The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Success Part Three
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
I wrote the last part of last week’s post and all of this week’s post during the Master Class. Dean and I teach a Master Class for professional writers who have plateaued in their careers. It’s a two-week boot camp that’s as hard on the three main instructors (me, Dean, and Loren Coleman) as it is on the students. I knew I wouldn’t have a long dedicated period of time to write these posts during the class. Fortunately, I’m finding half an hour here and half an hour there to work ahead. This post will go live during my catatonic week (after the Master Class and Bouchercon and the jetlag of going to the East Coast and catching a flight home at 6 a.m. Indiana time), so I knew I didn’t have to finish it before I left, but I also knew it would be better to write it while I still thought in English instead of in Kris’s version of English While Exhausted—which isn’t even readable to me, most of the time.
During these weeks of hard work and little sleep, I’m also carving out time to exercise (a needed stress reliever). Yesterday (as I write this; two weeks ago Tuesday as you read it), I got on the elliptical because I only had twenty minutes and, as I exercised, watched a section of The Beatles Anthology Part One.
And guess what this section was about?
It was about success.
The Beatles Anthology, for those of you who haven’t seen it, is a 1995 documentary about the Beatles using their own words. The words come from some live interviews from 1995 and some old interviews from various time periods. It’s a fascinating study of a musical phenomenon, and I recommend that you watch it.
I’m watching whenever I have to exercise indoors. The segment I watched yesterday was about 1963, as the Beatles were becoming superstars and Beatlemania was sweeping through England. (They hadn’t become a phenomenon in the United States yet.) In that section, the four members of the Beatles started discussing success. They mentioned how sudden it is, how surreal it is, how hard it is, and how they coped (or didn’t).
In a 1963 interview, George Harrison actually said that he didn’t believe the “George Harrison” in the newspapers was him. He was coping, at the time, by distancing himself from the entire event. The other two Beatles mentioned how difficult it had suddenly become to walk down the street in London or in Liverpool.
John Lennon, in that same interview, said this, “It all sounds complaining [but] we’re not….It affects your home world more than it does yourself because you know what to expect but your parents and family, they don’t know what’s happening.”
I’ve never heard the phenomenon of becoming extremely successful described so accurately. What he said in a few words is what I’ve been trying to express in the last few posts.
I’ll get back to this inside/outside approach to success in a moment, but let me continue with the Beatles Anthology for a minute.
In some ways, George Harrison’s 1995 take on the entire phenomenon that he and the other Beatles lived through in 1963 was the most interesting. Harrison, speaking from a distance of 32 years, as an older man instead of the 20-something he had been when superstardom got thrust upon him, clearly had had a lot of time to reflect on that period of his life.
In his interview for the Anthology, he said, “I always felt sorry, later, for Elvis because he was on his own. He had his guys with him, but there was only one Elvis. Nobody else knew what he felt like. But for us, we all shared the experience.”
Let me repeat. He felt sorry for Elvis. Elvis Presley, also a superstar, a man who had achieved his dreams. Most people would never feel sorry for Elvis, not in the way Harrison had felt sorry for him, because most people would have told Elvis how lucky he had been to be in that situation.
Everyone who has incredible success understands that they are fortunate to be in that situation. (Note I didn’t say lucky. As my very successful friend, Kevin J. Anderson, repeatedly says, “The harder I work, the luckier I am.” Successful people may have had luck, but they are where they are because they knew how to use that luck in their favor. Usually successful people are where they are because they work harder than everyone else they know.)
Like Elvis, the Beatles were small town boys thrust into an international limelight. Like Elvis, they had a rapid early success. Like Elvis, they had no idea how to handle the pressures, the money, or the fame. Both Elvis and the Beatles signed terrible contracts in their early years. Elvis hired Colonel Tom Parker as his manager. Parker managed to clean up Elvis’s contracts (while signing him to some other bad contracts that helped Parker), but no one could clean up the mess the Beatles had created. Even now, they’re paying for those early mistakes.
