{ the sweetest bee makes the thickest honey. }

An extensively researched non-fiction piece depicting the author's life in a radically imagined parallel reality. Sadly, even boundless material and artistic success can?t seem to absolve this imaginary protagonist from paranoia, greed, and hypocrisy.
See more by:

See more in:

Success Feels Like Nothing
by Sebastian Ischer

On the outside not much has changed since I escaped my former existence as a despairing artist-aspirer and entered a world of financial, critical, and sexual accomplishment. I still wear the same ill-fitting clothes I bought in thrift stores during college (they remind me of how real my life used to be). I get my hair cut by the same Italian barbers I?ve visited for years, and they continue to cut it so that I look like a retarded person (which enhances my credibility as a connoisseur of global counter-culture). I still watch television and feel guilty because it?s so stupid (especially when I see myself on TV, spewing idiotic sound bites and shamelessly promoting my current projects). I still feel sick after I binge-drink, although top-shelf liquor definitely makes for a more airy, pleasant hangover. I also still don?t call my parents as often as I should, even though I often have the kind of good news that makes the mother of a formerly struggling artist weep with pride and relief.

But even as many of the particulars of my life are unchanged, my emotional sense of the universe and the position I hold within it have been utterly transformed by my inclusion into the world of the successful.

I?m much less afraid, now that I?m no longer a failure. As an anonymous, unemployed college grad without a record deal, a publishing contract, or health insurance, I saw every day as a struggle for survival. I obsessed over the money I spent on cds, stereo equipment, drinking, food deliveries, and the rent on my $750 apartment. I saw myself getting hit by cars, being diagnosed with testicular cancer or liver failure, getting stabbed in a domestic dispute, falling headfirst into a garbage shaft at a roof party. By sustaining a serious injury with permanent effects, I would bankrupt my parents, and destroy their ability to support me financially.

Apocalyptic feelings afflicted me continuously. Riding the subway, sitting at a temp job in a midtown office, or laying awake at five in the morning, staring at my alarm clock, I was overcome by the certainty that I would die within a year, probably at my own hand. The possibility of leaving this world without having proven my extraordinary worth as a human being threw me into fits of crushing depression. I endured these by fantasizing about death as a means of permanent escape from the pressure of needing to be successful. In my mind?s projection-room, I jumped off the Williamsburg bridge into the flat, concrete-heavy water, reached for a beat cop?s gun, stepped in front of the subway and ruined several hundred commuters? day (and my parents? lives), or bought a pistol on Ebay and fired it through the roof of my mouth, depriving my roommate of his security deposit. These images had a comforting effect when commiserating with other unsuccessful persons and being drunk failed. Sometimes I simply stood in the center of my shabby little room and screamed until the horror of my existence subsided and I became embarrassed.

The shame over my ongoing inability to become successful was so deeply engrained in the fabric of my consciousness that I was overcome by paranoia whenever it lifted. Even brief spells of undeserved hope and happiness were ruined by my anticipation of the inevitable return to feeling like a loser. When my sense of hopelessness reasserted itself, I greeted it with grim satisfaction.

The unsuccessful person lives like an animal, trapped in each tedious moment of his existence without a sense of the future or a belief in the possible improvement of his situation. Under the weight of failure, or non-success, he burrows into the mud of the quotidian until even the memory of a sky becomes improbable. In this state, time takes on a shapeless, static form. Months and years accumulate, the unsuccessful person?s skin wrinkles, his hair thins, and his gut grows into a flabby pouch, inspiring further self-hatred and neglect. In the meantime, the unsuccessful person clings joylessly and desperately to a small number of remaining relationships, only because being alone means being in the company of the person he hates more than anyone else. His friendships are tainted with envy, hatred, or contempt, depending on the friend?s stature in the hierarchy of success. Being in love, or respecting another person as his equal, is impossible. Under circumstances involving alcohol, he occasionally uses women for sexual gratification, but immediately afterwards, he is repulsed by the baseness of his desires.

Imagining such a life for myself now fills me with a certain wistful nausea. Fortunately, several months of living in a newly restored duplex apartment with private rooftop garden and view of the Manhattan skyline have created a soothing buffer between my true self and its former, unsuccessful incarnation. And just as having an air conditioner and eating organic vegetables improves your life in a subtle but powerful way, success has changed my outlook on any number of aspects of the human condition that seemed intolerably tragic before I crossed over.

One of the biggest surprises success held in store for me is the absence of the necessity to ever have sex with unattractive women again. A transformation occurred so suddenly and completely that I didn?t even notice it at first: I?m the exact same person I was before I received my first publishing advance, and yet my aura of success now makes me interesting and attractive to beautiful, elegant women. Before, if I was ever drunk enough to talk to a woman I was attracted to, she was quickly repelled by my preemptively belligerent and defeated attitude. Now women are compelled to introduce themselves to me in a wide range of social settings, from book signings and movie premieres to art openings, the backstage area at rock concerts, and political debates. And thanks to all the attention I?m receiving in the media, I?m more confident than ever, which makes it easy to let myself be approached by beautiful women, seduce them simply by making no effort at all, and allow them to think that I?m falling in love with them.

