The Pressure to Be Something

I went to the same school as Stephen Colbert and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I’ll pause to give you time to look up which school they went to. (If you are a follower of this blog, you already know which school.)

You’re back? Okay good. The first thing you’ll notice is that they are celebrities and I am not. Not everyone who went there is. But while I was an undergraduate, and even after graduating, I felt the pressure to live up to the prestige of the university. During my time there, when I chose to major in writing, many people gave me the stink eye. “Major in something useful,” I was advised over and over. (Code word: more prestigious, at least in their eyes.) “In that way, you can make a lot of money and be an alumna the school can be proud of.”


The pressure to be something.

(Though nowadays, the latter message comes through in the frequent invitations to donate to the alumni fund. The pressure to give something.)

Ever feel the pressure to be something others have decided is the definition of success?

As a writer, I definitely feel the pressure. My grad program has turned out graduates who have won major awards and who have sold many, many books. Even the organization of children’s writers and illustrators that I belong to routinely sends emails about those who have “made it,” while extending the invitation to “Send us your success stories.”

But what if you’re the writer of some books that went out of print within two years? Or you’ve racked up 89 rejections for a book?

The pressure to be something.

Ever feel like you didn’t measure up somehow? Maybe like me you even fell into the funnel of comparison recently, and felt yourself squeezed out of the small end.

Comparison—the bane of our existence

Thoughts like that swirled through my head as I drove to Wal-Mart the other day. Yeah, I know I shouldn’t let such thoughts hold sway. I’m trying to get my mind right and defeat negative thinking. But for some reason, I thought about the sister who had died the year before I was born. I found myself crying and wondering why she was stillborn, while I lived. Not that I’m ungrateful for life. But because I lived, was I really being all I could be? Was I living up to the potential teachers and others had told me I had over the years?

The pressure to be something. The pressure to make my life count because my sister was dead and I was alive.

But after prayer (because I was really getting worked up), I realized, Wait. I could silence that nagging voice in my head—the one that caused me to feel the pressure to measure myself against someone else’s ruler. I could silence the strive, strive, strive, you’re not doing it right, make things happen and just be.

Be . . .

Content in who I am—someone who persists past rejection and failure.

Joyful regardless.

I’m not Stephen Colbert. I like the guy. I really do. But I don’t have to be him or Julia Louis-Dreyfus to be somebody. I already am somebody. I might not do life like them. But I do what I do, because I like doing what I do, whether that fits someone else’s protocol or not.

Pressure dispelled.

As Nancy Hatch of Spirit Lights the Way would say, “Aah, that’s better.”

And now, I’ll leave you with a Lindsey Stirling video, suggested by a friend who went to Lindsey’s concert the other day. It’s for anyone who needs to get out of the pressure and into joy.

Marsha Mello likes being with the Unfinished Tiger. His chill approach to life—that all of us are works in progress—soothes her.

Stephen Colbert photo from Julia Louis-Dreyfus photo from Other photos by L. Marie. Marsha Mello and Donatina Shoppie dolls from Moose Toys.

42 thoughts on “The Pressure to Be Something

  1. This topic hit really close to home considering what I’m going through. It seems especially true with artists that people expect you to do something else and the other thing will fall into place. It’s bizarre that those with no artistic ambition routinely talk as if they know how these systems and careers work. Get a contract in 2 years? Only if I’m incredibly lucky. Write when I’m exhausted from work and only have an hour? I don’t function that way. People really do think doing art is no different than a 9-5, so they create pressure using that belief. Any victories that you do have are minimized too because they aren’t the ‘big one’ that involves money and benefits. When considering all of this, I’m not surprised artists have a long history of developing anxiety and depression.

    • Yes, I’m sure you understand. I go through this sort of mind whirlwind a lot. Some people think creating art is like playtime, rather than work. While some aspects of art seem like play, it takes a lot of work to produce art. If you’re totally stressed, producing art is difficult.

      • They ignore the editing and promotion stages. Those can be fun, but they’re where the work really gets serious. The effect of author mood on the whole process is another issue that I can’t seem to get across to people. I mean, a secretary or doctor can have performance problems if they’re stressed and upset. Why are artists, who work with emotions, held to a different standard?

      • Charles, I wish I knew. People assume they know all about writing because so many people do it. But they don’t know everything an author goes through to produce a book and publicize it well. Most of that is unpaid time. Hiring a publicist is costly.

      • I had a curriculum job where someone actually asked me if I got paid to write curriculum. I’m not sure why she thought someone writing curriculum shouldn’t be paid, but she seemed very surprised that I did.

  2. Someone has said, “The only writer you should compare yourself to is the one you were yesterday.” (No time to look it up . . . memoir calls.)

    Great illustrations; you spent a lot of time creating this post!, L Marie! 🙂

    • My daughter took a position teaching fifth grade, and at the staff orientation the principal made a big deal of this quote (substitute student for writer) with the emphasis on encouraging a less competitive and more collaborative classroom where students are measured on the progress they make rather than their relationship to each other. If every school did this, we’d have a paradigm shift.

  3. So . . . I’m reading your post, thinking of things I might say to you over a cup of tea, and wondering what to put in the comment box . . . and then I see that I already spoke to you. YAY!

    Aah . . . that’s better!

  4. You don’t need to live up to anyone else’s version of success. We make marks on people’s lives that we don’t even realize. Like Jill said, you are a great encourager. You have encouraged me. I have felt honored that you have actually shown interest by asking me questions about my writing. No one in my daily life does that for me, as none of them understands what it’s like to be a writer. We each have a role to play in this life. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s roles have been to play Elaine, Christine and now Selina. While she has made me laugh, those are all fictional characters and you’re the real deal. 🙂 ❤

  5. What Lori said! There are thousands of people who graduate from a university each year, and they make an impact in different ways. Some of them turn out to be notorious rather than famous, and those are the ones who should hang their heads. (I don’t know why they felt they had to choose it, but the motto of one of the schools my daughter graduated from was “Don’t do evil.”)

    • Thanks, Andy. I remember as a kid being angry with my poor parents that I didn’t have a sister, but instead had brothers. Kids can be so unthinking unfortunately. I didn’t know at the time about my sister. I was mortified when my parents finally told me.

  6. Life puts so so so much pressure on us, doesn’t it? Or we do it to ourselves. I’ve never understood why some people get the open door when many, many others do not. BUT. I’m sure Stephen Colbert would tell you he got a ton of closed doors and rejection, too. We only see the end product, not the journey. And that’s why you can’t give up! 🙂

  7. I think it’s far better to be content than whatever it is the world regards as successful, especially since these days success seems so often to equal celebrity rather than real achievement. On a down note, successful people often seem to struggle more than most with depression, addiction and so on, probably because of the pressure of that very celebrity. On an up note, we are all able to define success for ourselves, so if we don’t achieve the kind of success we originally hoped for, then we can redefine it and try again. Glad you reached a point of contentment… 😀

    • Thanks, FF. You’re right. The cost of being a celebrity for many seems very high. And who wants paparazzi hiding in the bushes just to snap a photo?? (Note to self: stop hiding in the bushes to snap photos of celebrities.)

  8. Hoo boy did this strike a familiar note. (Different school, but no less talented alumnae/i in various fields, and yeah, the grad school thing too.)

    For me, I’ve decided that as long as the writing gives me pleasure–and it does give me great pleasure–that’s the bottom line. Would I like to be successful? Yes indeed. I’m still going to do a fair amount of striving. But if I don’t get anywhere, at least I’ll know I tried, and I’ll be content with that.

    • I think a certain amount of striving comes with the territory, Katherine. But striving with purpose–that’s the ticket. I love going deep into a story I enjoy writing. What I don’t like is striving to write to a passing trend. They change so often!

  9. Thank you for this post, L. Marie, and for the music to accompany it. It made my morning so special and I came to read it (rather late) at a moment in time when I was doubting myself and my worth. I think most of us do this, from time-to-time, and it can hurt. I try not to pose these types of questions and expectations on others. I married an art major. When Tom and I were about to be married, my aunt said, when I tried to explain what an art major was, “Oh, that’s good. He can paint plates!”.

  10. Loved the music share, L. Marie.
    Be kind to yourself, remember He loves you, so who are you to beat yourself up? (Laura’s paraphrase of the intent of His mission)
    As for your secret sister…you must have been an especial joy to your folks once you arrived…not a substitute, just a special gift given at just the right time.

  11. I’m struggling to find the right words. I want to say “what a great post” but in light of the sadness within it, that seems trite. I guess I’d really like to say thanks for writing it. As someone who learned early to compare herself to others, your post really struck a chord. Thank you for writing it.

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