Seneca was not just a famous Roman philosopher, he was also a playwright whose works were so beloved that a line of graffiti from his play, Agamemnon remains preserved in ash on a two-thousand-year-old wall in Pompeii. His works are what Ryan would call “perennial sellers” still in print two millennia after the man first penned them, still helping people, still finding new readers. Fittingly, Seneca has some philosophical advice for any creator struggling to do something “great and supreme and nearly divine.” In one of his essays, Seneca wrote that what’s required is “confidence in yourself and the belief that you are on the right path, and not led astray by the many tracks which cross yours of people who are hopelessly lost, though some are wandering not far from the true path.”
It is a sad fact that nothing has sunk more creators and caused more unhappiness than this: the inherently human tendency to pursue a strategy aimed at accomplishing one goal while simultaneously expecting to achieve other goals we’ve specifically de-prioritized. An opera singer shouldn’t compare her record sales to a pop group and wonder why she hasn’t been invited on MTV. A sports team in a rebuilding phase doesn’t judge itself against the best record in the league. A person on a singular mission can’t be distracted; he can’t chase every colored balloon he comes across and he must put everything he has into the task he’s assigned for himself—if he wants to actually accomplish it, that is. You can’t be motivated by vanity or posthumous fame, these things, Marcus Aurelius reminds us, are worthless.
If your goal, like Seneca’s was, to write or create things that make a difference, you can’t measure yourself against people who aren’t aiming for the same thing—you can’t be endlessly checking industry charts or lists, and you can’t be distracted by the trends and fancies of other creators who are hopelessly lost. You have to focus on doing great work, on doing what you know is important and helping one fan at a time. There is no other way.[If you’re specifically interested in these larger lessons for the creative or artistic fields, check out Ryan’s new book Perennial Seller, from which today’s email was adapted from.]
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