The Myth of Making It

If the most financially and critically successful artists don’t feel successful, maybe there’s something wrong with how we think about success.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2019 |  7 minutes (1,849 words)

I think maybe I thought I made it a couple of times. Both of them had to do with jobs. Both were fleeting feelings — very much tied to age and stage of life — and I’ve never felt the same way again. I don’t know what “making it” would even look like now: maybe having enough money to buy a house (see: acquire an “asset”) and not be immediately broke? I’d probably still feel dissatisfied because I didn’t write some book or win some award or, like, live around enough trees. That lack of internal contentment, I think, is the problem. It’s what makes grasping at outside validation so fruitless. An already mythical idea, “making it” becomes ever more elusive when measured externally — by accolades, wealth, any sort of acquisition. It becomes as fungible as those things are, whether according to your own circumstances or to the world’s. You’re either competing with yourself to outdo what you’ve already achieved, or you’re competing with someone else for a bigger share of some pie (and there’s always someone else). Or maybe you aren’t consciously competing with anyone; you just have this kind of profound insecurity that follows you from triumph to triumph, serving only the market you buy into, in order to stave it off, but no one else.

Take Tyshawn Jones, who’s only 20 and has already been named Skater of the Year by Thrasher magazine, but who can’t stop talking about what he doesn’t have. Or actress Kirsten Dunst, who’s been nominated for award after award, but still feels uncelebrated. Or Bill Hader, whom The New York Times Magazine recently confronted about his show’s success. (It received 17 — 17! — Emmys nods.) The Barry creator conceded the win, but also acknowledged the difference between external praise and the way he berates himself internally. “It never ends,” he explained. “That’s the thing.” That’s the thing with making it, it sows the seeds of its own destruction. Because implicit in the promise that you’ll succeed is the assurance that you never will. 

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If the god in On Becoming a God in Central Florida is ambition, then the devil is an alligator. In the first episode of the Showtime series, which takes place in a 1992 that looks like 1982, a sweaty, mulleted version of Alexander Skarsgård named Travis Stubbs gets pulled into a pyramid scheme that obsesses him to such a degree that he can’t sleep. Starved of rest, he hallucinates a glowing white moose in the middle of the road (idk) and crashes into a swamp, where he is promptly consumed by a gator. Before his soul is claimed, his wife, Krystal (a big-haired, heavily lacquered Kirsten Dunst), balks at the millionaire idols he flashes in front of her face, accusing him of buying into a fantasy. In their wood-paneled bungalow, their newborn asleep, Krystal motions to their surroundings and says, “I know this is inconceivable to you, but this is more than I ever expected.” As irony would have it, the show arrived around the same time as an interview in which Dunst expressed dissatisfaction with a career that her character would likely be barely able to conceive of. In the viral clip taken from her appearance on SiriusXM’s In Depth with Larry Flick, Dunst confessed she had never felt empowered in her three decades of acting. “I’ve never been recognized in my industry. I’ve never been nominated for anything,” she said, adding, “I just feel like, ‘What did I do?’” As if to prove her point, Reuters tweeted and then deleted a post about her Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony, describing her as “best known for her role as Spiderman’s girlfriend.”

The truth is that Dunst has been recognized. She’s been nominated for multiple Golden Globes (the first at age 11!), for Cannes Best Actress, for an Emmy. She just got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for god’s sake. “I know that all you have is your work at the end of the day and that’s all people really are about,” Dunst told Flick. “I’m, you know, intelligent enough to know that and have perspective.” But she’s worked for three decades and what does she have to show for it — $25 million and a few award nods? Equivalent actress — this isn’t a science, but bear with me — Anne Hathaway is seven months younger, has worked 10 years fewer and has an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and an Emmy. Oh, and apparently she’s worth $35 million. As Dunst said, “Sometimes you’re like, ‘Mmm. It’d be nice to be recognized by your peers.’ You know what I mean?”

Yes, I fucking do know what you mean. Because I am you, but much much poorer and much much less famous. In her SiriusXM interview, Dunst wondered whether she played the game enough, but then admitted she always does what she’s supposed to. “It’s not like I’m rude or, like, not doing publicity or anything,” she said. Her frank bewilderment was achingly familiar. I have had the same conversations over and over and over again. I do good work, I show up, I promote. But I never get awards. When a stranger says they know my writing, I am genuinely shocked. From where I’m sitting, Dunst has made it. But then: Hathaway. In North America, wherever you’re sitting, you’re always aware that someone else is doing better. 

