I laid in bed the other night, my mind adrift with thought after thought keeping me from my slumber as I simultaneously stared off into space, pondering the answer to one simple question.
Why do our expectations — or society’s expectations — not match reality?
I thought of numerous ways to address this question. Some were elegant, some were blunt. Others were passive and sarcastic, yet others direct and rage-fueled. No matter how many ways I went about attacking the question, I never quite came to the same end result. Was this, perhaps, a simple question without a simple answer? Was I wrong to seek out a silver bullet to explain human actions and behaviors, particularly in a time where we are so divided as humans?
In December of 2015, YouTuber and podcaster Gaby Dunn wrote an article on Fusion.net titled “Get rich or die vlogging: The sad economics of internet fame“. The article covers the unfortunate realities of being internet famous, particularly the large divide between the public perception of those who are internet famous versus their own reality. Unless you’re one of the top content creators on the internet, there’s a good chance you’ve got another job to help you make ends meet. When that job is in a public place like a restaurant, internet celebrities are forced to deal with questions about why they’re working there at all.
There was a particular line in the article that really hit home for me, even though I’m nowhere remotely close to being internet famous. It was as follows.
YouTubers are allowed to have struggled in the past tense, because overcoming makes us brave and relatable. But we can’t be struggling now or we’re labeled “whiners.” – Gaby Dunn
I have this inherent guilt somewhere deep inside me that comes up more often than I’d like to admit. It’s almost always around when I’m trying to publicize my book, regardless of whether it’s for the charity drive going on now or for profit otherwise. It’s this nagging feeling yelling at me to shut up. To stop asking people to buy my book. To stop asking for their help in sharing. If people want my work badly enough, they’ll come to me for it. There’s no need to try to push my creations on them.
I know where this feeling comes from, I think. Asking for help is to show weakness, or so it was ingrained in my mind from a young age. If you ask for help, you’re a charity case. No one likes a charity case. No one wants to hear you whine. If you can’t succeed for yourself — BY YOURSELF — then you have no one to blame but yourself. Involving other people only runs the risk of dragging them down along the way.
In May of this year, shortly after I found out the publisher that had signed on to publish my book was going out of business, I traded emails back and forth with Kat Argo, who had very kindly offered to help me figure out what in the hell I was doing self-publishing. In one of our emails, she made a comment essentially suggesting that I shouldn’t have high expectations for the sales of my book.
I knew she was right. I was (and still largely am) an unknown author writing in a relatively saturated genre. My book, while decently written, wasn’t perfect. If I could do it over again, I would have worked to be more inclusive in my writing — perhaps by explicitly calling out which characters were persons of color or minorities rather than leaving it up to the readers to assign race in some situations. There were things I had done well and things I had not done so well. My only marketing was word of mouth and even that has its limitations.
Yet, I was optimistic. There were a few people rooting for me to do well. There were a few others — albeit a significantly lesser number — not only wanting me to do well, but believing that this book would become a success. Their words made me hopeful that Kat would be wrong…that the reality of being an author would not match the pragmatic expectations being set before me.
It’s too early to determine if my book will become a long-term success. It’s evident five months in that the book most certainly is not a short-term success. The book is relatively well reviewed on both Goodreads and Amazon. Most of those who have read the book and have shared feedback have been optimistic. But turning what was months and years of hard work into a published book was the easy part. Selling it and marketing it — two skills that I not only objectively lack, but that I’m objectively terrible at — is the hard part.
We have a tendency as humans to seek out those similar to us. The similarity we seek is not the same from social group to social group. Whether it’s race, economic class, religion, sexual orientation, sports fandom, subcultures, or some sort of clique, humans are a tribal people by nature. We will look for some way to feel like we belong.
When we see someone or something in our tribe that we don’t like or that differs from our social norm, we retract, like a tortoise head into its shell. While those in our group will try to distance themselves from that act of difference — particular if that action was harmful — those outside of the group often use it as a way to build an us versus them mentality.
“State U.’s fans are saying something bad about my team, State Tech! Their fans are terrible people!”
“This movie character who I share a defining trait with is actually the bad guy in this story due to actions that have nothing to do with said defining trait! The director is a terrible person who shouldn’t make movies ever again!”
“Her skin color/gender/religion is different than what I identify as superior (read: my own)! Throw them out of this country and build a wall so they can’t get back in!”
I’ve found it very difficult to talk to my family about my book. Unless they’ve found out through their own means — which seems unlikely as most of my family are the type of people to mention something that gets on their nerves — the majority of my family doesn’t even know I’ve written a book. I think I’m okay with that.
I’m not sure though. The book itself deals with topics that were considered to be taboo growing up. Whether its race, sexuality (whether it be homosexuality, bisexuality, or just pre-marital sex), mental illness, or the use of religion as a driver of fear, there’s a lot of topics in the book that would create awkward silences at Thanksgiving dinner if people knew I wrote about them.
On one hand, I should have done a better job of addressing more issues in my book. On the other hand, am I really doing enough with my writing if the people I know are going to be the most against what I have to say don’t know I’m saying it? Is it my responsibility to market my book, sell my book, and break down the cultural silos that have developed between me and my family? The same silos that have developed across America only to lead to an overtly bigoted individual getting elected to the highest public office in the land.
You can suffer for your success. You just can’t let anyone see it. That what the internet wants. That’s what social media wants. That’s what society wants. They just want to see the feel good story at the end. They don’t care about the shit you had to go through to get there. Just give them the end product.
That’s not reality. Those aren’t the expectations we should have as a society. It’s hard work to be successful. It’s hard work to make yourself into something. And if you, society, can’t handle the fact that I get a little (or a lot) down on myself when things aren’t going well, that’s a you problem, not a me problem.
That said…it’s a problem I can’t get out of my head. It doesn’t go away. No one set these expectations.