be discovered (and magically, someone else will make you a star). At the end, Godin concludes,

Just for kicks, imagine someone who embraces the opposite of all five of these behaviors. Someone focused on doing the work, her work, relentlessly getting better, shipping it, racking up small wins and earning one fan at a time. And doing it all with a trained eye on what it means to do it better.

This is consistent with the notion that — instead of setting “goals” for achievements — we are better off focusing on building the right systems.

Fame and success are beyond our control. At the end of the day, you either love the work, or you don’t.