I will never forget the day I received my first wholesale order for my handmade greeting cards. After sending a few mailers to stores around California, a completed order form arrived in my mailbox from a shop in Santa Cruz. When I think of that moment, and the tears that erupted at the sight of my very own order form filled out, I can still taste the sense of giddy disbelief that this meant I had made it, or was at least well on my way. By then I had shipped small purchases to friends and friends of friends, but an order from an actual store was something entirely different. It marked the crossover from small-time hobby/business to bona fide enterprise, perhaps not in size but in customer base and distribution. I still have that order, and still consider it one of the most pivotal moments in my experience as a professional artist.
I don't think I really believed I had made it when I unfolded that order, but I certainly considered it an important milestone in the growth of my business - a business I began with a very specific (and grand) vision of where I wanted to take it. If one buyer liked my cards enough to display them in her store, then perhaps another buyer would too. And if stores were buying my cards, then sales reps would want to carry them. And if reps were presenting my cards to buyers all over the country, then there was the possibility that I could create a retail customer base in the tens of thousands. This meant I might pop up on the radar of potential licensees, and ultimately an agent, and I'd reach my goal of becoming a global licensed brand. And that is essentially how it went over the course of the next six years, step by step by step.
Which means I made it, right?
Yes. And no. Because "making it" isn't about one particular thing. It isn't about getting one magic order, contract, agent, or book deal. It is about all of those things and none of those things, about all the different ways any number of achievements make something feel real and solid and substantive. For example, I quickly learned that when I secured a rep in a new territory, that was great, but what I really needed to see was orders. And orders from new retail venues were also great, but I never got too excited until there was a re-order (because re-orders meant the cards were selling.) Then after a few re-orders, the reps were calling me to say the buyers wanted to see new cards, and could you try a new package design, and hey, how about creating some cute gift tags? And so on and so on. Ditto for a license contract - a number of steps had to be made before we knew whether or not we had a "hit". Even then, any products or designs had a limited shelf life.
The point of all this? To acknowledge that it is easy to get an idea in my head about what it means to "make it", and think that once a certain milestone is reached my place in the line of work I've chosen will be permanently secured. Instead, what I've learned is that "making it" is a vague, almost make-believe concept, because there isn't really a place for it in the world of reality.
The reality is that no matter how many contracts, buyers, or customers I had, have, or might have in the future, I will still need to keep working, honing, creating, re-inventing, and dreaming. This does not take away from those moments when the big orders came in, my first license contract was signed, or, most recently, I secured a book deal. Those moments are big and worth celebrating, but they've never come with guarantees. More to the point, I've come to consider them not as any kind of confirmation that "I've made it" but instead as opportunities to do my work - the work that I love to do. I didn't "make it" when I got my most recent book contract; I was offered an opportunity to create something meaningful, and that is the sweetest part of the deal. Every day that I get to do the work I love, I'm making it. It is the process of building a creative life, not the pursuit of an arbitrary goal.