I’ve heard that human beings have an optimistic bias. When we imagine the future, we tend to imagine somewhat-unlikely scenarios that make us feel good and ignore more-likely scenarios that make us feel neutral. I am pretty sure that I am not subject to this bias, because whenever I imagine the likely outcome of anything I do, I usually assume it will end in failure.
For instance, I am shopping a novel right now, and I can’t even imagine that it’ll someday get published. I am writing a novel right now, and I am pretty sure that won’t get published either. When I write a short story, I know, intuitively, that there’s at least a 25% chance it’ll get published (10 out of the 38 stories I wrote in 2011 have been accepted for publication), but that’s not how I think about it: I just assume that all my short stories will never be seen by anyone.
But this goes beyond writing. The first time my apartment flooded, I was pretty sure I was going to need to move. When I applied for MFAs, I was pretty sure I was going to get rejected from everywhere. When I was working, I kept becoming utterly convinced that my contract wouldn’t be renewed. Even when I have a verbal commitment from someone on something, I am usually pretty sure that it’ll fall through, somehow, before it becomes concrete.
When someone makes a tentative commitment to do something with me, I usually assume it will never happen. When I invite people over, I assume that most of them won’t come. When I hear a timeline for something, I usually assume it will take twice as long (or never happen at all). When I suffer an ache or a pain, I assume it’s here to stay and that it will never, ever go away.
Don’t feel sorry for me. This doesn’t really negatively impact my life at all. When I envision my future, I envision something that’s almost exactly like today. And, since I tend to enjoy today, that makes me pretty happy. My pessimism isn’t a hypochondria: I don’t envision bad things happening. I just find it hard to imagine that good things will happen.
However, despite that, they keep on happening. It is crazy. I am astonished by tiny things (like, every time a group of more than eight people manages to meet at one location and move to a second location, I am shocked—I just naturally expect large groups to descend into uncertainty and paralysis). I frequently have to remind myself that, on a purely probabilistic level, I am being crazy: good things happen all the time; good things are not uncommon.
Anyway, I was thinking about why I am like this, and I realized that it all comes down to submitting. I’ve sent out well over a thousand submissions and only thirty have ended in an acceptance. And even that understates things a bit, since it’s biased by my recent success: I had entire years when I sent out more than a hundred rejections and got no good news.
When you submit stories it is, legitimately, insanely unlikely for good things to happen. The human mind isn’t capable of understanding how unlikely it is for a story to be accepted by Clarkesworld or Asimov’s or Apex or Strange Horizons or whatever. There’s only two ways for it to deal with a 1 in 300 chance of success. Either it rounds that percentage up to something manageable (from which comes the insane optimism of the many, many aspiring writers who think superstardom is right around the corner) or, like me, it rounds that number down to zero.
Now, there are many ways to believe that you have no chance of success. I think that the most common is to descend into bitterness: no one appreciates your work; you’re not writing the sort of commercial pap that sells; if only you had connections then you’d be success; etc. etc.
A certain kind of personality thrives on that bitterness: the kind of person who enjoys the melodrama of feeling persecuted. However, that wouldn’t really work for me. If I thought that I had less chance of success than other people, I’d probably just give up.
That’s the trick with defense mechanisms: you need to find one that gives you peace of mind, while still allowing you to do the things that you need to do.
So I chose a different way. My brain began to believe in a world where it’s totally normal to fail at everything, all the time. A world where it’s totally normal to do your best, day after day, and send out your best work, all full of hope, and receive nothing in return. Knowing that, my brain was like, “Well…this is just what people do; this is how people live. You do your best, because you have to do something—and, anyway, pretty much everything is just as hard as this. But expecting to succeed at it is just foolishness.”
Which, with regards to writing, is almost the truth. However, it really doesn’t make sense in relation to the other, significantly-less-competitive, aspects of the world. So…yeah…I need to fine-tune my defense mechanism a bit.