In ancient Rome, when a general or emperor achieved a major success, he was celebrated with a parade, called a Triumphus, where he rode a chariot pulled by white horses through the city while the crowds cheered. Two servants (probably slaves, this was ancient Rome after all) rode in the chariot with him – one to drive (even then, success was marked by not doing your own driving) and one to stand behind the general or emperor holding a gold crown or laurel wreath above his head (but never actually putting it on his head). This wreath-holder’s job was to keep whispering to the hero “Sic transit gloria mundi” (literally “Thus passes the glory of world,” meaning “this glory is fleeting”) and “Memento mori” (“Remember you are mortal”).
I imagine that being the chariot driver could be a cool job. You’d get out in the open air, everyone’s happy (so no one’s likely to beat the snot out of you), you might even be able to snag some food and wine at the feasts later that day.
But I wouldn’t want to be the one who had to whisper humility in an emperor’s ear. You’d have to do it, but I suspect if you sounded too happy or too emphatic, you’d piss off the big guy and there’d be suffering in your future. After all, who wants to be reminded of his human frailty and failings in a moment of triumph?
I know I don’t. Yesterday morning I found a chariot with a driver and white horses in my inbox. The editor of a scholarly journal wanted to publish my article on the neurology of writing resistance. The peer reviewer of the journal said: “I strongly support the publication of this article. I was hooked by it from the start and felt it took a fresh angle on an old problem (or set of problems.) It was well referenced and scholarly, but written in a writerly and accessible style. It was clearly structured and had a good narrative.” Wahoo!
There were a few suggestions for changes – ah, the wreath-holder and the warning to be humble – but that was okay because those were followed by more heady praise from the peer reviewer. “I would forward the link to all my colleagues, many of my students and also to my daughter who is studying architecture and faces the same issues. I think this has broad interest and application.” Double Wahoo!
It felt great! I was so proud of what the reviewer said about my writing, I quoted him in an email to some people who’d helped me achieve this. I wasn’t thinking about Roman emperors and generals then, but from that perspective now, that email was probably the equivalent of throwing a small Triumphus parade in my own honor.
Two hours later, though, another louder wreath-holder caught up to my chariot. I opened an email from an editor at Writer’s Digest declining an on-spec article I’d submitted just the day before. Ouch. Rejections really do come fast.
Sic transit gloria mundi… “Unfortunately, I don’t think the article is right for our lineup for the next few issues.” Memento mori … “Thanks for thinking of us and best of luck placing the piece elsewhere.”
If I take editors’ and reviewers’ praise to heart, I have to take their rejection to heart, too. While it felt so good to read praise from an unknown colleague, a fellow writing instructor who teaches in a university creative writing program, ultimately that praise is not what I want to recognize and reward myself for.
I always encourage my coaching clients and students to recognize and reward themselves for their efforts, not for outcomes. When the outcomes are what you want, they are their own reward. When the outcomes are not what you want, they are what you need – information about what you need to adjust in your next attempt. The other thing you need at those times is motivation and that comes from rewarding yourself all along for what you can control – your effort.
I know I need to do the same thing. And I have been sending emails to my writing allies asking them to help me acknowledge all the networking, querying and writing I’ve been doing lately.
I know this. I just needed a reminder. Sic transit memoriam (Thus passes my memory).