Love The Art In Yourself, Not Yourself In The Art Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-05-30 14:00:00 No comments

The Overjustification Effect « You Are Not So Smart

Getting paid for doing what you already enjoy will sometimes cause your love for the task to wane because you attribute your motivation as coming from the reward, not your internal feelings.

It's hard not to think about how this applies to, say, an author, self-published or otherwise. I started writing because it was something that felt right, and later on I realized it was something that gave me meaning and purpose in a way almost nothing else did. I would be writing even if not a single person ever read a word I wrote.

That said, a writer without an audience isn't much of a writer, more of a diarist, and so it is perfectly justified to go look for people to read what you do. Hence: publishing, blogs, what you see here in front of you, the whole bit.

What's not healthy is when you lose sight of your actual motives, or when you never had any to begin with and ignore that fact.

If we are not completely grounded in why we do something, our actions become diffuse and ineffectual. Time and again I have worked on projects I had little personal interest in, but after some effort I was able to find some way, however contrived, to mentally connect what I was working on to something personal. That usually did the trick, but it was something that required constant practice to make real. I would have rather been writing my book (whatever it was at the time).

To that end, if people write because they want to sell lots of copies of something and get rich and famous, they're going about it the wrong way. There are far, far easier ways to make money, for one. It stupefies me how many people constantly and wildly overestimate the amount of money a writer makes. Not Stephen King or whoever, but just the fact that someone has published a book seems to lead people to believe they're Scrooge McDuck with a vault-o-cash deep enough to swan dive into. The reality is disappointing: few books even conjure up so much as a $5,000 advance, and what royalties that come in after that (if any do come in) are a pittance, barring an explosive best-seller.

This is where the perversion of motive comes in. Seeing all this leads people to think all they need to do is see what's on the bestseller list, write "something like that" -- which usually means bad Dan Brown or Michael Crichton or John Grisham knockoffs -- and turn it loose on the public. The whole point of writing as a way of speaking from one's personal understanding is buried. The "intrinsic motivations", as McRaney puts it in the above piece, either never come into the picture or are shoved aside.

Another thing to think about is the "survivor effect", something else McRaney goes into detail about elsewhere. Since almost no writers of fiction make enough from their work to make a living (I sure as hell don't, and most likely never will), the very few who tell the rest of us how they went and did it need to remember that what they say is almost impossible to take as advice. There is no way for us to reconstruct exactly what they did, because we are not them, and by doing so we could hope at best to merely produce knockoff artifacts of their behavior. (I will talk more about this another time.)

My outward expectations about my work are modest. If I sold enough books to have a regular audience for my work, that would be more than enough. I don't need to have people shout out my name from across the room when I walk into a swank restaurant, or hassle me for speaking engagements. (A podcast or two would be nice, though.) From all I've seen, people with even more than a modicum of fame have a pretty hard time of it, if only because they can't sit and eat their T-bone steak and quaff a glass of Mosel in peace.

I've kept all this stuff reined in, in big part because I know they're not the real reasons for doing this stuff. They're the B sides and the remixes and the bonus tracks, not the album cuts. Didn't New Order's "Confusion" gain far more attention in its Pump Panel Reconstruction Mix for the movie Blade than it ever did in its original form? And wasn't that kind of a shame, since the original 12" is pretty darn good?

At some point I had to sit down and ask myself: why do I do this? Because I want people to throw money and accolades at me and beg me for my autograph? Be thought of as influential and important? Be famous, be rich? Or is it because I know that even though taking what's banging against the inside of my skull and letting it out word by word like drops from a spigot is incredibly difficult, the feeling I get when it's finally done and it has coherence cannot be bested by anything else I know? (Save maybe for getting a cuddle from the wife, but duh, she gets first place any day.)

Few of us know what we really want, in big part because we almost never bother to find out. We let the outside world fill us up with opinion and conceit, with prejudice and conditioned response, and we don't even notice it's happening until we're a walking toxic bag of conditioned stressors. When presented with the idea of doing something that doesn't involve status-seeking or the amassing of wealth and privilege, we peter out. We forget what it's like to cultivate a sense of something that requires no outside approval and ignores outside condemnation, something I suspect we all had as kids until they put us in school to beat it out of us. And if as adults we ever do find out what it is we really want to do, we then compound the mistake by assuming it would be even better if only we could get paid to do it.

If you can't think of something worth doing that doesn't involve a reward for doing it, look harder. It won't come to the door with a singing telegram.

Tags: creativity neuroscience psychology writing