I’ve never wanted to be popular. In fact, I’ve always been pretty prideful about going my own way and not trying to get people to like me. I saw it as some perverse badge of honor.
But I recently had a disturbing thought. What if I believed I never cared about popularity simply because I was afraid I couldn’t be what other people wanted? What if I told myself I didn’t care about being popular because I didn’t think I could do it?
I’m asking myself some difficult questions lately, not because I’m smart or wise, but because I’m desperate. I’m not happy with the results I’ve been getting in my life. After an early life that seemed to promise an easy ride to incredible success, I somehow got off track. I stumbled and humiliated myself.
I’m sick of not becoming the success everyone thought I would be. I’m sick of trying to force myself to accept lowered expectations. And I’m finally sick enough to ask myself what I’m doing wrong — and what it’s going to take to become the success I wanted to be.
I fear that might require me to care — for the first time in my life — about making myself popular. And that terrifies me more than I can explain.
For many years, people pushed me toward doing something on talk radio. A friend of mine started encouraging me to try it when I was no more than about 30 years old and has brought it up periodically ever since. There have been countless times when random strangers talking to me for the first time — in person or on the phone — have told me that I should be on the radio. They’ve said my personality and voice were perfect for radio.
After years of being encouraged by others, I gave it serious thought. Then I turned my attention to podcasting instead, since that was easier to get into. But I didn’t do much about it, because I was afraid to try — mostly because I was afraid to be a mediocre beginner.
My very insightful ex-wife used to tell me that whatever success I found was going to require me to fully understand that I — myself as a person — am the “product” that I have to sell. She instinctively understood that I’m not ever going to become a big success by making products that people are going to want. She understood that I am the product, even if neither of us could quite understand what that meant in practical terms.
But I have some old personal flaws which have been tripping me up for years. And I’m seeing that if I’m ever going to fulfill the promise which I showed as a teen-ager, I’m going to have to suck up my pride and finally allow myself to be a mediocre beginner at something.
I’ve rarely allowed myself to do anything at which I couldn’t be a professional from the start. I happened to be talented enough and bright enough to be a very good newspaper editor from the day I started when I was still in college. When I was 21 years old, I was the youngest managing editor of a daily newspaper in the country at the time. I was proud of myself — really prideful, to be honest — because I was good enough to be a pro from the start. I was faking it at first, but nobody seemed to know that.
Some things aren’t so easy to be professional at from the first day, though. I’ve never known anybody who became great at radio or television performance who didn’t spend a lot of time learning the business and honing his or her skills. The same is true of filmmaking. There might be the occasional prodigy who’s great from his first short film and never faces a learning curve, but I’ve never known one of them.
I have had too much pride to allow myself to be mediocre. So I’ve avoided anything which wouldn’t allow me to walk in and impress people from the start. I shouldn’t admit that — even to myself — but I know it’s true.
A couple of nights ago, I randomly came across an interview on YouTube with someone who I knew many years ago. The interview was on a semi-major independent show — and I was shocked. The person I knew was never impressive back then and he wasn’t impressive in this interview. But the show’s host was treating him like a respected equal as an invited guest expert.
There was nothing impressive about his performance or his knowledge. His voice was awful. He doesn’t look good on camera. There was nothing insightful about what he said. There was nothing that would make you think he had anything going for him. But he has somehow turned persistence and desire into a moderate level of success as an expert on a subject about which he’s passionate.
Part of me was appalled at this, but another part was intrigued and envious. The longer I live, the less sure I am about the causes of success. But what it forced me to admit to myself is that my long track record of running from being a beginner — of my refusal to be mediocre to start a thing — is depriving me of the chance to ever become good enough to be excellent at something that can bring me success.
So here’s where two scary things come together.
First, I see that I have to allow myself to be a mediocre beginner. Whether it’s film or talk radio or whatever form of media, I’m not going to set the world on fire for my first effort. Nobody is going to tell me that I’m the talent they’ve all been waiting for. Instead, I’m going to have to do some mediocre work in order to have any hope of becoming excellent at something.
