The overnight success. No one likes to be categorized
this way, even when fame found them early.
Those who have “made it” are quick to point out the years of hard work they put in before gaining notoriety. The times they missed weddings and holidays. The opportunities they passed up while dedicating themselves to their craft.
And I don’t doubt these stories. They’re alluring. They’re inspiring.
But the overcoming, the self-made man narrative — I don’t buy it.
Because I’ve read the bios, the about pages. The ones that list the celebrities they supported. The articles that talk about the social circles they ran in. The positions that they previously held with big names before launching their own business.
These all send the same message: do a good enough job and you’ll attract the right person. Once you do, they’ll cast you into the spotlight, referring you to all of their friends.
But what happens when you build a career out of appealing to others, waiting for the right opportunity to come along?
If your network is your net worth, is it more important to focus on your vision or what others want from you?
I’m Kim Wensel and this is Resentfully Yours, a limited series podcast where we examine, adjust, and reframe the expectations of a creative career.
The topics on this show explore how to avoid resentment when you’re feeling misunderstood, overworked, and undervalued. Because as a working creative the question isn’t IF you’ll feel this way, it’s WHEN.
This series focuses on how to get back to work that’s life giving, not life sucking; making your own definition of “making it;” and ditching the excuses that are keeping us from reaching our true potential.
I always considered myself to be the one who supported people in the spotlight. I was the implementer, not the visionary. I found my self-worth in producing other peoples’ brains.
I was the one who took pride in hearing someone say, “Wow, I don’t know how you do it all!” I strived to not just specialize in one thing, but all the things. I would respond to every email within 5 minutes, proving my usefulness and showing I was ready to step in whenever they needed me.
I became an all-star at abandoning myself to feel useful to others.
So it shouldn’t have been a shock to me when a client called me out for it.
We were sitting in her living room, diagramming her consulting offer. She asked to take me through the process to see how it might work with her clients. I was game.
As a career consultant, her superpower was telling people things others wouldn’t — pinpointing what was holding them back so they could face it and overcome it quickly. This isn’t the right approach for everyone, but for high-performers who want to achieve, to make an impact, there’s nothing better than a tell-it-like-it-is support system.
She looked at me and said, “You know what’s getting in your way? You’re a martyr.”
If this had been anyone else I would have been offended. But with her I knew it was coming from a place of love and understanding — from a person who saw the motivation behind my behaviors as well-intentioned. So I stayed open.
“Here let’s look up the definition,” she said.
A martyr: someone who sacrifices their own wants and needs in order to do things for others. They don’t help with a joyful heart but rather out of obligation or guilt.
That’s exactly what I felt after spending ten years in the nonprofit field — the strong desire to make a difference but doing so begrudgingly, feeling like I wasn’t being acknowledged or paid enough.
I have a distinct memory of driving to my last job. I was on Route 50 headed towards DC, having just dropped off the kids at daycare. I was running late, tears rolling down my face as I thought about the workload that would meet me when I arrived at my desk.
I was crying because I was overwhelmed. I was crying because there was no end in sight. I was crying because the thought crossed my mind that if I got in an accident there was no one who knew how to do my job — no one to meet the deadlines. I would be the reason we lost thousands in funding.
Feeling like you’re irreplaceable is simply a coping mechanism — codependency as some might label it. We’re all replaceable. I had simply gone too far down a path of saying yes to start saying no.
Several months later I was sick, posted up in bed. Remember, I had toddlers at this point, little germ machines.
My body was tired. My mind was racing. My spirit was crushed. But life went on for everyone else. I lashed out at my husband: “Am I going to have to end up in the hospital with a mental breakdown for anyone to pay attention?”
And yet, I pushed on.
Classic martyr move.
THE AMBITION TRAP
NCAA research shows that 3.5% of men’s high school basketball players and 4.2% of women go on to play in college. Of those, just over 1% of male college players will play in the NBA and 0.8% of women in the WNBA.
Now I’m a writer, not a math person. But with those odds it seems pretty rare, even if you’re a star athlete, that you’re going to make a career out of the sport.
Yet it doesn’t stop youth from dedicating themselves, dreaming of beating the odds.
Athletics teach us many lessons, from teamwork to dealing with loss. Sports shaped me to be the person I have become today.
But at what point does competition with others turn into competition with ourselves?
In a 2017 Harvard Business Review article titled “Happiness Traps,” author Annie McKee talks about striving as a habit. She tells the story of a woman who’s accomplished much, but feels disenchanted.
In the article she introduces the term “ambition trap,” a topic I’m keenly familiar with.
Chasing goals for the sake of hitting targets, of simply being the best.
Maybe this is something you’ve experienced yourself. It wasn’t a question of whether you’d secure a job in your field, it had to be with the best in your field. Vacations were time off from your day job, but time on for your side gig. Someone told you it took two years to advance and you took that as a challenge to get promoted in under 24 months.
This is what it looks like — to become a self-imposed yes man or yes woman.
To feel pressure to do better, be better than everyone else. Just to prove yourself. Just to show that you could handle whatever was thrown at you.
But while we’re busy striving and proving, we lose patience. Why hasn’t this amounted to something bigger? She doesn’t deserve that — she’s not even that talented!
We hear ourselves becoming resentful when we aren’t recognized for our efforts.
It’s always an option to stop but when we feel this call of duty, we find comfort in the deeply carved habits of perfecting and proving, to slow down means nothing other than to get behind.
HOW TO LISTEN TO YOUR INNER VOICE
Last Memorial Day weekend I found myself stuck in a rut. It was technically a holiday, but my mind was prisoner to solving the riddle: If I don’t like what I’m doing now, what should I be doing?
