Last week I published my first blog post since August 2017, a gap of almost eight months. I wanted to reflect on this, partly because it has been a challenging period for me personally, but also because I notice from time to time that other people – those I follow on Twitter or might chat to at a meetup or conference – mention their own struggles with sharing their work.
Whether through blog posts like this, articles for publications, conference talks or workshops, or simply through tweets or comments on LinkedIn forums, sharing our opinions, thoughts and ideas in the public domain can present opportunities to refine them through discussion and debate, and can open up new angles or perspectives.
It can also take courage. Those opinions, thoughts and ideas do after all represent a little part of us. Responses, reactions and criticism, however well intentioned or otherwise, can have a significant effect on us and our future activity.
The demands we put on ourselves – the weight of expectation – can play a crucial role too.
The balance of success
If the response to our work meets or exceeds our expectations then it is natural to view this as success and to gain self-confidence.
Perhaps readers of the article found it useful, so we feel ready to write another. The meetup talk was well received, so a submission to speak at a conference follows. The tweet was liked and retweeted, so the idea is worth expanding in a blog post.
But what happens if we place too heavy a demand on ourselves and the response to our work falls short of our expectations?
Perhaps the article was ignored. The talk was met with blank faces and puzzled expressions. Tumbleweeds accompanied the tweet as it disappeared, unloved, from people’s Twitter feeds.
If this happens it is possible we might immediately feel determined to try again, to come back with a better article or talk, a clearer way to get the message across. Or perhaps we might see the response as a failure and lose confidence. Self-doubt takes hold. The prospect of putting more thoughts and ideas in the public domain feels unappealing. Better to leave room for other, more successful, speakers and writers.
If you ever feel this way, I urge you to fight back. We all have a story to tell and a unique perspective. Without diversity of thought, without new voices, new stories and new perspectives, we all lose. Ideas become stale, echo chambers develop and opportunities to challenge and improve perceived wisdom pass us by.
I experienced a prolonged period of doubt after publishing my first book last year. It seems faintly ridiculous as I write this, but I went from that personal milestone – the result of many months of thinking, writing, reviewing and reworking – to a point of feeling unable to share even the briefest thought in a tweet. In the simplest terms, I lost confidence.
I placed heavy expectations on myself. Despite warnings from my sister, Katharine E Smith, (who has written a number of novels) about the challenges involved in marketing a book, I allowed myself to think that the hard work had been done once the book was written and published. I imagined that the interest people had expressed in the book as I was writing it would translate to sales, and crucially, I began to equate sales with success.
Ironically, in assessing the success of the book – which includes a section on why counting quality is not a good idea – I started to lose sight of the positive responses I got from readers and focused on how many books were being sold. When sales dropped off I felt deflated and began to feel that the book was not a success; that the hard work had not been worth it. I forgot that numbers are just numbers and do not tell the whole story.
I’m sure that many would say that a degree of self-promotion can be a good thing; that confidence can be gained from publicly sharing positive news and views about ourselves. Yet I find the whole idea of self-promotion awkward and uncomfortable, if not distasteful.
If we are in the business of sharing ideas (and promoting a book) it doesn’t really do to sit back and wait for others to seek those ideas out. They have to be promoted. They have to find an audience and to so means raising a voice among the social media throng. The problem is that I struggle at times to differentiate between someone promoting a piece of work and promoting themselves. I couldn’t clearly judge where the line lay between promoting the book and being annoying and repetitive. I started to see this as another failure and so withdrew from sharing my ideas.
There is a link here to mental health. Low levels of confidence and a feeling of having failed in some regard can take hold and lead to anxiety or depression. Self-esteem is something that should be taken seriously. Low self-esteem can seep into different areas of our lives, affecting work, social interactions and close relationships. When I mentioned courage at the start of this blog, my thoughts turned to those people who have battled with low self-esteem and perhaps with mental health problems. I include myself in this. When we react to people’s ideas and opinions it is always worth remembering that for some, the very act of sharing those ideas and opinions can be a huge challenge.
When we offer support and encouragement, it can have an incredible effect on those who face this challenge. I can think of several people who have continually supported and encouraged me since I began tweeting and writing blogs, and especially when I was working on the book. This doesn’t mean they have always agreed with me, but when they have disagreed, they have done so respectfully and constructively, and they have told me when they have enjoyed my work. To those people I am exceptionally grateful.
