Monday, 3 August 2015


Recently, I came across an article by absolute genius and inspiration Matthew Weiner, the creator of ‘Mad Men’, in which he gives some very unusual advice about the nature of success.

I say ‘unusual’ because it isn’t often that a highly commercially-successful artist opens up about what a failure he felt he was, for a long time, all the way up until that first ‘success’. About just how long it is possible to be a ‘failure’ before you finally ‘make it.’

He is talking about ‘artists’, but he is also talking about writers – and that’s what we PhD students are. (And anyway, as you will know from a previous post, I would definitely file ‘writer of a PhD thesis’ under ‘Artist/ Bard’. And anyway, I think this advice applies to literally ANYONE.)

Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them. If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that. People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged, because they can’t do it like they thought it was done.

Matthew Weiner is highlighting the gap between the initial idea and the finished product – and suggests that, because that gap is never visible in the finished thing, we tend to look at the works of people we admire and think ‘He/she just did that easily and all in one go. I’m trying to do something similar and it’s not working. Why is mine not working?...’

(It’s interesting, because I bet if anyone met me today, they would perhaps think ‘What a successful young person, what a nice life, and what a wonderful, creative job she has!’… Maybe they would think 'She has it easy.' And I think, if only you knew…)

And so I love it when Weiner says

An artwork is a finished product, and it should be, but I always swore to myself that I would not hide my brushstrokes.

'Hiding the brushstrokes' is something I think we academics do because it doesn't seem the 'done thing' to admit how awful you feel about yourself when you're trying (and failing) to write some PhD. (Can you imagine going to a job interview and cheerfully admitting to all the procrastinating you do every day?... Can you imagine the silence that would follow - broken only by the dropping of jaws and the flutter of raised eyebrows?...) (I can.)

So it is not necessarily that we hide our brushstrokes because we have pretensions to greatness and don't wish to be seen as anything less than 'gods'. We sometimes hide our brushstrokes because we assume that to even have those is somehow wrong; because we can't see anyone else's, and therefore think that our own imperfections are correspondingly huge. And because, in this competitive world, we want someone to hire us one day.

Furthermore, we've been taught to think that success will come if we just keep at it and give it enough time. But how much is enough time? And what to do when you just keep hitting dead ends? How much is enough?

This bit of Weiner’s article sounds familiar:

Upon graduation, I set up meetings everywhere in the hopes of getting a job. In three months I got nothing. I couldn’t even get a meeting with an agent.

I got very bitter, seeing people I didn’t think deserved it succeed. It was a dark time. Show business looked so impenetrable that I eventually stopped writing. I began watching TV all day and lying about it. My mother would call me to drive my brother-in-law to the airport. That’s the kind of crap I was doing instead of being a writer. I felt like the most useless, worthless person in the world.

You know that thing where you’re an academic, you’ve been earning rubbish money for years, and you’re approaching thirty/ you’re already over that hill, and you haven’t really started earning ‘proper money’ yet?... Of his first writing job, Weiner says,

It was my first paying job in show business and I was 30.

He describes how he went on to write Mad Men and how it was a long, hard slog to get his own script accepted by a production company.

Mad Men had been bouncing around town for about four years and nobody wants something that has been rejected by everybody.
But then along came AMC. They were trying to make a splash and wanted to do something new. They were also interested in making a show they wanted to watch, which is really the secret of success in everything artistic. They basically said, "We love this thing and want to do it."

And I love the next bit of the article, which is so true, and so useful to remember:

The greatest regret I have is that, early in my career, I showed myself such cruelty for not having accomplished anything significant. I spent so much time trying to write, but was paralyzed by how behind I felt. Many years later I realized that if I had written only a couple of pages a day, I would’ve written 500 pages at the end of a year (and that’s not even working weekends). Any contribution you make on a daily basis is fantastic. I still happen to write almost everything at once, but I now cut myself slack on all of the thinking and procrastination time I use. I know that it’s all part of my creative process.

He doesn’t know that his advice is being read by struggling PhD students (and the odd struggling writer/artist…). Nor does he know that reading his article felt like pieces of a puzzle were falling into place in my head. Success doesn’t necessarily arrive gift-wrapped and handed to you in the first year after your graduation. Every single thing you touch does not immediately turn to gold. It’s OK to do a first draft of any project very, very badly, and it’s OK feel a bit crap if you haven’t yet achieved the thing you want to get finished – but don’t wallow in the crap feeling for too long. Be nice to yourself, and tell yourself nice things. And then get back to work.

In the words of my second supervisor,

Keep at it.

And another thing: don’t hide the brushstrokes. Don’t feel like you are failing because the struggle is real and it is visible. Talk about it. Write about it. By talking about it, you set other people free to feel OK about their own wobbly path to ‘success’.

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