Raising The Bar

Photo Credit: SD Dirk


The disappointment of being published in an encyclopedia

Hidden deep past the second page of search results for my maiden name is a reference to an entry I contributed to an encyclopedia of pseudoscience. My involvement in pseudoscience is fodder for another blog post. What I want to explore here was the impact of being published, and how that shaped my goal setting.

When I was growing up, owning a set of Encyclopedia Britannica was a badge of honour and a source of amazement. I didn’t have to go all the way to the library to get information about the amazing world we live in. I could simply flip through the pages of faux-leather bound volumes to get information about some semi obscure topic. This was a time when we still used catalogues of index cards to find books through the Dewey Decimal System. It was a land before you had a worldwide network of information a handheld computer that also lets you make phone calls.

Early in my career exploration, I had aspirations of making a living from writing. I wrote everything from articles to novellas to scripts for plays that never got produced. I also stubbornly pursued any avenue at my disposal to start a career as a published author.

Defeated Victory

My persistence paid off. I was offered the opportunity to contribute an article about the religious practice of Witchcraft to an encyclopedia of the pseudoscience. I spent a lot of time perfecting my entry and making sure it was readable and accurate. It meant a lot to me  that it was “encyclopedia material”.

Some time after the entry was submitted and edited, I received my “author’s copy” of the encyclopedia in the mail. I excitedly flipped to my entry, then to the credits where my name appeared.

And I was shockingly disappointed.

I realized that someone with no credentials in religious studies and no prior publishing history could have an article in an encyclopedia. In that swift flipping of pages, all of the credibility and mystique of publishing vanished for me. I had attained my goals, and somehow I was profoundly disappointed. What was wrong with me?

It would be several years before I could really understand what happened there. After all, if was bordering on absurd for someone to be disappointed in attaining a goal.

Goals That Matter

It took me a while to admit it to myself, but I was so focused on being published that I didn’t qualify the nature of the publication. I thought that merely being published, in anything, meant that I was making progress. But when I could no longer pretend that I was a girl in a movie who was “making it” as a writer, the reality of the situation settled in.

I wasn’t published in the Encyclopedia Britannica. I was published in an encyclopedia that was borderline self-published. The contributors were solicited in a magazine, and my qualifications for writing the article weren’t heavily scrutinized.

Lesson learned: Attaining a goal is only meaningful when the goal has meaning.

Being a CEO of a multinational company that employs hundreds of thousands of people isn’t the same as being a CEO of a 2-person operation with little market impact. Know what matters to you beyond the first dimension of the goal.

Set the Goalposts

In addition to having a meaningful goal, I also lost sight of what the goal actually was. After I became so stubbornly fixated on becoming published, I lost sight of what it meant for the goal to be fulfilled. Was the fulfilment of the goal the printed publication, or the fact that the editors accepted it? Was it the editors’ acceptance of the entry, or the acceptance of the entry by critical scholars?

Lesson learned: Define how you know you’ve reached your goal.

If your goal is to get a promotion, have you accomplished it when you’ve been offered the promotion? Or is it when you actually start your first day in the new role? These nuances help set expectations so you know when it’s ok to savour the moment and when it’s ok to focus on other things.

Now What?

One of my mistakes was attaining a goal without setting another one. I thought that the completion of the goal was receiving the actual encyclopedia, when in fact the completion was the editors confirming the entry would be included. Without something else to work towards, seeing my name in print felt like the end of my pursuits, when it could have been fuel for me to work harder towards my next accomplishment.

Lesson learned: Always have something to work towards, even if you are waiting for something to materialize. Allow yourself to savour the victory, but don’t lose the momentum of motivation.