The Case Against “Overnight Success”

On June 11th, 2020, I published my novel on Amazon. After 15 years of dreaming about it, after writing half a dozen novels and many more short stories, I’d finally achieved my goal.

Almost 100 days later, it’s safe to say my novel is a failure. It’s sold less than 60 copies, and I’ve yet to recoup the money I paid for the book cover, let alone any additional royalties. I wanted to be a successful crime writer, and hardly anyone’s noticed.

Here’s why you and I should be happy about that.

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There is a particular ideology about success that our generation seems to endorse. It stems from the idea that hard work and diligence will ultimately pay off. Writers, poets, artists, and musicians on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok hustle every day with that belief burning in their hearts. Sooner or later, they’ll achieve the success they crave.

Realizing I’m a failed author has not made me bitter. I’m not here to say that most of the content creators that populate our social media feeds will remain in obscurity. Sure, it’s factually accurate, for less than 1% of authors make a living from their craft alone, and the same goes for singers and actors. Your cousin who wants to be a rapper? Odds are he’ll eventually move on.

But let’s set that aside for a minute. Because no matter how competitive and challenging a career in the arts may be, I believe those who are passionate about what they do will eventually be happy. Happy, not accomplished. You can be an extremely hard-working lady blessed with an average voice and remain happy singing at office parties and neighborhood cultural events. You can also be a truly gifted singer who is absolutely disgusted with life despite your shelf full of Grammys and garage full of cars.

My issue is not with the fact that all of us seem to truly believe that we’ll make it one day if we just work hard. My question is, what happens then? Why isn’t anyone scared about the aftermath?

There’s a famous Lionel Messi quote that’s often shared on social media: “It took me 17 years and 114 days to become an overnight success.”

Those who share this quote are obviously inspired by the explicit message of hard work. Content creators see an obvious parallel in their life. They might put out video after video on YouTube. It might take 245 posts on Instagram. Over a hundred essays. But one day, it’ll happen.

They’ll go viral.

It’s the most accessible and glamorous dream for a person today. Going to sleep and waking up to countless notifications. Watching your phone “blow up”.

Going viral is supposed to be the reward for all those gallons of blood, sweat, and tears they’ve shed.

But when you skyrocket in terms of fame, aren’t you going to suffer from lack of essential oxygen?

It’s a topic that’s never talked about. What happens when your dream comes true? I’ve been guilty of this as well. I’ve often indulged in daydreams, of going to sleep at night in Canada, and waking up to find my article on PinkLungi has gone viral, shared by several celebrities, picked up by other social media accounts, amplified endlessly until my inbox is choked with messages from strangers that will make me tire my thumbs from tapping countless heart-shaped likes.

I’d never stopped to consider what the next few days would have looked like until one particular article of mine was published on PinkLungi recently.

“Why We Need Better Malayalam T.V. Serials” came out on August 12th, 2020. A few hours prior to it being posted on Instagram and the PinkLungi website, I was heading to a campsite with my friend Arjun. We’d planned an impromptu two-day camping trip, and I was excited. It was deep in the wilderness, far from our homes, as attested to by the lack of bars on my phone.

It was perfect. I wouldn’t require my phone because I was about to enjoy a couple of nights nestled in the middle of a forest.

Except that in the back of my mind I knew the article would come out soon. I asked Arjun to enable a hotspot so that I could confirm my editor would be publishing it. Normally it’s the middle of the night for me when the article drops, so I was eager to get to sleep so that morning arrived faster. The moment I woke up, I reached for my phone.

It was better than I could have imagined.

Even though I was supposed to use Arjun’s internet sparingly, I couldn’t help myself as I sat below the predawn sky. My closest friends had messaged me on WhatsApp. And several strangers who followed PinkLungi had messaged me directly, telling me how good the article was. Several of them had shared their feelings as Instagram stories.

WhatsApp notifications. Instagram direct message notification. Instagram story mentions. Instagram new follower notifications.

None of this happened within the first fifteen minutes (the article didn’t really go “viral”) but that just made it all the more worse. Cuz I was hooked to my phone, refreshing everything every twenty minutes, gobbling up the droplets of dopamine that popped up at the top part of my phone.

