How to Feel Better When Things Don't Go Your Way

Yeah, I know all about empty rooms and bruised egos.

Have you ever not felt validated?

No, worse — have you ever felt invalidated? Like, all your hard work was for nothing? All your ambition slammed into the world’s indifference? All the sacrifice just earned you… more sacrifice?

Good news: You’re in great company. With, like, everyone.

I’ll give you an example — maybe you caught this in the news already. But stay tuned, because this is going to get personal.

Chelsea Banning is a debut, self-published novelist who released a fantasy novel set in the time of King Arthur. She organized her first official book signing at an Ohio bookstore, and it seemed like she was going to have a big crowd. But when the day arrived…

Well, she tweeted what happened:

How to Feel Better When Things Don't Go Your Way

But here’s what Chelsea didn’t know: This experience is so common.

Every writer I know has gone through it. Every NON-writer too — because who hasn’t thrown a party that nobody showed up to, or spoken on stage to an empty room, or just had high hopes for something that flopped?

It’s so common that The Onion once even made a joke about it. Headline: “Author Promoting Book Gives It Her All Whether It's Just 3 People Or A Crowd Of 9 People”

We experience loneliness together. We feel ashamed because it seems that others are doing much better than we are. But we don’t realize that others had the exact same experience that we did.

Because we don’t see it. Because we all often hide it.

Which is why I love what happened next: In response to Chelsea’s tweet, writers started sharing their own horror stories.

Here’s Gary Shteyngart:

How to Feel Better When Things Don't Go Your Way
How to Feel Better When Things Don't Go Your Way
How to Feel Better When Things Don't Go Your Way
How to Feel Better When Things Don't Go Your Way
How to Feel Better When Things Don't Go Your Way

It goes on. I saw this first sprout up on Writer Twitter, and now it’s in NPR, the Guardian, and more.

And I’ll add to it: I have been traveling the country for the last few months in support of my new book, and sometimes events are thrilling and gratifying, and other times they are a sparsely attended deep blow to my ego.

I have spoken to mostly empty seats. I have spoken to sleeping college students. It's not fun. But you do it.

That’s what it means to put your work out there.

So, is there any way to soften this blow?

As we all pursue our own ego-bruising journey, where great effort is not always matched by great reward, what can we do?

A few things.

First, we can reframe it as a kind of progress.

Every time it happens to me, I tell myself: Everyone has a certain number of near-empty rooms they must speak in, before those rooms get very full. So how many rooms is it for me? Whatever that number is, after today, that number is one fewer.

Second, we focus on what we can control — and that is making an impact on the people who do support us.

Last month, I spoke at a university and had a fascinating conversation with the head of their entrepreneurship center. He told me that, yeah, they could book big celebrities to pack a hall with hundreds of students, but those students will have a passive experience. They won’t be able to ask questions. They won’t get something meaningful from it. So he prefers to create events that 20 students might show up to, because those 20 students will have a more intimate experience, and feel more open to ask questions and interact, and they’ll remember it longer, and it might impact their future.

I really liked that way of thinking. Yes, it’s fun to go big. But it can be meaningful to go small.

And finally, we can be more open about our failures and disappointments. Because they’re nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they are what connects us to others — because everyone goes through the same bruising.

That’s what’s happening to Chelsea Banning, the writer who kicked all this off. By the end of the week, she was getting interest from agents and publishers — the absolute dream of any self-published author. She was also getting a lot of sales. I looked at her Amazon ranking on Friday, and it was:

How to Feel Better When Things Don't Go Your Way

That 198 ranking is incredible. I got nowhere near that when my book launched — I think the best I did was in the 4,000s. Because selling books is really, really hard.

But you know what? Everything is really, really hard.

That’s what we all have in common.

A quick sales tip for those who have books:

Books sell bookstores. But bookstores aren't always the best place to sell books.

That's what Chelsea learned, and what all those famous writers confirmed. They shared stories in which a writer went to speak at a bookstore, and nobody showed.

Now, look: I love bookstores. But the stores' marketing abilities are limited, and unless your name is Malcolm Gladwell, attendance is often sparse. Also, you have no guarantee of sales. I mean, if 50 people show up to a reading, that's amazing — but how many will then buy the book? Half, if you're lucky? That's a lot of work for not a lot of books. And selling books is what really matters.

Instead, here's my strategy: Go where the crowd already is. And if possible, get organizers to commit to buying a certain number of copies in advance.

How? Start by asking: "Where can I add value to existing groups?"

For example, in advance of my book launch, I reached out to companies, universities, and organizations that serve entrepreneurs, and I basically said: "I will come speak to your group if you buy a certain number of books in advance." If they were interested, they'd typically invite me to existing events — say, a special entrepreneurship week at the university, or a training day at a company.

This way, people are already there. And because books are bought in advance, I know exactly the value that I'm getting. (Sometimes, however, they'd try organizing a crowd just for me — and that's when crowd sizes become very unpredictable.)

It worked nicely. I did dozens of events — virtually or in person, for 10 minutes or 60 minutes, where they'd buy anywhere from 10 to 1,000 books in bulk. And I served all kinds of roles: Sometimes I gave a keynote, sometimes I had a conversation, sometimes I moderated, sometimes I was just there to chat.

I also did this when I was traveling. For example, I was heading to Chicago for work recently, so I pinged a local incubator called 1871. Could I come in to chat, in exchange for them buying some books? Sure, they said! They created an event where I'd talk about how to get press for your business, and I had a nice evening talking with these completely wonderful entrepreneurs:

How to Feel Better When Things Don't Go Your Way

Thanks, 1871!

Now, I understand — I'm in a unique position, and it's easier for me to pull off a strategy like this than some other writers. But that's not to say it's impossible! Push yourself to get creative. Draw upon your expertise!

Did you write a business book? Maybe a college business class would be happy to have you, or a startup would love you to pop into their virtual team meeting to share some wisdom. Did you write a novel that contains some religious themes? Maybe places of worship would be happy to have you — that's worked for friends of mine. There are groups, organizations, classes, and gatherings for just about anything.

Why would they want to hear from you? What can you add to them?

If you can answer that question, and then reach out to show that value, you just might be surprised how many books they'll buy.

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Cover credit: Getty Images / Caspar Benson