Anxiety After Success: Trying to Top Yourself

Every time we take on a new project, we learn valuable lessons about how we are driven by both anxiety and success. After several years of creative work, I've objectively learned I have a hard time switching focus after a big project. I'm not great at set-shifting in the short term or the long term. 

In other words, I prefer to live hot on the trail (not looking for the trail).

Learning From The Past

After finishing my fifth album and corresponding book, I reached a major low point in my life. Before recording the CD, I was a full-time musician with focus, realistic goals, and a sense of drive and purpose. I had a healthy bank account, I was starting to play bigger shows, and I found myself on stage with some highly respected people. I also learned a lot of techniques while recording that could hypothetically assist me with making better music in the future.  

Instead of celebrating my success or indulging in what I had accomplished at a young age, I was seething with anxiety for a number of reasons difficult to articulate at the time. 

  • Was I motivated by feelings of wonder inherent in the creative process?
  • Was I intrinsically motivated to help others?
  • Was I motivated to prove myself? 
  • Or was I motivated by something darker?

Either way, music started to feel more like a punishment than the tool I had used to help myself become healthy.

The World Felt Upside Down

Instead of having the mental bandwidth to sort this out, I experienced a resurgence of terrible OCD symptoms from my youth and my relationship with someone important to my creative working life deteriorated. As a consequence, I desperately wanted a stable routine (and a day job!) instead of the entrepreneurial life I had worked hard to establish.

The funny thing was...

I had found a way to get paid for being me.

(That's the dream, right?)

But I didn’t like me, so it was hard to care about meeting my goal (let alone become excited about my future or my ideas).

A Little Background

I wrote the songs during a six month period and recorded the album over an additional separate six month period around 2013.  At this point in my career, I was in the habit of putting out an album annually.  

(Whatever your thoughts about Ani DiFranco, this is what I had seen her do since the age of 18 to launch her own successful record label, so I thought "one album a year" was a respectable business template.)

I decided to make my fifth CD unique compared to the other albums by using the synthesizer A LOT. I geeked out and actually had a lot of fun doing this, but it extended the mixing, mastering, and collaboration aspect far beyond my self-imposed deadlines.

By the time the album came out, it was beyond anti-climatic for me. I was already thinking about future projects, and I had no energy to talk positively about what I had accomplished. My favorite creative activity had simply been a task to get through instead of a deep source of insight and transformation inherent in the original ideas.

Switching Focus

I coped with my “artistic despair” by going back to college, remodeling a house with my partner, and immersing myself in the local community.  

I backed off from music for a while and decided to put my energy into tasks where I could objectively help and benefit others in a more direct way. I obviously still believe in the power of music to help people (it has certainly helped me), but I think you have to be careful with the amount of isolation involved in independent creative work (and the impersonal busy relationships that result from promoting yourself).

Key Takeaways For My Next Big Project

  1. Control what you let into your headspace. Ruthlessly prioritize your time (especially when taking on large and vulnerable tasks).
  2. Don’t put financial pressure on your creative ideas if you don’t have to.  A day job can help if it is the right one and if you put time into crafting a workable lifestyle.
  3. Talk to your neighbors. Social health is linked to mental health. Make goals to encounter people who have diverse experiences. It’s healthy for people with narrow interests to get out of their bubble. Being friends with different kinds of people leads to new discoveries.  
  4. Youth doesn’t mean everything.  Social hype sometimes sends the message you have to accomplish everything great in your twenties in order to be noticed in the artistic world. Plenty of people are peaking in their thirties and beyond.

Onward Homeostasis!

In general, I've found I love the pursuit of a goal, but once I meet it, it's not in my nature to celebrate. The process of being immersed in a large project provides clear focus every day.  This is what my brain is after. Once I accomplish the task, I'm back in the jungle again recreating systems and devising new challenges to find some stability. 

It seems natural laws like homeostasis and hedonistic adaptation rule the world to keep us pressing on. Thanks, evolution.  Thanks, human brain... I guess...

"It is as it always was. It just took a while to notice."

I've come across plenty of people who are similar, so this characteristic doesn't need to be yet another thing to beat myself up over or feel different about. If you are interested in this topic, I highly suggest checking out the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and the book The Desire Map by Danielle Laporte. You can also check out this article I contributed to.

How about you? Has anxiety followed you after success?  Are you wired to think, "Raise the bar! On to the next thing!"

How do you plan to treat yourself the next time you accomplish something important to you?  


10 Replies to “Anxiety After Success: Trying to Top Yourself”

  1. That ‘onto the next thing’ way of thinking is very valuable especially for people in creative fields. It helps get you out of your own head and you avoid thinking ‘I should do this because I’m this.’

    And in general it stops you from living in the past and getting stuck in ‘the good old days’.

    The ‘good old days’ should be RIGHT NOW! 🙂

    1. That is a great take on things Piki Dad! I think the promotion cycle, in particular, is what bugs me about striving to be paid for creative work. You have to spend a lot of time talking about ideas you were excited about ages ago… just to sell them. For example, when I think about my favorite authors doing book tours, I imagine they are writing completely different ideas in their hotel rooms at night. During the day, however, they have to talk about concepts they fleshed out years ago. Redundancy with yourself is part of the job description no one talks about much! Anyhow, I think we all find our way to make peace with it eventually… or we just do creative tasks on the side for fun. Both are valid approaches!

      1. I completely understand that although probably not to the extent of pro musicians like yourself.
        Back in college I had a sidegig of playing debuts (like sweet 16 parties) and singing this one song “I’ll Be” by Edwin McCain.
        By the end of college I couldn’t even listen to it without throwing up a little.

  2. Thank you, Deanna, for stopping by! Love the new picture and branding btw.

    I get all of my pictures from the British Library. It has a free resource of old pictures from old books. I absolutely love digging through the illustrations and finding ones that match with the idea I’m writing about.

    This one isn’t the best quality, but it captures the idea quite well:)

  3. You framed this feeling perfectly! I’m in a similar camp of a goal-accomplishment being fairly anti-climatic and feeling void of routine after wrapping up a big project. I’ve been between projects at work, and that void of routine has measurably increased my anxiety…especially where the “next” is out of my control. I notice this too at home when I’m between house projects…feeling uneasy/anxious if I don’t have one underway.

    This feels like it’s synonymous with folks who generally crave structure (certainly, I fit that bill). Do you find you are in a similar boat?

    (also, the Ani/RBR model seems like a fine approach!)

  4. Thanks for commenting David! I definitely thrive on routine. I crave structure with just about everything – our house, groceries, budgeting, etc. Otherwise, life feels out of control! My husband has been interrupted with his house projects after the birth of our little one and I can tell he is simply craving that feeling of “checking something off the list.”

    I’ve found I have this trait in common with a lot of people I get along well with. I want to celebrate their successes and they are already moving on to the next thing or craving structure with a to-do list to fly through! When they can’t fly through it, they are frustrated but it usually has more to do with the lack of focus than lack of traditional “success.”

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