I went to HomeGoods and picked up three books featuring people that seemed to be alive — Chanel: the making of a collection, Surf Girl, and Living on Vacation.
The titles give away what I was seeking: inspiration — to feel fully in love with life.
Somehow I thought that I could simply absorb this by reading about others who were feeling it — as if I could just get through my rut by reading about others who were happy.
In this season I was overcommitted. I had taken on too many projects, not enforced deadlines, and had put my personal needs to the side. The length of my home to-do list matched my work to-do list and all I really wanted to do was sit in the sun doing NOTHING.
I had given in endlessly to people pleasing, offered favors while not expecting them in return.
The following week I requested a call with my coach under the auspices of “trying to figure out how to structure my services.” I thought a formal services guide would fix my overdeliering and boundary issues.
I started telling her what people were coming to me for. “It’s so frustrating that people are coming to me after they’ve hired a designer. They think I should just be able to deliver without strategy because their designer is already creating a strategy brief.”
“This other person doesn’t have the budget to hire a designer and I know my way around the backend of Squarespace. Should I offer her that?”
Immediately she refocused me, “I’m not interested in what anyone else wants you to do. WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
Then it hit me. No one had asked me that before. I was only focused on how I could serve my audience.
Conversations about upleveling had never focused on the deepest desires I had left unspoken — so big and seemingly unattainable, especially when they had NOTHING to do with what my sales page described.
We do this, don’t we? Ask others what we should be doing. Putting the power in their hands to dictate our worth and worthiness.
To this point I had positioned my entire career around the desires of others, hoping that if I was impressive enough, I would be discovered and someone else would be able to name my expertise for me.
This day in May marked the beginning of the end of that way of thinking.
Over the next four months I would start to say no, force myself to get quiet and imagine if I could be doing anything, what I would choose to do.
I would say things out loud that made no sense on paper. Things like, “I’ve always imagined gathering women around a fire pit, under an open sky, helping them excavate their own story and explore how to share it.”
And, “I want to speak. Not teach, but share. I want to make an impact like Glennon Doyle — not proving I’m some kind of guru. But sharing the journey and embracing the messiness and exposing the meaning in all of so that others can see it for themselves.”
I would follow up those off-handed comments with a self-deprecating joke or uneasy laugh because I couldn’t take myself seriously. I couldn’t imagine letting myself pursue a path that was so different from my reality.
To write for myself rather than for others.
To welcome the softer side of business by talking about things like failure and personal development and the importance of communication.
But there was a reason I struggled through biostatistics and research classes in grad school. My superpower has never been analytical. It was my intuition, my ability to read a room and make someone feel like they were the only person that mattered.
After spending 20 years focused on what society had seemed as important, it was time to open myself to another way.
BEING ALL THE THINGS TO ALL THE PEOPLE
In a world focused on showing up as your best self, we polish our reputation to get ahead. And in doing so we lose sight of who we really are.
I’ve shared clips of what this unfolding and unlearning was like for me. But don’t get it twisted — there were many moments of doubt, feelings of anxiety and fear. Just like anytime we make a major life decision.
One of the things I stopped doing was trades — you give me something, I’ll give you something and we’ll both benefit without having to pay for the service.
Trades were common in the early days of my business, when cash was limited but vision was large. What I didn’t recognize was when I was still willing to offer my services for free without getting something of value in return.
I saw a meme that was supposed to help you communicate the “no” when asked for a trade. It said: I’m unable to work for free to make you money.
How poignant. How simple. How real.
As we turn the clocks on another year we think about our ambitions. Many of those are revenue driven. Most of my years have been.
But after the transformative year I had in 2021, I realized this year doesn’t have to be a growth year. It can be a nourishing year — a year to settle into a groove.
It can be that for you too. There’s no shame in saying, “I’m happy where I am. I feel ease in my days. I can take time for myself and make a good living.”
It’s hard for us ideas people. The ones who feel a physical urge to create, to serve, to evolve. But not every year needs to show an upward trajectory. In fact, I’ve only found clarity in stillness.
This could have been an episode on becoming a specialist, being known for just one thing.
Because when you’re trying to be all the things to all the people, the collateral damage from that is that people don’t really know what you do.
I still have clients that tell me they aren’t quite sure how to explain the magic that happens while working together.
But the impetus for talking about this was much more than feeling compelled to niche down or become the go-to expert in a specific field.
It was about taking the long-view to our careers. Understanding that if we’re going to be working for decades and we closely identify with our work, how can we be setting the targets rather than responding to those that others have set for us.
In other words, if creative careers are an endurance sport and not a sprint, how do we need to approach them? What do we need to factor in so that we can rise to the top simply by outlasting?
I’ve been in business long enough to see people come and go. To see the pivots, to watch them move from 1:1 work to scaling courses and educational products.
When I talk to those newer to business, focused on making money there’s this desire to try to find a strategy that will attract people with money. The assumption is that if you can deliver what they’re looking for you’ll be successful.
I’m gonna take the unpopular opinion and say success comes when you stick around — when you commit to your internal compass and show up sharing your personal strengths day in and day out.
Cause it’s much harder to introduce yourself in new ways than it is to consistently gain traction.
And if you’re unsure of what you’re great at, at what your heart is pulling you towards, maybe consider some advice I was given in a time like this. You can’t see it if you’re sitting on top of it.
As much as we want to force clarity, pushing through won’t get us there.
The next time you want to do something that makes no sense on paper but also makes your heart and mind explode — do it. Put your thoughts out there. Make some noise. Be unpopular.
Who knows — maybe just being different, doing things that no one is asking for, is actually what people don’t know they’re looking for.