The Shit Sandwich
Back in my early twenties, I had a good friend who was an aspiring writer, just like me. I remember how he used to descend into dark funks of depression about his lack of success, about his inability to get published. He would sulk and rage.
“I don’t want to be sitting around,” he would moan. “I want this to all add up to something. I want this to become my job!”
Even back then, I thought there was something off about his attitude.
Mind you, I wasn’t being published, either, and I was hungry, too. I would’ve loved to have all the same stuff he wanted—success, reward, affirmation. I was no stranger to disappointment and frustration. But I remember thinking that learning how to endure your disappointment and frustration is part of the job of a creative person. If you want to be an artist of any sort, it seemed to me, then handling your frustration is a fundamental aspect of the work—perhaps the single most fundamental aspect of the work. Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process. The fun part (the part where it doesn’t feel like work at all) is when you’re actually creating something wonderful, and everything’s going great, and everyone loves it, and you’re flying high. But such instants are rare. You don’t just get to leap from bright moment to bright moment. How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going so great, is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation, and how equipped you are for the weird demands of creative living. Holding yourself together through all the phases of creation is where the real work lies.
I recently read a fabulous blog by a writer named Mark Manson, who said that the secret to finding your purpose in life is to answer this question in total honesty: “What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich?”
What Manson means is that every single pursuit—no matter how wonderful and exciting and glamorous it may initially seem—comes with its own brand of shit sandwich, its own lousy side effects. As Manson writes with profound wisdom: “Everything sucks, some of the time.” You just have to decide what sort of suckage you’re willing to deal with. So the question is not so much “What are you passionate about?” The question is “What are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?”
Manson explains it this way: “If you want to be a professional artist, but you aren’t willing to see your work rejected hundreds, if not thousands, of times, then you’re done before you start. If you want to be a hotshot court lawyer, but can’t stand the eighty-hour workweeks, then I’ve got bad news for you.”
Because if you love and want something enough—whatever it is—then you don’t really mind eating the shit sandwich that comes with it.
If you truly love having babies, for instance, then you don’t care about the morning sickness.
If you truly want to be a minister, you don’t mind listening to other people’s problems.
If you truly love performing, you will accept the discomforts and inconveniences of living on the road.
If you truly want to see the world, you’ll risk getting pickpocketed on a train.
If you truly want to practice your figure skating, you’ll get up before dawn on cold mornings to go to the ice rink and skate.
My friend back in the day claimed that he wanted to be a writer with all his heart, but it turns out he didn’t want to eat the shit sandwich that comes along with that pursuit. He loved writing, sure, but he didn’t love it enough to endure the ignominy of not getting the results he wanted, when he wanted them. He didn’t want to work so hard at anything unless he was guaranteed some measure of worldly success on his own terms.
Which means, I think, that he only wanted to be a writer with half his heart.
And yeah, soon enough, he quit.
Which left me hungrily eyeballing his half-eaten shit sandwich, wanting to ask, “Are you gonna finish that?”
Because that’s how much I loved the work: I would even eat somebody else’s shit sandwich if it meant that I got to spend more time writing.