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The demons of success

Updated: Apr 11

Why success can sometimes feel scarier than failure.

Last month, I received a positive review from the local Hong Kong newspaper, — the South China Morning Post — for a short story I wrote that was published fiction anthology “Hong Kong Future Perfect”. At first, I was elated, close to euphoric that my piece, one of twenty submissions by twenty authors in the book, had been singled out as “the anthology’s most entertaining story”. But within a few hours, my joy turned into panic.

These were the thoughts that ran through my mind:

“I can’t share this with anyone, they’ll think I’m boasting. I’ll be seen as proud. I need to make sure nobody gets envious. Play it down, play it down, don’t you dare enjoy this, pride comes before a fall…”

“Now I’m really screwed, because everything else I write after this will just be crap. I’ll never be able to repeat this.”

“I don’t deserve this. It was a fluke.”

“Now that I have this, surely, I will be punished for it.”

I am fully aware of how crazy all this sounds, but this type of insanity seems to besiege me every time I stumble upon some small victory. I am writing this now in the hope that I’ll get to the root of the problem, and be rid of this dark cloud that seems to hover within all my silver linings.

As a child and teenager, I enjoyed acting. Every year, I took part in my school’s annual drama festival and spent the afternoons rehearsing my lines with friends. The year I turned 14, the school decided to give out an award for the festival, and I won “Best Actress” for my role as a male anesthesiologist named Doctor Morten who had to decide whether or not to save a drunk driver who had accidentally killed his best friend. There were no other awards given out, only “Best Actress”, which gave the win much more gravitas. I had not expected to take home a gilded trophy that day, as acting was always something I had done for fun. People who I didn’t even know came up to hug and congratulate me. I felt like a celebrity, really effing special beyond special, a real shining superstar.

The next year, the year after and the year after that, I did not audition for school plays like I used to, and I stopped acting altogether. Why? Because I got scared. Because my own sense of self-importance sabotaged whatever pleasure and fellowship acting had brought me. Up till now, I wonder if that quality of self-conscious vanity was already present within me before the win (I think it probably was), or if it was a companion of the trophy (perhaps the trophy exacerbated it).

I imagine that if I hadn’t won, I probably would have continued with theatre because I wouldn’t have taken the activity so damn seriously. It was the expectations I had created in my own head about what being “a good actress” meant that led me to opt out of the game entirely. In my young, self-aggrandized mind, those who have never won are safe because they have nothing to lose and get to go on living life as usual. Those who have won however, would have to live forever with the threat of becoming a former winner, a non-winner, a has-been, in other words, a big fat loser. This was my rational for quitting something that had once brought me much satisfaction.

I had another brush with success, or what I understand the world deems to be a small success, when I was 27 and studying journalism in London. A poem I wrote and posted on my blog caught the attention of a London publisher who then sent me a contract to write a book, which was published a year later. The e-book came out a few months before the paperback. I was working at a publishing house in Liverpool Street when I first saw my book “Rotten Jellybeans” available for purchase online. I was over the moon. I remember having dinner alone at a Japanese fast food restaurant that evening and thinking I had arrived. After my meal, I took the subway home and felt significantly larger and more brilliant than everyone else on the train.

I went back to my apartment, called my mother and one or two good friends to share the news, and then went to bed. At 2am, I awoke with a thumping heart and I began to feel very sad. I felt incredibly lonely, and soon realised that this strange sense of alienation was due to the fact that I had written a book, that it was published, and that no one close to me would truly be able to understand what this felt like. Somewhere underneath it all was the fear that my loved ones might think I was full of myself (which was what I was at the time) and love me less.

The trouble with worldly victories — which usually shows up in the form of recognition, lofty titles, fame, or the acquisition of material wealth, is that like grief, it is a highly personal and therefore isolating. At 2am that morning, it dawned on me that no matter how happy and supportive my loved ones were for me, they would never be able to truly share in my joy, to get to the inner sanctum of my rapture. Nor should they be expected to I suppose, because it is only the ones who have laboured and strained in private for their moment, who know everything they have defeated and sacrificed in order to attain their little glories.

If I think of my own reactions to the success of a loved one or friend, I am ashamed to admit, that while I am often glad for them, there is a quiet reservation to my gladness because that ugly thing called envy prevents me from prancing about in unabashed ecstasy when the good thing is happening to anyone who isn’t me.

In 2014, I read a news article, which has haunted me ever since. It reported the suicide of Swedish writer, filmmaker, journalist and former child actor Malik Bendjelloul. Just a year before, Bendjelloul had written and directed his debut documentary film “Searching for Sugarman”, which earned US$3,696,196 at the US box office, won a BAFTA, the Academy Award for “Best Documentary”, and the Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award for best international documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. In May 2014, at only 36-years old, Bendjelloul threw himself in front of a Stockholm metro train.

