Yesterday while listening to an audiobook, I learned that F. Scott Fitzgerald died thinking that his greatest work was a failure.
He earned just $2,000 from The Great Gatsby. In today’s money, it represents a bit more, and he was in the top 1% of income earners in his time, but this was his major novel. He put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into it, but he got paid the same as or less than he did for his short stories. How depressing!
Now, there are different definitions of success, and financial success isn’t everything. But Fitzgerald expected Gatsby to be a huge financial success and was disappointed.
Today, the work is taught in schools, which is how I became familiar with it. I had to write a paper on the novel as part of my high school English class, and I remember someone saying, “Hah, good luck! That’s the teacher’s favorite book.”
So I made sure to do my research well. I even read the book twice before writing my paper early enough to be able to edit it instead of trying to get it all done on the last day. I got an A, and I found I quite enjoyed the book as well.
Incidentally, I learned that The Great Gatsby is still not in the public domain, despite the author having been dead for three-quarters of a century.
The audiobook mentioned a number of Fitzgerald’s peers who are widely recognized today as geniuses as well, but when they actively published, they experienced modest financial success. The very financially successful literature was apparently kind of terrible and written by authors who are all but forgotten, but people couldn’t get enough of them.
So what’s the lesson here as an indie game developer?
No one has it easy. Fitzgerald was a popular figure, and his greatest work still couldn’t find traction with the public in his lifetime, despite the praise he got from fellow writers.
Most people look to the great successes for inspiration. What was Howard Schultz’s secret to success for Starbucks? How did Mark Zuckerberg make Facebook the juggernaut it is? See what Notch did with Minecraft?
They are all human. They all failed somewhere. Some found great financial success, while others didn’t.
We don’t often hear about the failures of successful people. We forget about the struggle and look for the glamorous.
Then we look at our own results and worry we don’t measure up. We think we’ll never be great ourselves, because we don’t recognize that our failures are exactly the same kinds of failures that the successful people had.
When you publish a game, it’s entirely possible that no one will find out about it. You pour your heart and soul into a game for months or years, and it could flop. Meanwhile, you see other games take over the world and hear that the developers made them in a few weeks in their spare time.
You see huge and successful indie games, games that get all the press and sales, and you compare your efforts to what you perceive as someone’s effortless genius. It can be heartbreaking and frustrating.
Some of us stop bothering to try.
But failure is part of the process of succeeding.
Ideally, you get to success while you can still enjoy it. You just need to make the attempt and get past the failure first.