A few weeks ago I was speaking to a friend who has been on Instagram and building her “Influencer” status for five years. She’s enjoyed some success with it, with just over 13k followers and she’s been able to enjoy some really wonderful experiences because of it. But, when asked why she hadn’t posted regularly the last few months her answer was swift: “I don’t enjoy it anymore. I’m burned out. I did this for five years and I just don’t enjoy it now.”
Burn out is a very real thing everyone will experience at some time in their life, despite the hobby, passion, or career. One could argue that the famous “Mid-Life Crisis” is a symptom of burn-out, where you’re just so exhausted from working and paying bills and raising a family that you sort of snap. No matter who you are or what you do, burn out *will* happen to you. But, it’s what we do in the midst of the exhaustion, frustration, and disappointment that defines our journey.
Something I personally have struggled with is seeing my peers skyrocketing past me and gaining “success” more quickly than I have. An example that immediately springs to mind is a plus-sized blogger who started after I did and was a smaller account than I was, but within a year had quadrupled her follower count, leaving me in the dust. I enjoy close to 4000 followers on Instagram whereas this account now has just over 20k followers. And listen, there are a lot of reasons for this (the content we create is different, for example), but regardless of the reasons, the feelings I had were the same: she is more successful and she’s getting that success faster than me and it sucks.
Comparison is the killer of contentment but even when you know this and you say this to yourself, it doesn’t always make it feel better. So, something else I’ve been adding to my daily affirmations is the acknowledgment that this journey we are all on is not actually a race to see who gets there first: it’s a marathon.
In a Capitalist economy and society, survival of the fittest is the foundation upon which everything is built. If you’re too slow, that’s just too damn bad. American Culture is highly competitive in almost every aspect for this reason so it makes sense that it bleeds over into our hobbies or careers. We are driven to make it and make it FAST. Anything other than immediate/overnight success feels like failure. You can see this mentality play out in Internet Culture especially, where even my 10 year old is hip to virality and the allure of it.
Everyone in America wants to be an overnight sensation, even if it doesn’t really mean viable or enduring success.
Before internet viral fame, winning the lottery was THE thing everyone wanted in order to gain overnight success. That doesn’t mean people don’t still play the lottery, but there was a frenzied culture around it in the 80’s and 90’s that doesn’t quite exist now. Everyone knew about the Powerball and played it. It was a huge cultural behemoth when I was growing up and nearly everyone dreamed of winning either the Lotto or Publishers Clearing House. (I wonder how many of today’s teens even know what that is?)
In the early aughts a series of specials began to air on TV that were catching up with past lottery winners to see what their lives were like “now”, and sadly, most of them had already lost every bit of money they’d won, regardless of the amount. It was sad to see these people living in their trailers or broken down houses (or even homeless) after having won such massive amounts. The overnight success didn’t actually prepare them for the reality of their wealth so most of them spent it all within the first year. And once it was gone, it was just gone.
This is called the Lottery Curse and it’s such a bizarre but common phenomenon that it has spawned countless YouTube videos, documentaries, and investigative articles. The average lotto winner loses all their winnings within 5 years, with some winners losing their lives as well. Some of these stories are horrific and tragic, but if you’re interested in learning more, I recommend E!’s “Curse Of The Lottery” series.
Unfortunately, viral internet fame has had similar effects. In 2008 “Fred” was slated to take over the world. One of the first YouTube viral sensations (and the very first YouTube channel to hit 1 million subscribers), Lucas Cruikshank’s character, a percosious 6 year old named Fred Figgelhorn, exploded online before bleeding over into major media fame, with three Nickelodeon movies and a short-lived TV show built around his franchise, as well as guest starring roles on several Nickelodeon television series. Fred was seemingly unstoppable.
But, viral internet fame is fleeting and within a few short years the Fred character was passé. Cruikshank’s fanbase aged out of Fred’s antics and Cruikshank himself felt he’d outgrown the character. Today Fred is an all but forgotten figment of the past and while Cruikshank still makes YouTube videos (with a large portion being about his time as the character Fred), his internet viral fame is far behind him.
And Cruikshank isn’t the exception. Across the board there are viral internet stars from nearly every genre that have risen to success quickly and then crashed into anonymity just as fast. We see this play out in major media and other industries as well. In music you have the One Hit Wonders, in the film industry you have stars who explode onto the red carpet only to be forgotten again a few years later, and in business you have hotshot app developers or business tycoons who are on top of the world one moment then filing bankruptcy the next.
These extremes are the reality of a culture fueled by instant gratification. And this need for instant gratification drives today’s Instagrammers, bloggers, content creators, and influencers as well. So, even I have to take a step back sometimes and remind myself that getting “there” fast doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll stay “there”.
There’s a nursery rhyme that perfectly summarizes my point. It’s one we all know but one I think we can all bear to hear again.
Once upon a time there was a tortoise and a hare. The hare was a bully, who teased and taunted the tortoise about how slow he was. Finally the tortoise had enough of the jeering and agreed to race the hare to decide once and for all who was the superior animal. The hare readily agreed and full of confidence and fervor, he shot out past the starting line once the race began.
He zoomed and zoomed at high speed, his arrogance outweighing his intelligence. Thinking himself the fastest animal and very clever for it, he found himself exhausted from running so fast and so hard. Feeling assured the tortoise would never catch up, the hare tucked himself behind a tree and gave himself over for a nap.
Unbeknownst to the napping hare, the tortoise had caught up. Despite being slow going, the tortoise had endurance so he didn’t need to stop for a rest. He quietly and without showmanship passed the sleeping hare and then continued on his way.
Sometime later the hare awoke from his nap. He looked down the lane towards the race’s starting point and did not see the tortoise so he thought to himself that the tortoise was so slow he was probably still far, far behind him. His ego inflated he shot out from his tree and flew through the rest of the race. As the finish line came into view however he saw something he did not expect: the tortoise, finishing the race ahead.
He pushed even harder now, his blood boiling, his ears hot, recognizing he must have slept too long and he would never live down the embarrassment of losing to the tortoise, but he was too late. The tortoise crossed the line, winning the race.
While Aesop left the interpretation of his story intentionally ambiguous, the meaning I have always taken is this: being faster or “better” at something doesn’t always mean you’re more clever or more likely to succeed. At the end of the day what matters most is determination and endurance. (And not being an arrogant jerk.)
These are the things that remind me to keep going, especially on days when I feel that tickle of comparison and I give myself over to envy. It’s not about how quickly I arrive at my destination, it’s about how long I stay there when I do arrive and who I have become along the way.
It’s not a race, my friends. It’s a marathon. May we all run it well.