I’m obsessed with age.
I wasn’t always. Throughout my 20s, I rarely felt the pressure of a ticking clock. That’s not to say I didn’t wonder about my future and think about how I was going to be successful and fulfilled creatively but there was certainly some room to move my arms. There’s no airiness now, no space to swivel my hips or turn my head. All I feel is pressure. Late at night, and sometimes during the day, all I feel is failure. There are times I go down bad roads, making a list of folks who became more successful and at younger ages than I am now. Categorized as “better” in the haze of midnight.
Once upon a time, I had a long mental list of those betters. It’s fuzzier now but some names still stick out. Those who sold big novels and achieved critical acclaim young. I’d obsess over folks like Robert E. Howard who created one of the most iconic characters in literature while he was in his 20s. Of course, he killed himself at age 30 so perhaps he’s not the best model to emulate. Then there’s William Gibson, who had written one of the most significant genre novels of all time, as close a thing to Dracula or Frankenstein as the 80s saw. And if he hadn’t already written it by the age I am now, he was certainly working on it.
I see people my own age, here and now, achieving success. Some of them are friends of mine, some are friends of friends, some are simply folks I admire.
Whenever a new name enters my radar, some hot new writer, I can’t help but look them up, see if I’m younger than they are. Sometimes I’m younger. Mostly, I’m not. I look up some of my favorite writers, show creators, musicians, and see how old they were when they broke through. Sometimes I’m younger. Mostly, I’m not.
I have no idea if they, strangers or friends, see themselves as successful. Some are toiling away at media tie-in work and feeling as though they should be writing their own stuff by now. Some have tasted just enough success to see how much they don’t have and are moving the bar ever forward. Some delight in their own success and, hey, why shouldn’t they?
I had my first success at (the tail end of) 24. That was Little Fears, a 3000 print run of a game about kids fighting monsters. It spent some time as the hot new game. It got itself some nominations, caused some controversy, and even managed to sell out. It was a minor hit in a minor field. It was the second book that wore my name, the first being a book of poetry some friends and I published two years prior, but it was the first project that got me out there, got me some recognition and a little bit of status in a creative community.
It did well for me. It changed my life. It opened doors into the other creative worlds which amazes me to this day. It made me a lot of good friends. In fact, pretty much everyone I talk to nowadays was connected to me through the publication of that game. It was the first and only time I felt success.
I know everyone grows differently and for every Christopher Paolini, there’s a Myrrha Stanford-Smith. I also know that I have written, which is the first step, and I’m growing as a writer, which is the second step, and that I’m fortunate enough to have work in my chosen field, which is the third step, working for a company and with a team that I enjoy greatly, which is a miracle. But I struggle with the sense I should have done more. That, at this point in my life, with 34 just over a month away, I should have accomplished more, I should feel more successful.
A big part of Operation: Awesome is navigating through these feelings. If I give myself a list of goals and redirect my behavior, I’ll at least have a plan and hopefully the means to achieve that success. I hope I’m not fooling myself. I hope I’m not a person who will simply kick the ball ten more feet once I get close to it. I don’t know that I can define “success” in any meaningful way or provide definite metrics for achieving it. But I know I have felt it, don’t feel it now, and I know I want to.
A key part of this stems from not being nearly as prolific as I wish I was. This sense of success isn’t just about sales or money, though that’s in there, it’s about wishing I was doing more, writing more. I’m trying to harness this feeling of failure into fuel for success.
(To be clear: I don’t wish to put my own sense of success or failure on anyone. I certainly don’t mean to imply anyone who hasn’t succeeded by 33 is a failure. This is an exploration of my own feelings, nothing more.)