Norwegian artist Edvard Munch painted almost 1,800 paintings in his 81 years. Yet most of us know him for just one of his creations: The Scream.
In 1988, a small Brazilian publishing house made a single 900-book print run of O Alquimista written by a budding local author, but refused to print any more. Six years later that same book was picked up by a U.S. publisher, translated into english, and over the past twenty years Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist has sold over 65 million copies in 56 different languages.
When a young actress of 27 auditioned for the lead role in a 1976 King Kong, she was told she was “too ugly” for the part. Today Meryl Streep has acted in 66 films, earned three Academy Awards, and is possibly one of the greatest film actors of all time.
When his first stand-up attempt at a 1985 open mic night in Boston fell flat, auto mechanic Louis Székely was so discouraged that he didn’t perform again for two years. When he did jump back on the comedy horse, he was delivered a rejection from Saturday Night Live, and a movie he was directing was taken away from him mid-filming. Apparently Louis C.K. was bad before he was good.
Art, creation, life, success seems to be a numbers game.
Not only is it a numbers game, but it’s a waiting game. It’s a persistence game. It’s a willingness to pick yourself up again and again kinda game.
An article that a stadium’s worth of people have now read sparked but a few murmurs as it sat gathering dust for its first 10 months of life. Of the 100-some-odd things I’ve written (not counting the emails I’ve sent, talks I’ve given, workshops I’ve delivered), I can count on one hand how many really shook the cosmos — a superbly slim fraction of the cosmos when held up against the likes of Edvard, Paulo, Meryl, Louis, and many others. The many whose stories keep me going.
Not that shaking the cosmos is everything. It’s just a signal. A signal that the work we’re working on is helping enough people. It’s bringing enough people joy or relieving enough people of their pain. It’s making enough people feel something. Feel understood. Feel empowered. Feel inspired. Feel like there’s still hope. Feel that there’s meaning and purpose behind the silly madness of unnecessary, inward-bubbling-outward creation.
It’s like the story of the ceramics teacher in Art & Fear who graded half of his class on quantity (how many pieces they could make) and the other half on quality (create only one piece but make sure it’s perfect):
Well, come grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.
It’s discouraging to create things knowing that most of the things you make won’t matter much to most people. But it’s encouraging to know that the more things you create, a better shot you’ll have at making something that matters to many.
Do your work long enough, consistently enough, stubbornly enough, and you might just change people’s minds. You might touch their hearts. You might inspire them to move their feet. You might just make someone understand, believe, do something.
Sure, you could smash it out of the park on your first at-bat. But what’s more likely is that of the 1,800 things you may create in your lifetime, perhaps 1 of them will seriously make a mark. And the gotcha is: it’s not guaranteed and you won’t know which one.
But show up enough times, at enough of the right times, in enough of the right places, and you just might shake a tiny sliver the cosmos.