The author Steven Pressfield was once asked what it felt like to sell all those books. His answer was swift. “I haven’t sold that many books,” he said, “Not nearly as many as someone like Laura Hillenbrand.”
It should be said that Pressfield wasn’t comparing himself to other people or particularly conscious of some sort of official rankings of who has sold best. It’s that despite his success, he still looked for someone to make sure he stayed humble. Keeping the name of an author whose works had sold ungodly well top of mind, was a way to keep himself from getting too high on his supply. It was a mechanism for preventing the millions of copies he had sold himself from warping his self-perception.
This is an effective Stoic exercise. In Marcus Aurelius’s writings, we see him speak over and over again about the other emperors who had come before him and who would come after him. How many people even remember their names, he said? He reminded himself that his military successes paled in comparison to Alexander the Great’s. He reminded himself that all of Rome, which was his kingdom, was just a tiny piece of the earth—that it looked pathetic if you flew up in the clouds and looked down upon it. All of this was designed to escape what he called “imperialization”—the stain of power and popularity.
We can follow it ourselves. Earn a million dollars? Try to think of the stupidest person to ever do that—suddenly it won’t seem so special. Run the fastest mile ever? Remind yourself how briefly even the longest records stand for. Get a promotion and a raise? Remind yourself that they’re paying you more because no one else who can do it, wants to do it. Marry someone beautiful? Remember that many other people “passed” on doing the same thing with the same person.
Of course, this is not designed to render everything meaningless. No one is denigrating what you’ve accomplished. We’re just trying to make sure none of it goes to your head. So you can keep doing it, so you can enjoy what you’ve earned—without the stain of ego and delusion ruining it.
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