When you follow a creative path, you won’t find any of the usual milestones of success.
Unlike your friends who enter traditional jobs, with clear routes to promotion, finely calibrated pay grades and impressive job titles, there is no ‘career ladder’ for people like you and me; no incremental markers to indicate your progress.
So if you compare yourself to them, it can be easy to feel left behind as they climb higher and higher, from promotion to promotion. It’s obvious to all the world that their career is ‘going somewhere’.
Meanwhile, what are you up to?
On bad days, as you wrestle with another project that stubbornly resists your efforts to turn it into a masterpiece, with no fancy job title, and no promotion or pay rise in prospect, it can feel like you’re going nowhere fast.
If it’s a really bad day, you may be on the receiving end of some well-intentioned sympathy from a friend or family member, asking if it isn’t time you got “a real job”.
(Never mind that the corporate career ladder is a lot shakier than it used to be, to the point where some people are starting to proclaim the end of jobs. That’s a story for another day.)
In his old age, W.H. Auden used to joke “If I’d entered the church, I’d be a bishop by now.” But he hadn’t and he wasn’t. He was a poet – revered by some, ignored by most.
And that was the key to his success. Because of the large body of amazing poetry he had written over his lifetime, opportunities and money came to him. If he had never written those poems, he’d have been just an eccentric old guy wandering the streets in his slippers.
On any given day, the world was not beating a path to his door, demanding another poem. He committed to his writing as a solitary pursuit. But as the years went by, he touched more and more people with his writing, and the world became more and more grateful for his contribution. By the time he died, he had achieved exponentially more than if he had pursued an incremental career like the church or the civil service.
So what can we learn from Auden’s example?