Ironically, “Searching for Sugarman” was about the life of a talented but overlooked artist — Detroit born, Mexican-American singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez who, thanks in part to Benjelloul’s journalistic efforts, ended up getting his long overdue 15 minutes of fame more than four decades after the release of his first album.

During his travels in South Africa, Bendjelloul had heard about Rodriguez, who according to locals was as popular as Jimi Hendrix, and whose sales records in the country outnumbered Elvis. It was rumoured that Rodriguez, who was virtually unknown in his home country had committed suicide, but this was not the case at all, and the musician was in fact alive and well in the U.S. In the film, Bendjelloul follows two South African fans on a hunt for the illusive Rodriguez. Through his documentary, Bendjelloul shows Rodriguez’s past, his passion for his work, his struggles as an artist living in obscurity, his battles with drug abuse and poverty, and concludes with footage of the aging musician rising like a phoenix at a concert in South Africa.

Through his life, Rodriguez had become well acquainted with failure and was close to sixty when he had his first taste of success. Bendjelloul on the other hand was young compared to many other Oscar winning documentary makers, and perhaps in some ways, unfortunate that his first attempt at documentary filmmaking was such a phenomenal global success. The contrasting story of the film’s creator and its subject made me think of a quote by American author, philosopher and salesman Elbert Hubbard — “Pray that success will not come any faster than you are able to endure it”. Words to live by indeed for all who covet worldly acclaim.

Speaking about Bendjelloul’s shocking and tragic departure, Nick Fraser, one of the jurors at the Sundance committee said, “Making feature documentaries is incredibly hard…you can’t reliably find another story as good as that…That’s the problem with documentary films. Of course you can’t say that had anything to do with his death — suicide is normally caused by other things. But the pressure must have been enormous.”

In a post Oscar win interview, when a reporter asked Bendjelloul about his future plans. He had replied, “Either I go travelling again looking for a story the same way I found this… or I’ll go with the best Hollywood offer… or I will become a Hollywood casualty.”

Bendjelloul’s sad end made me think about the potential dangers of success. Having some distance from my now fading “pinnacle moments”, (and having processed the concept of success as best I can on this page) I have come to understand than it is not as simple or as pleasing as it may at first seem.

Success brings along with it a host of problems — loneliness, suspicions about the motives of others when they approach you, anxieties about being a prisoner of your own arrogance, fears about not “cashing in” enough on a moment’s glory, or stretching it out long enough for sellability, worries about not being able to produce anything of similar value to one’s previous accomplishments, fear of never winning ever again, and the inability to simply accept and embrace the blessings.

The trouble with having too many or too large a win in life is that it distorts reality and can alter a person’s sense of self as well as their relationships with those around them. R&B popstar Billy Ocean once said, “Success can create more madness than happiness”. If one’s personal identity is largely dependent on one’s abilities, performance and achievements, then the entire person can unravel when confronted with the god-like illusions that immense success often conjures. Most of us chase success because we believe it will improve the way the world views us, but success also alters the way we see ourselves, and when one’s star rises too fast, the image we behold can be one that is difficult to maintain.

Recently, I had to pitch individuals for a selection of personality profiles for a lifestyle magazine. My editor was not interested in half of the names I suggested, even though these were people who were pretty well known in Hong Kong industry and high society. “What have they done in the last two months? They’re not worth reading about unless what they’re doing right now is newsworthy,” my editor had told me. I think that just about sums up the nature of success in our time.

To stop catastrophizing my little victories, I remind myself this: in the end all victories and all failures are but small events, because every single one is temporary. The bliss or the humiliation they induce, and the accolades or criticisms they call upon themselves are fleeting. I now think that the best way to act when given a little win is to hug it tightly (I know I will need the memory of it to sustain me through the next round of losses and rejections), let it go quickly, then proceed with the work at hand. I have come to understand that it is the work rather than the reward that is the more faithful and dependable joy-source in my creative and professional life.

I also remind myself that there is no one (no one that matters at least) waiting for me to trip up or fall, because nobody is watching me as closely as I watch myself, nobody is as ready to push me off a cliff as I am ready to jump. The truth is, nobody thinks about me as much as I think about myself, nobody measures my thoughts and actions the way I do, not even my loving parents, husband or good friends. What a pity! But mostly, what a bloody relief. I can now play the game the best way I know how, and need no longer be a slave to the demons of my own expectations.

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