On Praise and Being a Hack

Here I am, home again from my adventures in San Francisco at StoryWorld. I missed the first day, which I hear was fantastic; I was there starting from the second afternoon, which I felt was just a bit too scripted. Longer sessions might fix that by giving time for the conversation to move out of talking points and into wider territory; the third day felt a lot richer to me, and I do believe those sessions had fewer speakers and more time.

In all, Alison Norrington and F+W did an amazing job of putting together an event that drew people together from across the spectrum of transmedia practice, business, and theory. I'm confident StoryWorld will only get better and better over time. Keep up the good work, Alison!

On a more personal note, StoryWorld was a surreal experience for me. Partly this is because my first 24 hours there were unbroken by even a minute of sleep; that's guaranteed to give a distinctly Dadaist air to any event, and especially one that already involves flaming beverages and inflatable flamingoes.

But StoryWorld also happened to contain a really high concentration of people saying absurdly flattering things about me right there in front of me where I could hear it, which has me thinking quite a bit about the nature of praise, being a little (or a lot) neurotic, and dealing with creative fear. So in connection with that, let me try to explain why high praise makes me so profoundly uncomfortable, and why I prefer to call myself a hack.

See, when someone tries to tell me I'm so very great, it triggers my skeptical reflex. Me? I'm not that person. I'm just a scrappy freelancer. Or if you prefer something a little less flip, I'm an artist still trying to figure things out like everyone else. If someone is trying to persuade me that I'm not that, it feels like they're... well... making fun of me, you know? (Note that saying a particular project of mine was pretty great doesn't trigger this particular reflex. My own special brand of crazy, it is.)

If you press me, I'll admit that my willingness to take big risks and work hard to make them pay off has a lot to do with where I am today. But to be honest, it has just as much to do with factors outside of my control. So often it feels like praise directed toward me is being misapplied -- that I'm getting credit for something that exists outside of myself as a person and an artist. My professional reputation is the result of luck, timing, teamwork, and no small amount of shameless self-promotion, just as much as it's the result of true skill and experience.

All of that is probably my own self-esteem issue and nothing to do with you; but there are very powerful reasons not to buy into that kind of praise regardless of whether you share my special nummy flavor of neurotic. I want to be a hack. I want you to think I'm a hack. And you should perhaps consider thinking of yourself that way, too. That's because it lowers the stakes.

See, once you expect yourself to do amazing things, those high expectations can result in an anxiety spiral that render you unable to work at all. This is not hypothetical, at least not for me. After the modest critical acclaim that Routes received, I was paralyzed with creative fear for a good long while, because I felt there was an expectation to top that benchmark. And the ludicrously high ambitions I had for America 2049 made it extremely difficult to write it. I can't think I'm alone in this problem.

There are related issues, too. Really buying into external validation like that -- awards and praise -- is a very dangerous thing for any creator. It simply isn't a reliable metric for the quality of your work, which means it will never flow steadily, regardless of the quality of your output. And once you've had it, not getting it can be disproportionately crushing. Like someone who has a family history of alcoholism and so doesn't drink, I am terrified of the giddy rush of external validation, for fear I might become dependent upon it. 

Even beyond that, the creator who believes in their own mythology can shift into a detrimental mindset of protecting that aura of specialness, at the expense of continuing to take the wide-open gambles a scrappy hack does. Steve Jobs advised us to stay hungry; it's hard to do that in the face of hyperbolic flattery -- even harder if you really, truly believe it.

And I don't know about you, but I don't want to think for a second I'm at the top of my game; that's because I really hope I'm not. If you're not striving to do more and better all the time, how can you expect to actually do more and better? And as far I as I'm concerned, there's a whole lot of getting better left to do. 


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