Second, if I want success, there’s only one measure of it in media. I have to care about being popular — at least popular enough to find a sufficient audience. I have to swallow my pride and take the risk of doing things which a lot of people will reject. And I have to consciously figure out how to find my kind of people — and I have to sell myself to them. I have to become popular with a big enough audience.
Both of these ideas terrify me, but it seems to me that I have to accept both of them if I ever want to have any hope of attaining success.
As much as these things scare me, though, I’m even more terrified of continuing on the path I’m on. Although I’ve had some moderate forms of success in the past, I jumped off that path and drove myself into a deep hole close to 10 years ago. By about seven years ago, I was flat broke and had lost all direction in life.
Today, I’m better off than I was, but I’m still not living anything close to the life I had always wanted to live — the life I had always thought I was capable of living. And I’m sick enough of that to find myself approaching these scary issues and saying, “OK, I guess I have to accept this and fix it.”
For the last couple of months, I’ve been considering a new podcast, very different from the ones I’ve tried in the last couple of years.
My background was in news and politics, so I’ve decided to take advantage of that by doing a show of news and commentary. I’m not sure what the final form will take, but I see it as “news for people who hate news.” It’s already morphed in my mind from what I originally conceived, so I’m not sure what the final form will be.
But what I know for certain is that this will require me to be professional, entertaining, funny, insightful and somewhat controversial. And to get to that point, it’s going to mean allowing myself to produce a lot of really mediocre shows before I’ll have a chance of really being any good.
I’m now committed to the idea. I’m going to do the show, but I’m taking my time in putting it together. Since I‘ve started two podcasts already (and ended both quickly), I have a stronger idea of the mechanics of podcasting than I did in the beginning. Now, I’m trying to learn how to do it professionally. I’m thinking like a beginner.
I’m reading a book by a radio consultant who says it takes about three years for a radio station or program to be good enough and to find its audience. So I’m asking myself, “Are you willing to be mediocre at this for at least a couple of years?”
That’s tough for me, but I’m trying to face reality about what’s ahead. I hate to think it might take three years to really get good at it and to find a substantial audience, but I find myself thinking that my life would be infinitely better if I had started this three years ago, so starting it now would at least get the “not good enough” clock running.
I’ve never been able to stick with anything unsuccessful for that long, but I suspect it’s going to require that sort of perseverance if I’m ever going to be “good enough” at this to become a real success.
This is scary, but I’m carefully picking my way forward.
There’s a prototype version of the logo below at the bottom of this piece, but it might change a lot by the time I go live. I’m just trying to make it real by sharing the process. (And this is unlisted, so nobody knows it’s even there yet, but here’s the prospective 20-second opening of the show. The audio mix isn’t even right yet, but it’s a start.)
I might fail. I might humiliate myself. I know that. I also know that I might spend a couple of years doing mediocre things and then realize I’ll never be good enough to be a success at it. I understand all that — but I also understand that if I don’t try, I’ll never know.
Will I allow myself three years of hard work — without any pay to make it worth it — to find out whether I can get good enough at it? I’ve never had that much persistence before, so I don’t know. It’s going to be a challenge.
Will I be able to become good enough at this to be popular? Can I find an audience that is worth something in commercial terms? Can I grow a loyal audience well enough to get advertisers or to get some other sort of distribution?
I have absolutely no idea.
I’ve never allowed myself to be a mediocre beginner. And I’ve never allowed myself to pursue popularity. So this is uncharted territory for me. And, yes, that’s scary. It requires more vulnerability than I’m comfortable with.
But if I am the “product” which I have to sell to the world, I’m never going to be successful — or even going have a shot at success — unless I take these risks.
If I give it a serious try for three years and fail, I can live with that. What I can’t live with, though, is the possibility of running away from the challenge because I ran out of money or ran out of courage.
What’s going to happen? I don’t know. Let’s talk about that in 2025.