The Beatles signed away their musical copyrights in those years, and so now, they only get a percentage of the earnings of their music, instead of the full earnings. (You can see the difference in the income statements, mentioned in”How Rich Are the Beatles?” an Entertainment Weekly article published in the September 11th issue: Ringo Starr, John Lennon’s estate, and George Harrison’s estate are worth between $155 million and $228 million, but Paul McCartney is worth about $716 million. The reason for the difference is simple: McCartney continued to play on a superstar level (Wings) and record his own songs for the intervening decades. I believe that had John Lennon lived, he would have had the same kind of career and a similar kind of wealth. George Harrison and Ringo Starr didn’t write as many songs and didn’t record very many solo albums, so their level of financial (and musical) success after the Beatles wasn’t as great as Lennon’s, and certainly not as impressive as McCartney’s.)
In other words, success has levels. All of us would be happy to earn $9 million per year like Lennon’s estate did in 2008, but how would we feel if we knew that had we negotiated a better contract forty years ago, we would be earning five to ten times as much? Someone else is earning the bulk of the money off the Beatles catalogue, a fact that still grates on Paul McCartney (and he says so).
Success is jolting and extremely unexpected, even if you’ve been preparing for it. What you have prepared for is never the same as what really hits you, which is what the Beatles were discussing in the quotes above.
Last week, I added definitions of success to the dictionary definition. Those additions are:
1. The world’s definition of success
2. Other people’s definition of success
3. Your definition of success
I discussed definitions one and two last week. This week, I’m going to focus on your definition of success.
Of course, I don’t know your real definition. I only know mine. So what I’m going to discuss is the personal definition of success that each freelancer has.
Our definitions of success are extremely personal. A benchmark for me would mean nothing to you. We discussed that from the outside last week, but let’s discuss it from the inside this week.
I have learned through teaching the Master Class over the past decade that most people can’t imagine success. Most people believe success will never happen. If it does happen, they think success will take care of itself. Or, if they do believe success will happen, their definition of that success is quite small.
For the Beatles in the early years, success was working continuously as musicians. They had become successful when they worked the clubs in Liverpool, even more successful when they went to Hamburg, and had achieved the pinnacle of success when their first record got played on the radio.
Had they imagined Beatlemania? Not in their wildest dreams. As a result, the Fab Four wasn’t prepared for the problems that came with that kind of success—some of which we can imagine (no privacy, getting mobbed in crowds, losing your anonymity) and some of which we can’t imagine (hence Harrison’s comment about Presley, from the point of view of someone who understands).
When success hits, you have no idea what your reaction to it will be. Many people actually get depressed because they have lost their goal or achieved their dream. They now have nothing to strive for. Or they feel like a fraud—especially if that success comes quickly. (You hear this a lot from people who became famous young. They have to prove themselves “worthy” of that success.)
But here’s my favorite reaction: often the successful person discounts the success.
There are reasons for that. Sometimes the success is overwhelming, so the way the person copes is to deny it’s happening (that’s in the 1963 Harrison quote; the person in the news articles is someone else). That’s an okay way to cope until it becomes impossible to deny. Then the successful person must in some way acknowledge the success.
But most often, the successful person discounts the success because to him, the achievement wasn’t a success at all.
Again, we get back to definitions.
I’ll use a personal one. In the early 1980s, I got three tentative job offers. They came from friends who had worked with me when I was in radio news. The first came from a colleague I respected greatly, a man who went on to behind-the-scenes success writing and researching for many broadcast news magazines. He told me that 60 Minutes was hiring, and he’d already put my name in. He said he would help me put my demo tape together, and get me an interview with the head producer there. My colleague said the interview was a formality. They’d already heard my work on his demo tape (I had engineered parts of it) and wanted me there.
The second job offer came from a friend who had become one of the documentary producers at WGBH in Boston. He wanted me to work for him. No interview, no demo tape. I didn’t have to do anything except get my butt to Boston to look for an apartment.
The third job offer came from a third friend. He had signed on with a start-up national television news channel called the Cable News Network, which was also called CNN. “They’re looking for great writers and engineers, Kris,” he said to me on the phone. “You have better credentials than I do and you’ll look better on camera. Get here now.”
I begged off the 60 Minutes interview. I said no to WGBH. I never went to CNN. Later, I met a news cameraman from CNN, a man who had worked at the station from the same time period that I got recruited.
“Hell,” he told me, “that’s how CNN offered jobs in those days. You would’ve been on-air talent. You’d be a household name by now.”
That’s when I realized that my work at the radio station in Madison, Wisconsin had been a success. I had—completely unsolicited—job offers or job solicitations from three of the best news organizations of the time. I had turned them all down—and I’m glad of it, even now.
