Winning versus flow: How do you get what you really want?

(Picture a bicycle racer pedaling up a mountain.)

How do you balance loving what you do with wanting to be successful at it?

And what does success mean–what does it mean to you?

Earlier, I mentioned Jeannine’s series of posts on success and writing.

I was watching the Tour de France and thinking about all the doping in cycling and in other sports. Clearly, these athletes love what they do. But also they clearly feel the pressure to win. Winning means they get to stay on the team, they get to keep doing what they love. The extrinsic results of winning support the intrinsic values of riding.

In Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about how you should do something only for its intrinsic value, not for its extrinsic results–or, as Penelope Trunk said, love your process, independent of the results.

But how do you balance that against wanting to do what you love as much as possible? Years ago, Amy King wrote a blog post in which she said, and I paraphrase, you’ll never get all this glory for writing poetry. She was also saying that you won’t get money. So far, she’s right on both counts. But there’s that lingering perception that if one could win that Pushcart or get into Best American Poetry, etc., one could find a wider audience, maybe a paying gig. Maybe people would actually sign up for the classes. That success of that sort would open more doors, more opportunities, to write more. Maybe that’s just my lingering perception. Maybe I’m just dreaming.

Thinking about publication and prizes and what-have-you puts focus on the wrong place–away from writing. It feeds professional jealousy, which is never a good space to be in even if it’s entirely human. It can lead to frustration and feelings of failure.

But extrinsic goals have their place. For example, a contest is an extrinsic goal, but the deadline helps to get work done. I don’t have a deadline for the grief poems and that’s why they might take me another 10 years.

Back to that question of balance, the tug between wanting to succeed (in the traditional, measurable sense) with wanting to create (in the wild, barefoot, no-holds-barred sense)?

I suspect for me it’s an ongoing, day-to-day process. I do know that doping won’t help me write a better poem. I do know that butt-in-chair time should help me write a better poem, as should reading more–both poems and about writing poems.

So I’ll keep trying to remind myself that it’s not all about the rejections or the acceptances. It’s about listening, learning, and writing.

P.S. Can you imagine getting up every day and your whole job is to ride a bike? Or your whole job is to write that novel, those poems, that memoir?