Why I am not a pessimist and people should stop saying that I am. Because I’m not. And, also, you will never succeed at anything, ever

Now, when I write stuff like yesterday’s post, people always say, “Oh, Rahul, you’re so pessimistic. You can’t succeed if you don’t try!”

But I don’t think I am pessimistic at all. It’s just a fact. The vast, vast majority of people who want to become creative professionals are going to fail. And it’s not because of the marketplace or anything like that. It’s just the nature of the beast. The number of creatives that the world needs does not scale up linearly with population. If the population doubles, people don’t watch twice as many shows; they just have twice as many people watching the same shows (obviously, this isn’t exactly true—it’s more like 1.4 times as many people watching 1.4 times as many shows). However, the number of people who want to be actors does double. Thus, you have 2x the people competing for 1.4x the spots. Thus, as time goes on, it becomes harder and harder to become a media personality (a thousand years ago, every village had its own rock star: the town skald or Homeric orator or whatever. Whereas nowadays your story-telling neighbor is just seen as a crushing bore).

So yeah, it’s a fact. Most people who want to succeed in a creative endeavor will fail. There are a hundred ways to succeed, but there are a thousand ways to fail. You can do everything right and still just not be good enough. A few days ago, an acquaintance forwarded me this article about all the non-traditional things you can do to succeed in your art. And I loved the article, but I hated the way it implied that if you’re creative and quirky and dedicated then you will succeed, because that’s just false. Articles like this never bother to find people who followed all their rules but still failed; those people are invisible, but they are legion.

And this is where people are like, “Oh, Rahul. You’re so pessimistic. Why are you so depressing about all this stuff? Why can’t you just let people follow their dreams…?”

But I’m not pessimistic. I consider myself to be an optimistic, because I believe very strongly that in the future, I will continue to find ways to: a) be happy; and b) get sufficient food, shelter, and leisure time.

These are not difficult thing to achieve, but they are at the core of what life is about. Furthermore, the fact that they’re not difficult is exactly why I think I’ll achieve them. Most Americans are fairly happy and most Americans have sufficient food, shelter and leisure time. Since I’m more fortunate and capable than most Americans, I think I ought to be able to do at least as well as the average.

That, to me, is a very joyous and optimistic worldview.

On the other hand, I find it to be profoundly pessimistic and depressing when someone (and our society, in general) acts in a way that suggests they will not be happy or satisfied with their life if they are not able to achieve something that they only have a 1 in 100 shot of achieving. That’s a recipe for disaster!

So, in order to get back to the mainpoint of this blog post, I will say that I don’t think it’s stupid to enter a humanities grad program. However, I do think that people should be cognizant of the likely scenario: in ten years, you’re probably going to be applying for the same kinds of jobs that you could get right now.

But really, what’s the problem with that? Having a higher-status job isn’t the cure to all of life’s ills. If you enjoy your studies, then that feels like it’s worthwhile in and of itself.

(For what it’s worth, I’ve heard a ton of Ph.D horror stories. It seems like they are, more often than not, quite miserable. I think comparatively more people like their MFAs. From my perspective, the MFA is great. The workload is light and the people are good. It’s been like a year-long vacation).

4 thoughts on “Why I am not a pessimist and people should stop saying that I am. Because I’m not. And, also, you will never succeed at anything, ever

  1. jrfrontera

    I like this post. I am usually a huge optimist, but I see your point and I think it is a valid one. I was about to argue a point with you about how “succeeding” means different things to different people, and doesn’t always mean that you become world-famous and filthy rich, but you already brought that up in your post as well and nailed it on the head. Being happy, and having adequate food, shelter, and leisure time, is indeed what life is all about. Finding out what makes you happy is just as important as finding enough food to keep you alive. Some people who wish to take on creative careers are actually embarking on that path for the wrong reasons, and will never actually find a place or be happy in that role. And I COMPLETELY agree with getting the advanced degrees really getting you nowhere in some areas, and just costing you money and time in the long run. Anyway… good post. Great evaluation of the creative world and breakdown of life. I think many Americans are told what makes them happy and then believe that, but never actually take the time to sit down and really realize what is actually important to them that would actually make them happy. I am a huge proponent of self-reflection. Our culture does not engage in that enough.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yeah, I’m glad you like it! Yes, I do think people should pursue their dreams. But I think that being realistic about the odds of success leads to better decision-making in the long run (and means you are more appreciative of the things you _do_ get).

  2. calvin

    I want to push back on this because it’s just plain wrong. People succeed BECAUSE they keep trying. And by trying I mean continually making efforts superior to prior efforts. While it is possible for greatness to go unrecognized by the general public in a persons lifetime, greatness in the arts or sciences is not excluded from anyone.

    Almost every field is on the lookout for the undiscovered genius. In the world of visual art, it’s generally thought of as a crime or lost $$ opportunity that no one recognized Van Gogh’s brilliance. By all accounts, Van Gogh was nothing special. He didn’t begin painting until his late 20s. But what Van Gogh did was pursue ideas in painting and continually try to improve and learn how to paint and how to see. He was single minded about it, and that dedication comes through in the art.

    What matters here about the Van Gogh story, and in fact every story of success or greatness in art, is the dedication and single mindedness.