Even back then, I knew that WGBH was a big deal. I figured being a researcher at 60 Minutes was a foot in the door on the national level, but nothing more. I had never heard of CNN, but I had figured out that if I moved away from Madison for any of those jobs, my career as a journalist would be underway.
I just hadn’t realized it was already underway, and that the offers themselves were a success.
Why hadn’t I realized that? I usually say because I was young and stupid, but the truth of it is that I hadn’t realized it because I didn’t define work in journalism—particularly broadcast journalism—as a way to achieve success.
I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t want to be an on-air personality or a researcher for someone else. I didn’t want to produce documentaries (although I later did for both WHA in Madison and the Annenberg Foundation). I wanted to become an acclaimed writer, and I actually saw those job offers as roadblocks, not as stepping stones, to my success.
Honestly, for my goals then and now, those offers were roadblocks. Had I gone to New York or Boston or Atlanta, I would have become a different person. I never would have written fiction. I might be wealthier than I am now. I would certainly be more famous. I might even have a book or two under my belt—nonfiction, about some current event topic—and that book might have been a bestseller.
But it would have been a bestseller because of my on-air work, not because of my writing.
So, in reality, I wasn’t stupid at all. I knew what I wanted and how to go after it.
Even now, however, when I tell someone about those opportunities, that person often can’t understand why I turned down those chances. I could have become famous. I could have worked in TV. Why would I say no?
Over the years, I have watched a family member of mine do something similar. Since infancy, my relative was musical. He taught himself to play the piano quite young, learning to plink out songs by ear. He has an astonishingly beautiful singing voice. He composes stunning pieces of music. He’s also extremely charismatic and has excellent stage presence.
Dean used to think I said these things about my relative because he was someone I loved. Then, at a family event, Dean heard this young man sing for the very first time, and realized I hadn’t exaggerated. If anything, I had understated this young man’s abilities.
In my heart of hearts, I always wanted to be on Broadway in a role in musical theater. I am musical, love to sing, and love musicals. But I’m also an extreme introvert whose stage fright goes up when faced with a script. (I can ad lib and talk without a script just fine. Go figure.) I didn’t want to be a performer badly enough to find ways around my introversion and extreme stage fright.
But I dreamed…
Enter my young relative, whom I spent a lot of time with over the years. As he got older, he performed around the world with a international teen singing group. I went to New York to see him, and at the party afterwards, was there when he met some Broadway stars who had once been in the same international singing group. They offered to get him an audition.
He didn’t take it seriously.
Nor did he take a former girlfriend seriously when she went out to California and called with a job offer to play music for the movies. Or when another friend offered to help him launch a jazz career.
He never followed up.
Now, my thirty-something relative is a headhunter for a major corporation. He does not get paid for his music. He’s happily married with a baby on the way, which, he tells me achieves one of his biggest dreams.
I still want to see him on Broadway.
Note this: I want to see him on Broadway. He doesn’t go. There’s a small part of me that’s disappointed that he didn’t follow my dreams. Fortunately for him, I’m just a relative and not his mother or his wife. Imagine how that small sense of disappointment would gnaw at both of us—unfairly—for years.
I’ve known this young man his whole life. Never once did I hear him express a desire for a career in music or a life on the stage. If I had listened, I would have heard someone who wanted a happy family, a good job, and stability—things you will never ever have with an international musical career.
He’s achieving his dreams. He has success, the success he wants. It’s just not what I imagined for him. In other words, my disappointment in his choices has always been about me, not about him.
Over the years, I’m sure he had trouble talking to me about his goals and dreams because not only did I not see the same things for him, I also place no value on stability or a good day job. So his dreams were difficult for me to understand and value.
When you are in the position that I put my relative in—a position where you have to explain what success is to you to the people who love you—it’s an uncomfortable place to be. Most of us can’t articulate the importance of our dreams to people who understand them. It becomes doubly impossible when the people around us don’t understand them at all.
It’s not as fun celebrating a milestone with someone who doesn’t understand what that milestone means. It’s harder to live day to day with someone who misunderstands your success (or your lack of it—according to your perception). Sometimes you have to celebrate on your own. Sometimes you simply nod and continue, never correcting the people around you.
But occasionally, these warring definitions—from the dictionary definition to the world’s definition to other people’s definition to your definition—cause serious trouble.
And we’ll get to that next week.
“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Success Part Three” copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
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