The cliché is that money can’t buy you happiness, but it’s increasingly obvious that what can help make you happy is not knowing how much more everyone else has and not storing your value in your savings account. This year’s World Happiness Report named Finland the most contented country on the planet despite it trailing both Canada and the U.S. in gross domestic product. The highest-ranking countries had not only healthy incomes but also robust social support systems, freedom, and generosity, none of which have much to do with making you feel accomplished but are rather about making you feel as worthy as everyone else. In Scientific American, Finnish well-being expert Frank Martela explained Finland’s position in the context of human beings’ impulse to compare. “If everybody else is doing better than you, it is hard to be satisfied with your life conditions, no matter how good they objectively are,” he wrote. “By not displaying, let alone exaggerating, their own happiness, Finns might help each other to make more realistic comparisons, which benefits everybody’s happiness.” 

The American Dream, that anyone can work hard and ultimately come out on top, is like an anti-happiness plan: A good life is not measured by social support or freedom or empathy, but by material gain. Showing off your wealth shows off your success, which shows off your value as a human being. This goes double for artists, whose livelihoods are that much harder to secure. Triple for marginalized communities, who have to work that much harder than everyone else. While all of this striving is a boon for capitalism, it’s a disaster for the people living under it.

I don’t want to add patriarchy to this whole thing, but why not. It’s the part that genders success so that Dunst complains about recognition, while men complain about money. It makes sense if you think about what guys are traditionally supposed to be: powerful breadwinners. This is where Tyshawn Jones lives. In a sprawling profile this weekend, The New York Times Magazine called him New York’s first skateboarding superstar. But even though this kid barely out of his teens has claimed the highest honor in his field — Thrasher’s cover and Skater of the Year Award — won a sponsorship deal with Supreme, cofounded a hardware and apparel company, opened a restaurant, and even designed his own shoe, none of it is enough. He doesn’t have a Vogue cover, for one thing. That’s power. And he doesn’t have Nyjah Huston money. “Everybody don’t like him, but I respect him,” Jones said. “He one of the only niggas who really got rich off skating, like really rich, like $2 million crib, like Lamborghini — I think that’s tight. There’s skaters who can’t even get by with $500 a month.” There’s a big gap between $6 million (Huston’s reported net worth) and $6,000, but Jones isn’t comparing down, he’s comparing up. That’s what successful people do. 

So it’s either about recognition or it’s about money, money or recognition. But both come second to the end goal of making it, the Platonic ideal of the Valuable Citizen. Self-actualization, community, autonomy … those things are nice, but they aren’t particularly profitable for a capitalist society. Material is. And measuring success materially keeps success perennially elusive because the standard of comparison is always shifting under your feet. This insecurity keeps the gears of patriarchal capitalism turning as we stumble over one another to feed them and ourselves. The market exploits and perpetuates the constant feeling that we’re not good enough, or, in Jones’s case, not secure enough, by convincing us it has the answer. Every payday or product whispers to us that we’re that much closer to making it — whatever it is — without ever actually allowing us to get there.

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“Finally it has happened to me right in front of my face / My feelings can’t describe it / Finally it has happened to me right in front of my face / And I just cannot hide it.” The 1992 CeCe Peniston song “Finally” is about love, but in On Finding God it’s about making it. The dance hit blasts right after Krystal decides to take over her husband’s dream, the one that turned him into gator food. The animal now lies skinned in her garage, but what might have acted as an exorcism has instead resulted in transference. If the alligator was the devil claiming Krystal’s husband’s acquisitive soul, Krystal now appears to have inherited it. But this time around she’s not the one being sacrificed; she’s all in on the scheme, and everyone around her serves as the oblation. 

This is success in America now, where the closer we get to whatever its manifestation is — whether it’s wealth or acknowledgment or something else — the further we get from our humanity. The only way to get out of it is to fundamentally understand that making it is a myth. Rather than making a pact with the devil, which is to say, buying into validation we know will never be enough, we have to reject the premise of the pact. Bill Hader, as insecure as any of us, chooses to coexist with his self doubt. While this may be disappointingly human to some, his is not a fantasy life based on comparison — it’s him at his most honest. As renowned dancer Martha Graham famously observed, it is here that an artist’s magic resides: “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.