    Your “pessimistic” critique of success in media fields is that some portion (90%) of applicants will fail; because, opportunities for participation are limited and therefore with more applicants than opportunities, there will be some failure rate. Even with “non-traditional things you can do to succeed in art” there will be people who succeed at those non-traditional opportunities and those that do not (I would say the ones that do not succeed did not try, or were not very good).

    Some portion of that success is just luck. That among qualified applicants, some just “worked out” that day. The person deciding who to pick “liked” one more than the others. Not that any one applicant was better, it’s just that one was liked more. This is how it goes in a gatekeeper system. And it’s mostly down to luck, or timing.

    In any system with gatekeepers, even the best actor, writer, musician, scientist, teacher, programmer, or politician will be rejected when applying for an opportunity. In each application, there will be some successes and some failures. And even among a thousand applications, there will likely be some awesome candidate that continues to be rejected purely out of luck. It’s not that an applicant is unqualified or unable to perform, it’s that the amount of randomness in the selection process can exclude even the most qualified candidate repeatedly.

    What do the “failures” do in this situation? Do they give up or do they try again and learn more? And it’s this decision that actually determines who will succeed or fail. The applicant who keeps applying but does not improve may succeed or fail a the next “test” or the next application. But over time, that person will not succeed in their field.

    The applicant that tries and learns and continually improves their abilities and who keeps applying will become better. This improvement difference will make the difference in future applications. While there are random factors in selection, there are also non-random factors, and it is non-random factors that eventually exclude the applicants that do not improve and recognizes the abilities of the applicants that do improve.

    The real problem of failure and mediocrity is giving up and not getting better. The failed writers and mediocre actors made choices about their lives that took them down a different path then become greater writers or actors. They sacrificed dedication and single mindedness for some other values.

    People self-select out of success. They do so because they may find success in some related or other field, or because they simply quit.

    The illusion of success, of “making it”, of passing the audition, is different in different fields. In some fields, like acting, or a scientific grant, it means: now the real work begins. In other fields, like writing and painting, it’s merely an act of recognition. e.g. the book is written; the painting is finished.

    Some people will see “public” success at first blush, and others will not see “public” success in their lifetime. Both of these outcomes may be solely determined by chance and circumstance. But most people will fall in the middle of this bell curve, unless they quit.

    As a general rule though, greatness is almost certain to be recognized, especially now. Today there are NO barriers to publication. The internet has removed the need for gatekeepers, and consequently we have access to more music, more acting, more writing, more pictures, more video games, more science than ever before. This is a good thing. It means that what will distinguish public success or failure will be the quality of someones work, and not the whims of a media executive, or the clique of New York intelligentsia, or the fashion of the Academy, or even the Washington establishment.

    While not all fields have seen the gatekeeper function diminish at the same rate, gatekeeping between information and between people is being reduced. Just to note, the whole reason gatekeeping exists is because of cost and profit. Publishers reduce the number of writers, or musicians, or movies they make because to publish from more authors has higher associated costs and reduces profit making. Gatekeeping arises from economics and situations of profit making. This is as true in MFA programs as it is in TV shows.

    We are returning to a time where anyone can perform, and do so badly. but also where the cost to distribute the work and performances of anyone means that great work and great authors and creators will be available as easily as the crap.

    Opportunities today are nearly limitless. the only real cost is will and effort. Will some people have to become really outstanding before they achieve public success? Yes. But that seems like a good thing, and not a bad thing. The only question is, is it worth it to those people to make the possibly herculean effort? Especially when pedantic efforts by others may be sooner rewarded.

    I think this question is always answered with a yes. the trick is finding out what is worth the herculean effort and then going for it unreservedly.

    and if you got through this tl;dr, I just want to tell you how much I appreciate your blog. I get the email distribution and you so often write about something both important and interesting. Thank you.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Hey, I’m glad you enjoy reading the blog! This is certainly a titanic comment, but I did read it all, and I disagree with a few of the things in it. First of all, I don’t think that greatness is almost certain to be recognized. I know and have heard of a lot of great writers who no one reads or who were once read and are now forgotten. But, more importantly, I disagree with your assumption that if you just try hard enough, then any person can achieve any level of greatness. Effort can get you 90% of the way there. And if you don’t put in a lot of effort, you’re unlikely to succeed. But there is something els, some mysterious X factor, that separates an L. Ron Hubbard (who put in TONS of effort and wrote VERY diligently) from a Harper Lee (who put out one book and then stopped). I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s genius. Maybe it’s just luck. But some books are better than other books, and they’re better for reasons that we can’t directly understand.

      Basically, even if we DID live in a world where greatness was inevitably recognized, that would actually be pretty bad for most people, because most people are not going to hit that level of greatness.

      Similarly, even if it was true that if you try hard enough then you’ll inevitably succeed (which I don’t think is at all the case), I don’ think that most aspiring writers or artists have any clue of how HARD some people are trying. There are people out there who work harder than you can imagine. The ones whose bands practice every day, for hours. The ones who come home from work and write for six hours. The ones who are in New York, talking to everyone, working every possible angle. The ones who’re driving around the country, trying to sell books out of the back of their truck. It is highly likely that most people who read this post are NOT amongst the top 1% of their field in terms of effort.

      But I don’t think that you need to be. I don’t think trying that hard is necessary. And I think you can try that hard and still fail. The world is just a mysterious place. People do everything right and then they suddenly get high by a bus at age 28 and die.

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