When Arjun crawled out of the sleeping tent, he wasn’t greeted with a cheerful “Good morning” from someone who’d been breathing in the fresh air and delighting in the chirping sounds that echoed all around us.

Instead throughout the next few hours, I told him how the article had been well received. I mentioned the people who messaged me. The compliments they’d paid me.

He listened to all of them, happy for my success. Even then, as I talked instead of listening, scanned my phone instead of observing my surroundings, I felt a vague sense of unease.

Only a month later can I verbalize what was happening.

A struggling artist’s ego is like a helium balloon. The lightest touch can set it afloat. Sure, you could argue that it’s human nature, but the truth is a lot of it depends on the strength and tautness of the string that’s tied to the balloon.

If you have friends who lavish you with hyperbolic praise, you’ll float higher.

If you get several Instagram messages from attractive people of the opposite sex, you’ll float higher.

If you decide to spend time with those who are fans rather than friends, you’ll float higher.

That article about T.V. Serials served to remind me just how vulnerable I am. I can rationally write about feminism, art, and culture, but if a pretty girl reads what I write and flatters me, I’ll end up blushing. I’m not saying you should stop yourself from messaging me, by the way…

But we need to have a conversation about the dangers of success. We keep telling each other that they’ll hit it big, but we’re not equipping ourselves to deal with the consequences of that.

It doesn’t have to be grand gestures or solemn oaths. I don’t think my closest friends need to grab me by my collar and make me pledge that I won’t forget them when I’m a bestselling author. Partly because that’s way too dramatic. And partly because that’s not going to make a difference.

There are things that we can do that will protect us. A simple example is what Arjun told me as we were hiking through a camping trail that evening. “Dude, no phones, right?”

That was enough of an antidote at that moment. Instead of waiting for notifications, rather than greedily wondering if my ego could be messaged with another adoring message, I put my phone aside. It stopped me from thinking of myself. It made sure I spent time with my dear friend.

No more taps on the helium balloon. A bit more strength in the string tied to it.

If you are an artist, be conscious of what you speak to your loved ones. If every time you call your friend who is in another country, you talk only about how your YouTube channel is going, one of two things will happen. Either he’ll stop talking to you. Or you’ll stop talking to him when your channel becomes popular.

Our friendships need to exist independently of our artistry. This not only allows us to offer our friends the respect and attention they deserve, but it reminds us that we are not the sum of our art either. The worst thing you can do is end up believing that your self worth is tied to your artistic merit.

That’s why I’m glad my novel failed. Because we live in a world where artists are expected to be in one of two states: struggling against all odds or launching into the limelight.

I now have the time to work on the forgotten aspect of being an artist. Making sure that I have a flourishing life away from the keyboard and library. As I work to release my second novel, I’m making sure that I’m calling my friends more often. Talking to my parents and sisters more often. I’m grateful for the time and opportunities required to strengthen the bonds with my loved ones.

Imagine what would have happened if two weeks after my novel debuted, a producer had contacted me? How would I react if he told me he wanted to adapt my crime thriller for a Netflix show. Amidst the contract signings and production meetings, would I have had the time to write, read and learn? More importantly, would I have had the grounding required to make sure my ego doesn’t float away?

That’s why you should be happy my novel failed. Because I’m still here, still relatively humble, still eager to grow and learn as a person. Eager to write more articles that you might find interesting. And when you message me your compliments, I’ll smile but remain grounded. Grateful but realistic.

The next time you see your loved one struggling to become a successful artist, don’t wish that they “make it big someday.” Because that implies blowing up, going viral, shooting to the stars. Instead, pray that they make it big…gradually.

It’ll make the difference between an accomplished life…and a happy one.

5 COMMENTS

  1. A very thoughtful piece. It’s so true that there is so much hype that generates in order to “make it” but much less about what happens after, and how is this handled? I appreciated the very real imagery of just how much of a high the social media affirmations are, and how easy it is to not be in the present moment with people that mean something to us. Wishing you the best of success which is grounded and stable 🙂

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