If you value what someone does, tell them. If their work makes you smile, tell them. If their work helps you in some way, tell them. Sometimes small gestures can make a big difference.
In the last couple of months, my feelings have changed. I have once more felt a sense of pride in the achievement of publishing a book. I am proud of the content, the ideas and the stories. I’m happy that I invested the time in writing it, and I refer back to it frequently when I am working.
I take pride in the response to the book and I feel reinvigorated about promoting it again (perhaps you can expect more of those annoying, repetitive tweets).
Most importantly, my confidence has returned.
It is hard to explain why this has happened, but opportunities to develop new ideas and work with new people have helped. Perhaps I also underestimated the mental and emotional toll that the book took on me and some time away from writing has been refreshing.
Whatever the reasons, hitting the publish button on the blog about Confirmation Culture was a huge relief after such a long break. A week on, the blog and the visual which accompanies it have become two of the most viewed posts on this site (wait – was that self promotion?)
What do I read in to this? I’m glad the posts were useful and interesting to some people, but I don’t assume they were useful or interesting to everyone who read them. I certainly don’t see them as ‘better’ than other things I have written simply because of what the WordPress traffic statistics tell me.
I’ve learned a lot in recent months. There have been some low points for me, but I’ve come to realise that there are many ways to judge success and many ways to restore confidence. If you are facing similar struggles, I hope you can find a way to overcome them too, because we need to hear your voice.
3 thoughts on “On success, confidence and overcoming doubts”
I can particularly relate to your comments on self-confidence and self-promotion. In 2010 I left my full-time role to become a professional photographer, author and journalist; I already had a book contract lined up. That book was published in 2012 (not on testing), and I found that the big problem was promotion. The project had gone downhill when the publisher changed editor on me part-way through the publication process. The new editor didn’t see my book, which was not his project, as a great priority for him, and indeed said “I would have suggested a different approach to the same material” and also pointed out that my title was very similar to another range of books that the same publisher already had in print, but with a slightly more populist approach. That rather discouraged me, as I thought “It’s a bit late for that now…”
When the book was published, it got very little publicity and what little there was concentrated on some issues with the production process. I made some tentative approaches to specialist booksellers to think about doing promotional events, but because there was little prospect of getting a deal on the next book in the series I was thinking about trying to make enough money to live on rather than travelling miles at my own expense to self-promote. Ultimately, I had to balance self-promotion with continuing to pay my bills, which meant taking on contract work which reduced my time to think about new writing projects. Although I’m not short on self-confidence, I think I reached and passed my limits when it came to multi-tasking at that sort of level.
I now see my major writing projects as something to keep on one site until I retire, when I shall (hopefully) have the time to do something about them. The one good thing to come out of this (apart from my being able to point to the book and say “At least I DID get it published”) is that I started blogging to try to do some promotion, and that has snowballed to the extent that I now think of myself as a blogger and writer first, and photographer second. And blogging and re-orienting my goals for the writing has restored the self-confidence I lost when my book had disappointing sales and pretty well disappeared without trace.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for the thoughtful comments Robert. Any major, long term project is likely to become something significant to us I think, but there is something very personal about writing a book. It takes such commitment that it becomes a priority for a prolonged period and because it is a creative process it reflects our outlook and to some extent our personality as we write. So its quite natural to have high hopes once it is released into the wild.
Of course, we can’t all follow in the footsteps of J K Rowling, but I think I overestimated the demand for books generally, and for books on my chosen subject in particular. Perhaps because I get such pleasure from reading and it is such a source of learning for me, I imagined many others did the same. The reality is a little different I think, and there are so many mediums for learning and entertainment now that perhaps books seem a little outdated to some.
What was most important for me was realizing that success lay in having achieved the goal of writing and publishing a book – as you say, there is a great sense of pride in being able to point at the book and say “I did that”. My attitude towards the exercise has shifted so much recently that I’m even starting to think about writing the next book and feeling that same sense of excitement that I did first time… I wouldn’t have imagined that possible a few months ago.
Thanks again and good look with your own writing adventures whatever form they take!