The Finish is Underwhelming

In 2020, while the world was frozen from Covid, I flew around the country spending hours with Tim Kennedy, his family, his friends, his adversaries, his fans, his critics, and his fellow soldiers, learning story after story about his life.  I knew a lot of them, but there were a bunch more I had never heard.  You see, Tim and I were writing a book originally titled Failure Isn’t Final, that after concern from our publisher and a recommendation from my wife Suzy, became Scars and Stripes.  I finished my research in November of that year and built a book proposal.  Tim and I received 6 out of 7 offers, which was a cool little victory.  I had a nice bottle of wine with my wife that night.

I spent much of 2021 writing deep into the night, as the daytime hours were demanded by Diesel Jack Media and the incredible clients who trust us with their businesses.  I delivered the final manuscript one month to the day after our return from Afghanistan, where I unexpectedly ended up being part of a twelve-man rescue operation.  It was a nice feeling to be done with the book - the first book, in fact, that I have ever written.  My wife and I went out to dinner and pretended that we don’t live the most hectic lifestyle imaginable.

I spent much of 2022 marketing Scars and Stripes.  My team at Diesel Jack Media made emails, videos, drawings, skits, stories, and anything under the sun to make this book successful.  When all was said and done, I project-managed every aspect of this book and its delivery to the world from 1 January 2020 until 7 June, 2022, when it was released.  

For two years and six months, I worked tirelessly towards the objective that Tim and I and just about every author who has ever completed a book shared: make our book a New York Times bestseller.

Four weeks ago, we did it. For the rest of my life, I will get to say I am a New York Times Bestselling Author.  And my reaction?  Meh.  

Actually, that’s generous.

When the list came out, our publisher called and emailed, excited.  “You did it!” they exclaimed.  My response, after perusing the list, was to ask what we did wrong.  I wanted to know what resulted in our failure.  The “failure” I spoke of was that we weren’t number one.  Tim had the same question.  We were just doing an After Action Review (AAR).  We knew we sold more individual books than anyone else (bulk orders don’t count towards the list, allegedly), but yet the Times put us in 7th.  We wanted to know why so that the next time either of us wrote a book, we could do better.

Our publisher did not take this well.  They’re used to the exuberance of a writer that has achieved a status symbol.  They expected excitement.  Our reaction kind of ruined it for them, and I did feel a little bad about that.  I just don’t revel anymore.  I’ve long ago given up on thinking that way.  Why?

Every single time I have achieved something, it has been underwhelming, because I assigned the goal more gravitas than it deserved.  Once you do something, it’s well…done.

Think about your own life.  How many times have you said to yourself, “If I can just make this much money, I will be happy” or “If I can just accomplish this thing, I’ll be happy” or “If I can only achieve this goal, my life will be better?”  And then when you get there, when you get the promotion, or win the championship, or get the accolade, you realize that not much is different.

I made this mistake for years.  Always searching for the next great thing.  Never realizing any kind of real fulfillment.  The moment of bliss fades quickly and you’re left with your old life plus a checkmark on a list of “Things I’ve Done in My Life.”  So you set a new goal.  Rinse.  Repeat.

At some point, it finally hit me that happiness, like success, is not a goal but a process.  I enjoy telling stories - whether it is a narrative film, a documentary, or a book.  Because I enjoy it, I work hard at it - I try to do my best.  I try to improve my style, skills, and constantly self-assess.  My reward is the work.  My reward is knowing that I am a better writer, speaker, and filmmaker than I was a year ago.  I hope to be better still a year from now.

And once I made the transition from worrying about the goal to investing in the work, a funny thing happened.  I became content with myself and my life.  And my contentment led to better work, and that led to more success, not just for me but for everyone in my universe.

My life got infinitely better when I stopped worrying about the outcome.  It isn’t that I don’t want to win, or reach the top of the mountain, or whatever.  I very much wanted to hit number one on the New York Times list.  But even if we hadn’t made the list, I would be proud of the work I did, because I know it is the best I have ever written, and I know I put my all into every word.

The factor I could control was the input - my work.  The factor I could not control was whether the New York Times editorial board deemed it worthy.  So to place my happiness in the hands of a group I cannot control, would be a little insane.  But yet, we all have done it many times in our lives.

Now to be fair, I should have figured this out earlier.  When I was twelve or so, I was upset about losing a judo match that was important to me, and I complained to my dad.  I had done far better than I ever had previously, but I didn’t beat the guy I was gunning for - I fell short of my goal.  My dad pointed out that a year ago this guy was destroying me, and that I had come within seconds of beating him, and that my pursuit of that goal took me from being a pretty poor judoka, to being a pretty good one.  The work I put in improved me significantly, regardless of whether I had the gold or silver medal.  I kind of begrudgingly admitted that he was right.  He then shared a refrain he has echoed his entire life: that a good life is about focusing on the journey, not the destination, because in the long run, the destination is always the same.

It took about thirty years for that to sink in with me.

I hope you guys are smarter.