Lehrer, writing & the whiff of something rotten in success

by Kristin on July 31, 2012

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by johnjd2

Note: I updated this post on July 31—a day after it was originally published—after reading about Jonah Lehrer’s resignation from the New Yorker magazine. The pressures of success seem to have definitely played a role in Lehrer’s lies.

I’m beginning to think there are as many reasons to fear success—or at least to be suspicious of it—as there are reasons to desire it.

All I could think, as I read about the downfall of the insanely successful young writer, Jonah Lehrer, was that his success became a drug that simultaneously drove and devoured his career.

Jayson Blair, the former New York Times reporter who resigned in 2003, has had some time to reflect on what happened to his writing career. He clearly sees how the pressures of success played a key role. Here’s a question posed to Blair in yesterday’s Salon interview on the Lehrer matter, followed by Blair’s response:

I think what is hardest for people to understand, often, is why people who have risen to the New Yorker, to the New York Times — why extraordinarily talented people would take the risk, when they’re capable of doing the work.

I certainly understand that pressure. Once you’re young and successful, I think, in this profession you’re only as good as your last story — and you want every story to be better.

As a small-time blogger and freelance writer, I can hardly claim to know what the pressures of large-scale success feel like. Lehrer, after all, was widely touted as a “genius” and a “prodigy,” and he’s a decade my junior! But even though I haven’t experienced significant success in my life, I have caught faint whiffs of it, and I’ve taken note of the effects they have on me and my writing:

- I try to uncover the magic formula—what worked, and how can I emulate it to keep this level of success growing. This sets me back in two significant ways: First, I’m wasting valuable time and energy that could be devoted to creating something new, and second, I’m wasting it on something that is inherently ineffective. No one wants to read a formulaic blog, or be a part of a formulaic relationship.

- I worry far too much about what others think. I not only try to guess their expectations of me, I imagine their disappointment in me when I don’t live up to those expectations. It’s impossible to be myself or create anything that is a product of who I am, when I am in this state. The moments when I have felt most free as a writer and as a person have been when all my junk has been laid out on the table—there is nothing to hide and nothing to lose.

- I try to be all things to all people. This is a direct result of being too aware of what others think. I don’t want to be too Christian for that audience, or too radical for that audience, or too emotional or revealing or controversial…so I end up being nothing that reflects the real me. I write things that are safe. I say only safe things to the people in my life. I hold God and everything he created at an arm’s length, where the chances of disappointment and hurt are diminished.

- The pressure to perform takes over, engulfing what really matters. This feeling has something to do with worrying too much about what others think, and something to do with that false idea that success involves a formula. Whatever is at the heart of it, when the focus shifts from the personal love of something to the public product of that love, everything seems to shift. There’s less room for experimentation, fewer excursions onto tenuous limbs, and fewer risks due to more fear of failure. As a result, innovation takes a hit. There are too many expectations to live up to—you can’t afford to sacrifice a blog post or several hours of effort to something that may not work.

- I begin to lose my love of what got me to where I am in the first place, as a love for success takes its place. Of course, part of the problem is that our definitions of success get so warped along the way. The imaginary thing we become addicted to isn’t at all the thing that would ultimately make us feel more whole and satisfied. Instead, we can only see what success looks like from the outside, rather than what it should feel like from the inside.

I can’t know exactly what Lehrer was experiencing, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the pressure to perform and worrying about what others think drove some of his actions, causing him to lose track of his true self and true genius along the way.

So should we all start avoiding anything that resembles success? Probably not. It’s important to have dreams. It’s important to believe in ourselves and push ourselves to accomplish things we didn’t know we could—as long as we don’t lose ourselves in the process.

Maybe the key is having a clear sense of what success should feel like to you, and then being extra vigilant of the dangers that creep in when you lose track of who you are, and why you’re doing what you’re doing. What do you think?

Btw, speaking of not losing track of who you really are, my most recent RELEVANT column on this subject was published recently: “Discover Who You Are—The Love List Way.”

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  • http://www.carisadel.com Caris Adel

    I just started reading Before We Get Started by Bret Lott, and he talks about how even as a success, he had some failures and how frustrating it was because he had assumed he would just always be awesomely successful, and how he had to get back to why he wrote. It was also encouraging to realize he had to write in his small basement early in the morning, and also discouraging that even now, he has to teach for a living….kind of depressing to realize there really is no money in writing. If I ever do good enough to pay for a vacation for the 7 of us, I’d consider that a financial success, LOL.

    Some of your reasons are partly why I write under a different name. I just can’t be that open and free if people I know knew. And, if I ever make it big and famous, ha!, it would be a lot harder to let that success go to my head if no one knows!

  • Crystal

    Success is one of those tricky things in that it can be defined differently by everyone. Success for one person may be getting that job, or new car while to some it may be the fact that they can feed their kids dinner tonight. I think we torture ourselves with our own notion of success, thinking its people on the outside putting on the pressure. Its hard in todays warped society to see what unique and beautiful things each of us HAS done, but we must always keep in mind that our CHOICES have defined our success. Each of us had the opportunity to go down the wrong path, and yet look at where you are! Somewhere beautiful and unexpected. We just need to look around and appreciate who we are, and where we are. No expectations, no pressure. We are exactly where we need to be, right now.

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    Experimentation is so important. The more I play with ideas, the more I’m surprised with the random directions my mind goes in! With writing I need to give myself the space and safety to just write things and then find out what happens.

  • http://StudentsofJesus.com Ray Hollenbach

    Each item you list is heartbreaking real and true, Kristin. For me, I’ve found freedom in listening only for the approval and praise of those who know me most and love me deepest. The list is surprisingly short.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Note: I’ve updated this blog post since these first four comments were posted. The heart of the post is exactly the same, but the Jonah Lehrer aspect wasn’t yet included. Sorry to complicate things!

    Caris, ah yes, that’s another whole aspect of success—expecting things to somehow be easier! Watching the Olympics certainly demonstrates the complexity of those expectations. (Before We Got Started sounds good—I’ll have to check it out!)

    Crystal, you bring up a great point, about success looking different to each person. After I read your comment, I realized that another recent post I wrote, “Seeking the magical, ordinary life” is about that very thing! I wondered if success had to involve publishing a book, or if it could just look like ordinary moments—drinking coffee on the porch with someone you love. (Clearly I’ve been wrestling with this topic lately, even if I didn’t fully realize I was!)

    ed, exactly! A sense of “space and safety” is key to my best writing. Unfortunately, they don’t come naturally. We have to be so intentional about making room for them.

    Ray, if we can feel these things in the midst of our small successes, can you imagine what could happen when the pressure is turned up a few notches? I’m grateful for writer friends like you to share these struggles with. Also, this is wise: “I’ve found freedom in listening only for the approval and praise of those who know me most and love me deepest.”

  • http://leadingchurch.com Paul VanderKlay


  • Jen

    I had been meaning to read this last week. I don’t know about the Lehrer kerfuffle but I do think you hit upon something big here. Again. Smart and wise. In an age of “get more hits or likes,” with “7 easy steps,” we fail to be our own original selves. And when we write or live or parent or teach or drive or talk in fear, we get nowhere. Plus, we all have a uniqueness that cannot be squelched. As my mother says, “you are a unique and unrepeatable gift.”