Between 2014 and 2017, I worked in communications at a Big Four professional services firm. A saying popular among us (and which definitely still flies across the dividers of those white and orange workstations) was: “The reward for good work is more work.”
They stayed true to that quip. Once, I got some recognition at the AGM for doing good work on some email newsletters. Well, guess what? After that, I became the official consultant for all emails and wrote newsletters for various departments. Some people even had me plan their content strategies and calendars. Some people wanted to hire me off-the-books to write newsletters for their businesses.
I vowed to never excel to these levels again. I devolved into a bare minimum kinda guy, doing only what needed to be done to get my pay. This was difficult, obviously, because coming from a highly academic upbringing (both my parents are professors in the sciences) and conditioned to strive for 101% only, doing just-there work was a whole new kind of effort. I was determined, though, to remain under the radar and escape the trap of overworking myself. I simply wanted to be normal.
Excellence is a bar that moves
It took me a while to realise that I was simply running from my shadow. Who am I kidding? I’m a writer. And writers work towards excellence, towards telling a story in the best way it can be told. We want to thrill our readers; we want our words to slink into their lungs and squeeze, take their breaths away (pun intended). Aiming for average is the antithesis of everything being a writer is.
Except, we have to be careful to not let this quest for “excellence” consume us. We have to understand that the bar for “excellence” will shift depending on who’s setting it. Our communities of readers and writers and literary enthusiasts consist of humans, who are wont to occupy the spectrum from thoughtful to vile. We must be ready for the repercussions of straining too hard to strike this “bar”. Not everyone will see the value of our work, and that’s okay. Also, when they do, it will likely ask more of us, physically and mentally. It’s also okay to not be ready for this. It’s okay to want other things. It is okay to want to be normal.
Normal is good enough
I’ve always struggled to celebrate small writing victories. When I won TheNakedConvos’ The Writer in 2016, I got a lot of congratulations, but I mostly felt meh. Same thing happened with my first pro sale to a magazine, landing my first major writing gig, signing the David Mogo book(s) with Abaddon. Except for workshops and residencies (because they involve travel) and getting into my MFA program (because, duh?), I tend to be nonchalant about writing wins. For the most part, it’s because I’m not much of a drinker or eater or dancer myself, the trifecta required for a proper celebration, and since I’m not surrounded by rambunctious friends either, well.
I have now come to realise it’s also because I believed my work wasn’t worth celebrating. It wasn’t groundbreaking or trailblazing. It was normal, decent, good work, and still is. And I’m okay with that. Normal is good enough, and celebrating the excellence in my normal is fine too. I’m only going to have the high of a victory for a short while, and thereafter will come the drudgery of the work required to keep up with that win (Normal, decent work will bring about more work too, see?). Might as well ride the high for as long as it lasts, even if that “ride” is simply bingeing on Brooklyn Nine-Nine with a maxi roll of shawarma and a six-pack of Radler.
I have to come to see that normal can be excellent without being conflated with average or mediocre. I’ve decided to just focus on working the process, enjoying the ride, making the best of what I have and getting better at what I do. I have become comfortable with myself and who I am and the stories I tell and how I choose to tell them. I am okay with my normal, and you should be too.