The Fool’s Errand: the Fear of the Vanity Project

I had a friend this week tell me about what I think is a brilliant story concept. After expressing his enthusiasm about and desire to invest time and money into the project, he then wondered aloud if he were being delusional, and didn’t want it to just be a vanity project.

A lot of us in the creative community suffer the same fear, especially starting out. I’ve thought a lot about this over the past week, and this is what I would say to all of us facing similar doubts:

You have an inner demon.  Slay it.

You will never come up with an idea that will build itself and market itself without effort, guaranteed of success. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Do not fear failure. We learn from our failures. Then we try again.

The difference between a vanity project (or hobby) and a successfully marketed project that gains an audience: work. Don’t let fear of vanity short circuit your choice to vitalize your passion with work.

Work involves more than just building the project. Work involves all aspects of managing the release and distribution of your product, especially marketing: finding and reaching your audience. In the indy world (music and writing, among others) we sometimes call this your “tribe”.

I think the fear of “vanity project” stems from the idea that we might be delusional about the quality of our own work. We fear we might be touting crap while onlookers think, “Oh how cute. Another one who thinks they have talent.”

The thing is… we all start out somewhere. We all have to hone our craft, and though our early works might need a lot of practice, it is passion that sets us on the path. And this fear of vanity, of other people’s criticism or apathy, can short-circuit all the energy that passions initiation engenders. It’s like filling your car with gas and then punching a hole in the gas tank before you see where you might go.

I understand not wanting to have a vanity project (or be seen as having a vanity project)… but I think there’s a difference between a hobby and recreation and vanity. And, we live in a brave new world where independents (musicians and now writers) can no longer be automatically dismissed as vanity artists.

In light of a new landscape where independent art is a thing, what then makes a vanity project? A vanity project is something where you can’t take criticism and grow. It’s when you get constructive feedback and thumb your nose at it, refusing to learn. If you don’t fall into that trap, than the worst thing that can happen to you is that you’ve created something for personal enjoyment, and learned enough to make your next work better.

So embrace the passion and make your art! Don’t let your ego or pride trick you into “this might not be good enough.”  Screw that! If you don’t try, you’ll never know. Develop a thick skin. And no matter how good you become, there will always be a nay sayer who doesn’t like your work. Or that person who dismisses you as having no talent will express their jealous contempt for others who have learned to express themselves for the pure sake of joy in art.

Also, lack of success doesn’t mean the product wasn’t worth it. There are many things that can harpoon success, and some of it is timing and luck. Keep trying. If you love it, the work is its reward.

Do I think success will magically happen (with any concept)? No. There’s work, and luck. In short, there’s risk of expended effort. If you love the work for its own ends, then the expended effort is worth it (the satisfaction/love is your primary “payment”).

Those of us who want to go beyond personal enjoyment (the hobby aspect) include popularity (reaching an audience who is passionate about your work) and possibly financial success as well (those of us who would like to be able to support ourselves on our art).

Two parts to success:

  1. Crafting a worthy product. <–work
  2. Finding your audience and getting it into their hands. <–more work

Success doesn’t happen overnight. It will be work. There will be days when you wonder if it is worth the effort and heartache. People will quit on you, and maybe new people will come in. Stick to your vision, even when the initial passion subsides. (There are ways to reinvigorate that passion).

Building a world and breathing life to it by bringing its stories to an audience is a love affair… literally. With all the proverbial ups and downs. Feelings will get hurt along the way (but no hurt feelings need be carried forever). The reward will be giving live to a world, and igniting replications of that world in other peoples’ minds in a way that keeps them wanting to come back for more. (!)

And on that note, cheers until next time!

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