The very first conversation I had at my very first blogging conference went something like this:
Stranger: Hi! What do you blog about?
Me: I write a sex blog.
Stranger: What's the URL?
Stranger: *Opens up a website I've never seen before, types in my web address, statistics pop up, he looks disappointed, closes his computer and walks away without saying another word.*
At the time, I was writing regular pieces for VICE, Curve, Autostraddle, and Nerve, speaking at major conferences and Ivy League schools, and was considered one of the top experts in the field of sexuality. I WAS A BIG DEAL, DAMMIT. How dare this man sum up my clout using some machine to check my site stats?
I wanted to run after him and show him just how famous I was, but I didn't, because it was too late. I'd already let this interaction with him burrow itself in me and destroy my worth as a blogger. I spent the rest of the conference apologizing for my lack of Twitter followers, of Facebook fans, of time to post daily on my own blog, of energy to do everything you're supposed to do to make it in this world.
Later that year, my memoir got rejected by every publisher my agent sent it to. The overall response was that it was beautifully written, but my following wasn't big enough to justify taking a chance on a lesbian sex memoir.
Four years and one major brand redesign later, my numbers are still not impressive to many people. On a regular basis, I am still shot down, rejected, and denied simply because I am not famous enough.
Just last week, I had two people approach me to be interviewed by them for some summit or workshop they were doing. Both were highly enthusiastic about my words, my mission, and my ability to inspire those who come in contact with me. One was so moved by what I said in our pre-interview chat that she started crying tears of joy.
Then she asked me how many people subscribed to my mailing list. I rounded up and said 1000. Our conversation ended there.
I was not famous enough to justify the cost of talking to me.
"It's just business," she said. And I can't really argue with that. When we value people by numbers, it is just that: business.
But where is the heart in it all? Moments before, she had been moved to tears by my message, by the value I could bring to her life and the lives of her followers. Why should it matter if I have a million followers or one if I'm providing value to your world?
A few days later, I taught a workshop at BinderCon in LA, teaching writers how to make a living doing what they love. I was rocking it, feeling centered and grounded and fully in my genius zone of inspiring others to follow their passions.
Then someone asked me how many followers I have. After years of being told I'm not valuable because my numbers are not enough, I felt like I would lose credibility as a workshop presenter standing here in front of a packed room and telling them I had less than 600 people on my mailing list.
But I'm tired of letting other people dictate what value I give my following. Fame and fortune lost their allure years ago when my brother died. Now I want connection. My follower base is not large, but it is mighty. You follow me because my work resonates with you on a deeply personal level.
No one can put a number on the value of intimate connection.
So, I answered honestly. "I have a very small following. Around 600 people on my mailing list, 3,000 on Twitter, a couple hundred on Facebook, and about 2,000 on Instagram. Not impressive numbers-wise, but it's an amazing and supportive group of people and I'm proud to watch them grow with me."
The woman who asked the question immediately lit up. "Me too!" she said enthusiastically. "I'd always been told I had to have at least a thousand mailing list subscribers before I could do anything. It's so refreshing to hear that I can start now."
The whole room melted into a puddle of permission with these words.
You do not have to wait. You can start as you are right now.
Would my professional life be more profitable if I had more followers? Absolutely. Large followings provide financial, emotional, and energetic support for my work. Publishers, advertisers, and collaborators flock to those with large fan bases, and I would have greater opportunities for financial gain.
But would my professional life be better? Would I achieve more critical acclaim? Would I gain value as I gain followers? Would being more famous make me a better writer?
The truth is, it might. With resources to support me, I may create a better product, have access to more self-care opportunities, and be able to hire people to help take the burden off of me.
But the truth also is that I could just as easily lose it all as I gained followers. That's why so many famous people go crazy. Fame for fame's sake is disastrous.
So, as a professional creative, I must sit in the nuanced gray area between the knowledge that followers are important and that fame is fickle; that numbers are valuable and yet have nothing to do with the value of my work.
I don't have all of the answers for finding balance, but I do know this: if you focus on the numbers, you'll never do the work, and if you never do the work, you'll never know how great of an impact you can have on the world.