Gwil's garden

Keeping myself busy.

Second-order success

November 1, 2021

This morning I received a kind email from someone saying how much they'd enjoyed Peaches, a narrated comic I made nearly a decade ago. Not just that, but that it had been something they'd come back to over the years when they were feeling down. These kinds of emails make my day.

It made me think back to when I'd published Peaches: I thought I'd launched a new career, a bold debut into the (famously lucrative) webcomic industry.

My metric for gauging the comic's success was traffic: I stuffed the page full of web analytics that I'd pore over every day, refreshing constantly, hoping that some huge number of views would suddenly pour in.

There was some good attention, but it dried up quickly. I felt crestfallen. I'd given my best, and hadn't been catapulted to overnight webcomic fame. I kept a close eye on the analytics, mechanically chewing as much meaning I could from each hit. Luckily, in time I stopped this sad and dreary habit.

I gave up on the idea of living off of webcomics, which is for the best. I'm pretty sure I'm not cut out for it: I get stressed about money easily, am quite lazy, and apparently completely incapable of communicating like a normal human being on twitter.

But as the years went by, every now and then I'd get a message from someone telling me how much this comic meant to them: how it had pulled them through a dark spot; that it was an inspiration for their own project; could I tell them how it was made?

These emails are always so heartwarming and authentic, and they completely energise me. It made me think: while I was measuring my success — or rather, failure — with page hits, someone's day had been made a little better. Someone got the push they needed to write their own story. Someone talked to a friend about it and they had a good laugh together. With me none the wiser.

This kind of biding, quietly rippling success fascinates me. Its effect can't be measured, but it's undoubtedly real. It doesn't put food on the table, but it sticks with people a long time. Is it like a trickling stream that can carve rock over time?

I don't want this to sound like a cop-out: my projects have failed where many other succeed. Those successes (with lots of juicy page hits!!!) undoubtedly have even more second order effects.

But reminding myself that this kind of success exists gives me faith that what I'm working on is worthwhile. I have a feeling that if I tailor my projects towards this kind of success, the more conventional kind of success will naturally follow.

And if I'm wrong, at least I can make someone's day better. Which will probably save a planet or something a millennia from now.