One of my biggest fears about being a full-time writer is that I’ll become disconnected from the things I write about.
When I was in university, writing about learning and productivity was grounded in context. Being a full-time advice-giver is scary because you no longer have the day-to-day experience of the things you write about. This is a pretty common anxiety I’ve seen in my writer friends.
Evolutionary pressure is a powerful motivator. Ostriches still have feathers, but they’re fluffy and ineffectual for flight. Domesticated animals tend to be less intelligent than their wild counterparts. When you no longer need to survive on your wits, you no longer have them.
Success is great, but it can also breed a kind of weakness. Removed from struggle, uncertainty, fear and constraints, your beliefs and behaviors can become fluffy and ineffectual too.
I’ve seen many writers whose worked I greatly admired when they started. It was clear, pragmatic and obviously relevant to the people who needed to hear it. Then they became successful, went full-time and now spout mostly half-baked nonsense. This isn’t something I’ve just witnessed once or twice, but a trend. Enough of a trend that I’m afraid of it myself.
Going soft is, to a certain extent, impossible to avoid. As you earn more success, you want to enjoy the comfort those successes bring. I’ll probably never get back to the same mental state as when I was washing my laundry in a bathtub to save money, writing 10,000 words a week to scrape by on freelance income.
However, even if you can’t have the immunity of someone constantly exposed to the outside world, you can vaccinate yourself against the worst types of softness. Pursuing greater challenges keeps you focused. Temporarily revisiting earlier struggles reminds you of what you’re capable of.
The Stoic philosophers suggested that one should spend some time living in poverty, so as to not be afraid of losing wealth. The Stoics were aristocratic elites. They understood the danger of going soft from living too comfortably.
Immunization and Shedding
A small dose of a pathogen can be the cure. A small exposure to your fears can give you courage. If you worry about money—take a sabbatical to live in another country on just a few dollars a day. If you worry about loneliness—spend a month living alone in nature. If you worry about embarrassment—do improv and deliberately fail.
The other alternative is to push higher. Always have a bigger challenge on your plate than the last one. Shed your ambitions as you outgrow them and form larger ones.
The advantage of immunization is that it counteracts the hedonic treadmill. Reminding you of the difficulties below allows you to appreciate what you already have. Shedding old ambitions helps you reach higher heights, but it speeds up the treadmill, causing you to disregard past achievements in pursuit of bigger ones.
Why Try to Stay Tough?
Trying to stay tough is a problem of success. Ironically, even writing about this may mean I’m no longer as relevant as I once was. Most people are longing for the soft life, not worrying about what it might mean for them if they reach it.
If softness is unavoidable, why fight it? Why not just domesticate yourself and accept slower wits as the price for not having to live outdoors anymore?
Part of the fear is that going soft will undermine the success that created it. Human beings no longer have to put in strenuous labor for calories, so we get fat. We then go to gyms and spinning classes to recreate a bit of the toughness our ancestors faced, trying to stay healthy.
The other part of the fear is that we want to live at our sharpest and strongest, not the weakest our environment will allow. Even if getting used to modern luxuries isn’t unhealthy, it may leave us feeling we’re living below our potential.