When I first realized that success is the sexual attribute that trumps all others, even good looks, aggression, and charisma, I found it disillusioning and depressing. But now it seems natural ? success is a reliable way for a woman to ascertain that a prospective mate carries good genes, will be able to provide for her and her offspring, and will reinforce her own self-worth with his social stature. The female strategy of entrapping a male in a relationship by having sex with him fails in all but the most extreme cases. But like the lottery, the fantasy that one could be chosen out of a large field of competitors, against statistically prohibitive odds, is eternally seductive.

I?ve been working out, now that I have the time and money for a gym membership, and can bear to level any attention upon my physical being. I follow a rigorous diet and exercise regimen, and periodically cleanse myself of toxins through colonic irrigation. Women are excited by my body, and my strength and endurance make it stimulating and rewarding to participate in competitive athletic activities. My physical transformation matches the confident, charismatic successful person I?ve come to feel like on the inside.

I sometimes wonder why anyone had sex with me before I was successful. Some of the women I dated in those hungry years were attractive, and made me feel good about myself when I really didn?t deserve it. I regret that they squandered their evolutionary advantage on a loser like me when they could have been dating someone successful, which would have made them feel better about themselves, and maybe even helped them achieve their own success. To all of the attractive women who had sex with me before I became successful, I would like to say, thank you.

Success manifests itself in tiny details: I?ve noticed that people laugh at my jokes, even when they?re not funny (which happens rarely, or not at all. In some cases, I tell deliberately unfunny jokes, to gauge how much effect my success is having). I don?t hold it against them ? I know they?re happy to be in my company, and flattered that I would make an effort to put them at ease and share my incisive sense of humor with them.

Whereas I was shy and self-depreciating before I became successful, I am always relaxed and confident around other people now, whether they are male or female, and successful or not. I also no longer experience feelings of jealousy or hatred when I?m in the company of people who are more successful than me. Instead, I enjoy their company, and actively seek their friendship, because it reassures me of my own uniqueness. Whenever I meet another successful person, we instantly have something in common - we?re part of the same exclusive club, and subjected to the same exhilarating pressures: hectic schedules, investment concerns, networking obligations, and the temptation of unlimited freedom. Being successful has introduced me to an endless supply of new friends that could potentially help my career.

Of course there are downsides ? I often feel that unsuccessful people, especially friends from my past life, are envious of my success and wish me ill. They?re respectful and friendly to my face, and they tout their association with me in front of others. But sometimes when they?re drunk or very tired, I feel a strain creeping into their good-natured subservience. They imply that I don?t deserve my success, that I achieved it through luck, or that my success is a function of my being ruthless, selfish, and a bad person. This is extremely irritating, especially after I?ve made the effort to socialize with them to prove that I?m still just a regular guy who values his friendships even beyond the vast separation between success and failure.

Envy is especially misdirected since I, unlike many successful people, make every effort to help unsuccessful people cross the divide ? if a struggling artist approaches me and asks for help, I often read her (or his) screenplay or manuscript, or listen to a demo recording, even though it?s usually bad, and I should be working on my own career.

Success can also be dangerous for the successful person. The aura of unlimited freedom it generates can easily lead to nihilism and sexual deviancy. Even though I still treasure the idea of a meaningful long-term relationship, I don?t want to deprive myself of the opportunity to have sex with any number of attractive women, at any time, and in any imaginable way. The attraction exerted by success is usually accompanied by its inverse, the desperation of those who are not successful. This desperation can cause unsuccessful persons to engage in sexual behaviors that demean and objectify them, which in turn transfers upon the successful person a sense of power that is addictive and morally corrosive. Threesomes, anal sex, married women (and the girlfriends of close friends), sado-masochistic role-playing, and cocaine are just a few of the excesses that can overwhelm a successful person unaccustomed to his new position in life. In the fog of success, the distinction between liberating sexual self-expression and abusive perversion can become blurry.

However, as a successful person, I feel that I?ve earned the responsibility to define right and wrong as they apply to my specific situation, instead of conforming to simplistic and outdated moral judgments. And as an artist, I?m not afraid to explore the dark side of human nature. I find that confronting the Dionysian, primal aspects of my personality by exerting it to its limits actually makes me a healthier, more emotionally integrated person.

Another irony of success: it gets easier to create art once you achieve it. As an anonymous artist, you struggle incessantly to create work that no one cares about. But once you?ve made it, you are absolved of the self-doubt you felt, sitting in your tiny apartment, thinking about how you would have to get up in six hours to perform mindless work all day just so you could perpetuate your hellish existence for another week, another month, another year. In those days, you were haunted by the possibility that you would never be recognized, in which case all of your suffering would have been useless. Success removes that sense of futility forever.

Before you become successful, your work is the sole indicator of your value as a person, and since no one appreciates it, you are worthless, and must therefore continuously try to prove yourself. The meaning of your entire existence depends on each new project, each idea, each sentence, each word your write. And because nothing you create can ever fulfill the unreasonable obligation to provide you with existential validation, you continuously fail. Nothing is ever good enough, and the creative process becomes an endless act of self-torture.

