It is impossible for me to watch Particle Fever without crying.
Particle Fever is my favorite documentary about the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle. You can watch it on Netflix. Peter Higgs is a theoretical physicist who published his theory predicting the existence of the Higgs particle in 1967. It took 45 years before the technology was good enough to be able to test the theory.
Enter: The Large Hadron Collider at CERN. (It’s a giant machine that explodes microscopic particles in Switzerland.)
In 2012, scientists were able to run experiments to attempt to detect the Higgs particle AND THEY FREAKING DID. But that’s not the best part.
The best part is 80something-year-old Peter Higgs was able to see it (min 4:14, bring a Kleenex).
There is this moment at the very end of the documentary when they show Peter Higgs attending the conference where the scientists present the findings affirming his theory. But they hadn’t told him yet!!! So he discovers it in real-time along with everyone else and the entire room applauds and everyone is crying (including me).
He wins the Nobel Prize in 2013, one year after the LHC experiments confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson.
It’s rare we get to see the things we make get any critical or popular reception. Emily Dickinson died before the world saw her poems, Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime, Stieg Larsson died before any of his books were published (and made into blockbuster hits).
That’s what makes that moment with Higgs all the more impactful! He published the theory in 1967 and didn’t win the Nobel Prize until the Higgs was discovered in 2013!!!
I think about this a lot when I worry about the impact of my work.
You hope it reaches some (ahem) Nobel end. You want it to matter. To impact people. To make a difference. To “change the world,” if you will.
But you can’t really control that part.
(Despite what marketers will have you think.)
(If we were that good, we’d be a lot wealthier.)
The only thing you can control is your commitment to the process. For me, that means writing and publishing, writing and publishing, writing and publishing, again and again and again over and over and over in perpetuity.
If you get too hooked on what happens AFTER you hit publish, you’ll lose your mind and get stuck in what my co-host Hillary Weiss calls The Nonsense Gap.
The Nonsense Gap is “that moment when you’re about 90% of the way through a project you’re about to put out there, when all of a sudden you start doubting…absolutely everything.” And you consider quitting (and sometimes, you do).
I have spent the majority of my life in the Nonsense Gap. It’s a terrible way to go through life. I have a lot of voices in my head (none of them mine) and I’ve repeatedly made the mistake of listening to them when they told me things like “you’re not talented enough,” “no one cares what you have to say,” and “this is stupid. It won’t work.” I spent much of my life avoiding the feeling of people making fun of me.
It was and remains a futile effort.
People did and do make fun of me. Most of the assaults come from people I know personally, not from y’all. It’s like death by microaggression. And when you’re an amateur, like I was, those can actually kill any shred of creative integrity or soul you have left.
(If this is you, right now, I highly recommend The Artist’s Way. I prefer the audiobook version because Julia Cameron reminds me of my grandmother, Mimi, who was artsy and spiritual and left us way too early. I loved being part of her magical world. If you can suspend disbelief and lean into it, it will bring the dead parts of you back to life.) (Big Magic is also helpful. So is The War of Art.)
I’m a child of immigrants so “art” is not exactly an acceptable life choice. To this day, I’ve never heard anyone in my family describe me as a “writer.” Though, I’ve been publishing (in public) since 2005.
The good news about art is that you don’t really need the world’s validation. You don’t need an MFA or a degree. We only think that because we believe the inaccurate cultural myths about art.
Inaccurate Cultural Myths About Art:
- You must be talented (nope)
- If the work is good, you’ll be discovered (nope)
- You’re 24/7 in a state of flow (NOPE)
The truth about art is it’s hard work. You’re in flow for a fraction of the time you spend editing. Most people don’t notice your work or don’t care. And many people don’t like it. Usually, you’re the one left having to advocate for why it matters and why people should pay attention.
Which is why your commitment cannot be to the outcome, but to the process. You can’t control how your work is received. You can only control the integrity with which you create it.
Hillary and I discussed some ways to get yourself out of The Nonsense Gap on this week’s #HAMJAMS (We moved Hillary and Margo Yell At Websites #HAMYAW to Instagram Live and we’re calling it #HAMJAMS).
You can watch the discussion here.
Today, I am the arbiter of my own work. It helps if people like it too, but I try not to get too high off that because what people like is a reflection of them. And to measure myself and my work in your reflection of yourself, is what we call codependent.
Peter Higgs may be a scientist, but his commitment was and is to the process, not the outcome (for him, the Scientific Method, for us the Creative Process). He continued to do research for 45 years!! Continued to show up and try things that might not work.
You cannot control how your work is received. And if you remain focused on what people will think or if they will like it or what people’s opinions might be of you, you’ll never get anything done.
And we need you to get things done. Because I can’t be out here all by my lonesome. I need your work too. I lose sleep thinking about all the stories I won’t get to read because of people lost in the Nonsense Gap. Believing they don’t have what it takes and they should just stop trying to make Fetch happen.
Please, please make Fetch happen.
Because even and especially if you’re not talented and no one cares and you’ll make a complete and total fool of yourself and everyone will know you’re a fraud – it’s worth it.
Because the alternative is a life of quiet desperation and that is not benign. That is the birthplace of bad behavior and self-abandonment. The root of all evil.
If you want to change the world, make a difference, and for your work to have an impact – commit to the process. It may not make the NYTimes bestselling splash your ego wanted, but it will save your soul from a lifetime of quiet desperation and internal turmoil that you unwittingly work out on others.
And that will change the world.
The Nonsense Gap is fear. It fears your having fun, making mistakes, looking silly. It is not you. It is your cultural conditioning. Some of us got this conditioning worse than others.
The work of changing the world is the work of getting out of the Nonsense Gap.
Of having the courage to try a new way, do something that might not work, endure the gossip and haters and trolls (which is projection, btw – of people in their own Nonsense Gap, redirecting their sadness and rage onto you), to stand up for what you believe, to have fun, to be relaxed, and to know it is ok to be you in a world that prefers you be someone else.
People spend their lives in the Nonsense Gap.
Please do not let that be you.
Back to work.
PS: Here is your monthly reminder to watch this.
PPS: I know what you’re thinking. But Margo! Isn’t the entire point of copywriting to ask yourself what OTHER people need to hear – so what they think matters?
I hear you and this is where a lot of people get stuck.
Copy demands a commitment to process and trying things that might not work. Even and especially within the context of asking, “What does my reader need to hear?”
If you’re trying to affect someone else’s perception of you (you want people to call you a “good copywriter,” for example, or you want your boss to like your copy) then you are not copywriting – you are in The Nonsense Gap.
Asking, “What does my reader need to hear?” demands the same creative integrity as art and science. It’s not about controlling what people think or do (because you can’t). It’s about letting go of how you think you’re supposed to be or sound and stepping into what other people need to hear. Meeting them where they are. It’s a process of trying different things that might not work and watching what happens, then shifting your strategy accordingly.
Copywriters make a living selling certainty they cannot guarantee. They can only commit to the process, they can not MAKE anyone do anything because no one can. What they can do is deploy empathy and generous tension in ways that inspire people to take action. Their commitment is to deploying empathy and generous tension. After that, it’s not up to us.