I am my father’s daughter.
I’m reminded of that as I read the comments and emails that have resulted from my last blogpost about how I stress out on Wednesday afternoons, waiting for the latest New York Times bestseller list.Â Why can’t I just relax and enjoy my success?Â Why can’t I count my blessings?Â Why can’t I pause and look around in satisfaction and say, “Okay, I’ve made it”?
I think of my dad, who died earlier this year.Â Let me tell you about my dad.Â Â He worked two jobs for most of his life, and accumulated enough money for a very comfortable retirement.Â He had no debts, he owned his own home, and he probably could have sat back and taken it easy. Instead, he continued to work like a dog until Alzheimers crippled him.Â Why?
Because all his life, he never felt secure, and was continually terrified that he’d lose it all.
I used to think that maybe it was because he came from a generation that was too close to the Depression.Â But there’s also a cultural — perhaps even a genetic – component to his obsession with security.Â And I think I’ve inherited it.
My dad was the son of Chinese immigrants, and he had good reason to never feel entirely secure.Â He’d watched Japanese-Americans herded off to internment camps during WWII, and many of them lost all that they’d worked for and saved over the years.Â Â My dad alsoÂ understood the value of hard work and practicality, and so when he came home after serving in the U.S. Army in Germany, he threw himself into work, bothÂ as a restaurant chef, and as a contract estimator with an aircraft company.Â He never stopped feeling he could lose it all.Â He always believed that you couldn’t trust anyone else to take care of you, that you, and only you, were responsible for your own future.
I know several people like him.Â A friend of mine is a songwriter and performer, one of the most successful songwriters ever in the U.S.Â He started off middle class, worked his way to the top by performing in bars, and now he’s made a fortune.Â Whenever we get together, we talk about how much we have in common — both of us from middle-class roots, both of us obsessed by our work, both of us amazed by how far we’ve gotten.Â But neither of us will ever feel entirely secure. We’re both terrifiedÂ we could lose it all overnight.Â And so we keep striving and obsessing over our work.
Anxiety, I’m convinced, is a large part ofÂ success.Â TheÂ strange thing is, I’m not an anxious person in every other aspect of my life.Â I fall asleep on plane flights and in dentists’ chairs.Â IÂ happily travel toÂ bizarre places.Â I accept most ofÂ life’s frustrations with a resigned sigh.Â But when it comes to my writing career, I can be as high-strung as a racehorse.
I onceÂ read an article written by a literary agent who represents some of the biggest names in publishing, and she said that her most successful clients all seem to have one thing in common: they’re insecure.Â They don’t quite believe they’ve really made it.Â They believeÂ their bestselling statusÂ could vanish overnight.Â In some ways, they’re probably right; success in publishing is frighteningly ephemeral.Â But a lot of their fear is unfounded.Â Even though they’ve made fortunes and they’re household names, they focus on their careers with the anxiety of the hungry new author.
And that may be exactly what made them successes in the first place — that neurotic need for security andÂ for acceptance.Â
It won’t matter how successful everyone else thinks I may be. I’ll always be trying to write a better book, and achieve better sales.Â It’s a form ofÂ insanity, perhaps, but an insanity thatÂ other writers seem to suffer from.
And weirdly enough, it may also be the reason I got to where I am today.