But once your creative product is introduced into the cultural and financial marketplace, the meaning of being an artist changes ? instead of an existential struggle, it is now your job. Which means that you have to produce, in order to satisfy the machinery of demand, marketing, and distribution. It also means that you can worry less about the quality of your product. After all, there are editors, producers, publishers, and critics who will evaluate your work, so that you don?t have to. Finally, even these experts have to bow to the market?s reaction, and since markets and the taste of the general public are notoriously unknowable, there?s no point in worrying about any of it. Instead of making meaningful art, you can concentrate on earning money, and creating a fulfilling lifestyle for yourself. After striving for greatness, being able to do something mediocre is a welcome relief. The absence of stress even stimulates your creativity.

Success proves that life isn?t fair. Not only do successful people make more money, live more pleasantly, and perform more interesting and challenging work ? they also receive much more support and encouragement from other people. Every day, my assistant fields calls from agents and editors, journalists and Hollywood producers who want to check on the progress of my latest project and massage my ego. An endless series of lunches, meetings, and awards festivities keeps me involved in congratulatory social intercourse and fends off the dark thoughts I used to indulge in.

If unsuccessful people knew how much better life is if you?re successful, they?d kill us all. Instead, we shroud ourselves in an aura of incomprehensible, mythological blessedness, and they respond by adoring and fearing us like loyal dogs. They worship us in their tabloids, watch our movies, buy our records, read our best-selling novels, and work the underpaid, exploitive jobs that perpetuate our advantage over them, all in the hope that we?ll let them rise up into our ranks, or at least out of theirs. All we have to do in turn is thank them as part of the faceless mass of consumers, and reassure them that life for us really still is difficult, that we deal with the same pressures as they, only in slightly different form.

Before I became successful, I was very angry about the inequality between the producers and consumers of our culture, between the rich and poor, the successful and unsuccessful. I felt like the world would be a better place if the distance between the top and the bottom were reduced, and the successful few gave up some of their privileges to enhance the lives of the unsuccessful many.

Success has changed my mind about all that. I?ve come to understand that those who are successful deserve to be, because they?re smarter, more talented, more attractive, or more charismatic than everyone else. It?s a simple evolutionary reality: if you?re not successful, you probably don?t deserve to be. And if it?s your destiny to be successful, you?ll make it, whether any one specific person helps you or not. I sincerely believe that.

At the moment, I?m recording an album of literary electronic dance music with a close friend who is a Grammy-winning hip-hop artist. I?m collecting my bodily fluids for an art exhibit in Europe, and taking pictures of my close friends who happen to be celebrities for various magazines. I?m also working on a screenplay adaptation of my first novel, ?A Pathetic Piece of Shit?, about a young artist?s heartbreaking struggle to become successful. And I just received a large advance to write my second novel, ?Success Feels like Nothing?, about a young artist?s transformation after he achieves success, and his disillusionment with the decadent, glamorous world he is thrown into. My serotonin levels are high, and I have no problem tackling large projects and making my deadlines. To be safe, my therapist has referred me to a psychiatrist who has prescribed me a cocktail of organic, non-addictive anti-depressants and mood-stabilizers, which help me overcome occasional lows and flashbacks to my former existence.

The emotional trauma of being unsuccessful leaves scars that can take a lifetime to heal. Thinking about the years I spent working menial jobs and trying desperately to win the approval of successful people, often at the cost of my human dignity, still makes me sick with anger. Why couldn?t success come sooner? Was all the pain and self-doubt necessary, as a condition for the emergence of my new self? Did it harden me into the relentlessly aggressive, selfish predator-asshole I need to be to protect my real estate in the closed community of success? If it did, I can live with that. Recovery is a slow process, but I?m fully committed to leaving every trace of my former self behind.

Really, the only thing I don?t enjoy about success is the faint possibility that I might not have it one day. Of course, the critics lauded my debut novel for its gritty and unsparing look at the ugly realities of life, and it has sold extremely well. For this I am endlessly grateful to my reading audience. At the same time, I?m not sure if my new novel is as strong, in a commercial sense, and I?m worried that it won?t live up to my reputation. As a young, handsome writer with roots in New York, California, and the Swiss Alps, I?m extremely marketable. But in today?s volatile markets, most young authors only get one second chance. In addition, movie adaptations of novels always fare poorly at the box office, and once you?re tainted by a flabby project, no one in Hollywood will touch you. Yes, I?ve made an incredible amount of money, but I?ve also spent a lot of it, and many of the lifestyle choices that keep me happy and productive are very costly. The stress is really starting to bear on me, and no one seems to understand how much pressure I?m under, especially the slutty little society girls I?ve been dating recently.

It?s scary. Sometimes, when I?m writing, I almost feel like I?m back in my little room with no air conditioning, eating food from a can, sweating in my underwear, the neighbors blaring their stupid salsa music. I?m staring at the blank screen and thinking about the enormity of what I?m trying to do, to actually write something good, and all the ways in which I could fail, and I feel paralyzed.
See more by:

See more in: