by Jamie Varon
As most people know, I’m currently working on a book. I’m strapping in for a long process, knowing that it takes anywhere from 2-10 years for a book idea to be formulated, proposed, written, and then eventually published. It’s an ambitious long-term pursuit, one that has no guarantees of any kind, and is more so an exercise in passion than it is in commerce. There are a lot of smarter, more certain ways to build a career than to be an author. I think of writing as a stubborn act of will, an optimism unfounded by fact, a belief that stories are important, and that your own is important, too. Writing, in of itself, is a difficult endeavor, but to then have to pump yourself up with enough affirmation to believe your words—the very words that you still don’t know are any good—are worth being read in any kind of public forum, worth being bound in a book—a stubborn act of will. You see?
I’ve been noticing throughout this process that my self-doubt is stronger than ever. I know I’m not supposed to say that. Or, I don’t think I should say that because I am embarrassed to feel it. And, with self-doubt, always comes anxiety, like the two are inseparable best friends committed to sending me into a crisis spiral. This anxiety wants me to be able to predict the future, so I vacillate between wild, unruly hope and bleak, assumptive failure, hoping I can find the “correct” answer, hoping I can stave off uncertainty. That’s what the anxiety wants: to land on certainty. It is bred in the unknown and grows in the risks. And, I’ve come to understand that when I feel anxiety, what it’s asking for is the ability to know how the future is going to unfold. If my expectations will be fulfilled.
The only way I can know what the future holds is if I stop opening myself up to risk, if I make my life more predictable, if I stop hoping, wanting, reaching. It’s an option that I’ve taken before, but I always end up back here. I always circle back to the wanting. I stopped writing for two years and it looped me back here, gave me just enough time away to hunger for this form of expression, and now my will is stronger than it’s ever been.
This is about writing, but it’s about everything, too. That’s what I love about writing. It’s a blank page for so much more.
I’m afraid of not being good enough. At the heart of every personal crisis, that’s the threat. And, I’ve managed to avoid a lot of situations that might put me in the firing line for that determination, tamping my ambitions down so as not to risk disappointment, chipping off the edges of my desire to accommodate what feels like an unrealistic ideal. I hate that getting older has made me more realistic and I miss the reckless inflexibility I used to feel toward my dreams and desires. I wanted it all and settling for anything less than everything was not an option. I was an annoying 25 year old, idealistic and arrogant with absolutely no evidence to back up my personal assertions.
And so, I’ve been thinking a lot about idealism and ambition, about dreams and desire. Of course, once you start taking all that seriously, once you’re “all in” on the thing you’ve been skirting around for years, you start to think about it a lot more. It’s no longer an idea of an idea, but a reality you have to put in the time and energy to complete and see through. An idea feels so easy when you’ve got in your head. But, it’s a lot more messy in the application, in the doing.
The top-line of ambition is heady, telling people what you’re working on and what you’re doing, staying in the shallow waters of highlight reels and big announcements. But I think what I didn’t see for a very long time is that it’s all gradations of work, focus, and consistency, punctuated by small and big achievements that are momentary blips among the long hours of you and you—you and the blank page; you and the canvas; you and the guitar; you and the pavement; you and the tool.
I think what I’m trying to say here is that it all comes back to the work. I’ve said it before, but I guess it bears constant repeating, like I keep forgetting it. The outcomes are so intoxicating—that’s the thing. If I’m not vigilant, I can start to forget too quickly that I’m writing a book not for myself, not for my own passionate pursuit, but so it can be for the consumption of others, that the opinions of others can make the whole long and arduous process worth it. Which is a paradox, because I am not writing a book that I, alone, will read (well, unless nobody publishes it!).
It is for consumption. The opinions of others—of editors and readers—does matter. But, also, so does my own. And, it needs to feed me before it feeds anyone else. In a time where external validation is currency, this is a difficult truth to hold onto. That truth sometimes gets obscured by everyone else’s fixation on success and numbers. And, outcomes, numbers, metrics, sales figures—all of this isn’t unimportant, but it can’t be the starting line.
Making art to please lots of people most likely ensures it’ll please very few.
I am always humbled by how easy it is to let the opinions of others (or the perception and projection of other people’s opinions) take over my own, like a subtle infiltration of my own mind. How quickly it happens! How nearly undetectable! I feel like I have to keep clutching my internal motivations, lest I start letting the carrot of external outcomes lure me away. It’s so easy to forget myself. It’s so easy to slip back into “am I good enough?” when I know better, when I know that “am I good enough?” is a question that has no answer, that the answer is a perpetually-moving target. Trying to manufacture a yes to the question of “am I good enough?” could drive a person mad. It drives me to despondency. It drives me to indecision. It disconnects me from myself. It has me watching what other people are doing and trying to mimic the essence of their work. It has me taking less and less action. It keeps me stuck and circling.
It’s not a useful question. It’s not a useful endeavor. It keeps me afraid of the very thing that brings me the most joy: the work.
And so, it becomes a cycle. Fear of not being good enough. Anxiety to try to predict the future, make certainty appear from nothing. Perfectionism and the belief that I am not “ready.” A sense of impending bitterness. A refusal to do the very work that actually silences those voices and fears. Susceptibility to the tantalizing idea of giving up. Fixation on trying to find “evidence” of adequacy. Frustration. And then, reminder that I feed myself before anything else. Reminder that I do this for me before I do it for anyone else. Reminder that it’s my one life and I am allowed to—nay, required to—be as happy as I could realistically could be and the question of “am I good enough?” will always, always, always make me unhappy. Re-commitment to feeling good, being happy. Reminder that my life is happening here, too. And, nothing, no voluntary ambition, no passion project, no side hustle, absolutely nothing is allowed to detract me from the business of living my life. That’s my own promise to myself I made years ago. And I forget it. I break that promise. I get caught up in the business of feeling sorry for myself, of feeling anxious, of wanting to feel good enough, of doubt, of shiny results, of big announcements—that I forget my life is happening here, too. That I write to feed myself. That everything I do outside the bounds of responsibility as a person in the world is meant to feed me. To give back to me. This is my life. I choose how I live it. And that is a freeing and, frankly, kind of fucking scary thing to keep forgetting and remembering again.
I choose how I live it.
I can feel so often burdened by circumstance, imprisoned by my own expectations, that I forget I am the judge and jury of my own well-being. I choose my expectations! I define success! It’s like I’ve created the cage I feel locked inside. I chose the size and shape. I defined the square footage. I’m the one that told myself that if it doesn’t happen in this exact timeframe, it’ll never happen. I’m the one who extracts meaning from each interaction and circumstance. My mind has the power to uplift or crush me. What an invaluable insight I forget all the f*$king time!
So much of my own unhappiness and doubt comes from expectation—creating them and watching them go unfulfilled or not. The expectations that “it should have happened by now” or “it should be different than this” has created a lot of unnecessary angst and drama in my life. Expectation is not motivation. Mostly, it’s a trap of perfection. It’s an ideal that needs to look exactly the way we imagined—or else, we don’t feel the growth, the accomplishment, the progress. Expectation is the birthplace of an exacting vision—and I think I’m recognizing that I want to live without these expectations.
This might sound like giving up, but I don’t see it that way. I see it as freeing up. Freeing up for surprise. Freeing up for a new way I didn’t see before. Freeing up for flexibility. Freeing up for a life that may not go according to plan, but one that feels good, better than I could have imagined when I was making strict and exacting expectations about how it should be and how it should go.
I’ve seen a quote floating around Instagram by Maryam Hasnaa: “An important law in this universe that seems paradoxical but that we all eventually must learn: You manifest more by letting go than you do by holding on.”
So, here’s to letting go. Freeing up and out.
*Jamie Varon is a writer, designer, and creative consultant living in Calabasas, Califonia. Her favourite daily ritual is spending 20 minutes every morning writing out her intentions; she the author of Friday Letters and can be found online at jamievaron.com.