As writers, we all have a perception that we’re out of the ordinary, because we're aware of the number of people who failed to measure up. For instance, during my application year 97.5% of the people who applied to Hopkins were rejected, and I’ve been published in magazines that reject 199 out of every 200 submissions.
So we tend to think, “Oh, I am in the 98th percentile.”
But this belief also makes us anxious, because we think, “Wait, I haven’t really achieved any success at all. Only the 10% of the top 2% are going to go on to publish a book, and what if I’m not in that top 10%? What if I’m in the 98th percentile when I really need to be in the 99th percentile?”
But that is all predicated on the misconception that succeeding as a writer involves some sort of sieving process that discards the bad and retains the good.
In reality, though, it’s not that hard to get into an MFA program or publish in a decent journal…if you’re dedicated enough. For instance, I applied to programs once and was rejected everywhere. Then I (like most people I know who applied multiple times) got in during my second application process. I've also gotten 1200+ short story rejections over the course of ten and a half years. Again, most people who’ve submitted that much have managed to sell some stories.
Viewed through that lens, we’re no longer exceptional: we’re merely people who’ve achieved the average result—the level of success that's expected for someone who put in the amount of work that we put in.
On one level, this sounds like it’s a prophecy of success. It sounds like I’m saying, “Oh, if you put in enough work, then you’ll be successful.”
But what I’m really trying to say is that you’ll probably, on average, achieve about as much success as usually comes to people who work as hard as you do.
And that’s actually a bit disappointing, because it’s not a prophecy of success…it’s a prophecy of mediocrity. We naturally tend to measure ourselves against the people in the rightmost part of the bell curve, because (at least in the writing world) the majority of the attention, money, fame, awards, and critical acclaim are distributed to just a handful of people*.
I naturally tend to assume that my results will be exceptional, because the exceptional is the most visible. I am very aware of all the writers who put in their time and then eventually took off like a rocket.
But I’m less aware of the writers who put in their time and then sort of…existed. They published books and got a few fans and were in the world, but didn’t make a huge splash. They weren’t failures and they weren’t successes. It’s not that they were less talented or worked less hard…it’s just that they achieved the average result.
And, most likely, that is the result that I, you, and everyone else will also achieve in our endeavors.
*The writing world, like most artistic fields, is a winner-take-all endeavor, where the top performers get everything and the people slightly below them get almost nothing. This is in comparison to most service industries. For instance, a lawyer can be far from the most successful lawyer in his field and still be well-respected and make lots of money and think of himself as a success.