When it comes to interviews and profiles of commercially successful writers (or anyone for that matter), there’s always an undercurrent of “What led to their success?”—especially if we dream of following in their footsteps.
We know there’s not a single formula, but we still hope for that shard of insight that will make it clear how we might do even just one thing different—and that will make all the difference to our path.
Such insights do occur from time to time. One such moment for me was when I was editing Jerry B. Jenkins’ Writing for the Soul in the mid-2000s, when the Left Behind series was at the top of the bestseller lists. Jenkins talked about how everyone called him an “overnight success” when the series broke out, but that he’d been publishing a steady stream of articles and books since the 1970s.
It wasn’t until then that I really understood that big successes are almost never accidents or “overnight,” but the result of years of under-the-radar work.
Here are three insights to success that I’ve seen expressed again and again, just in different ways, from all types of creative people.
1. The psychological battle is the biggest.
I call this the Steven Pressfield insight, since I so closely associate it with his excellent book, The War of Art—a must-read for every writer. He shows how many of our behaviors, habits, and thinking are a form of resistance that we continually must overcome. He helps change how you think about and frame your work. Instead of asking, “Did I write anything good today?” ask, “Did I write today?” Which brings me to the next insight.
Instead of asking, “Did I write anything good today?” instead ask, “Did I write today?”
2. Discipline is more important than talent.
I always get into a lot of trouble when I say that talent doesn’t matter. (I still say it, though.) For those who are really, really concerned about talent, then:
I’d like you to show me your talent. Point to it. Let me see it. What does it look like? I’d like you to measure it and show me, quantifiably, how it’s more, less, or different than someone else’s talent.
Oh, you can’t? Then how do I know if you have talent or not? What if we disagree?
We can continue with this line of questioning, until such a point the conversation is no longer productive.
Instead, what if we decided to believe that practice develops talent—that what we think is talent is specifically a product of years of hard work? That would mean having the discipline to practice and put in the work would be most important—what this study calls true grit.
If something in you resists believing this, ask yourself why—because when I think of all the talented writers I’ve met over the years, it’s not the most talented who I see going on to a full-time writing career. It’s those who put in the work, while everyone else gives up. Why? Go read Steven Pressfield.
3. Focusing too much on the results can sabotage you.
Elizabeth Gilbert once advised writers, “My suggestion is that you start with the love and then work very hard and try to let go of the results.”
Simone de Beauvoir once wrote: “That’s what I consider true generosity: You give your all, and yet you always feel as if it costs you nothing.”
I’ll say it outright: There’s a double-bind here that I’m presenting you with. It’s like telling a child, “You must love your parents,” which demands they purposefully exhibit a spontaneous behavior (which creates phoniness).
However, it remains a good rule of thumb: When you can give your all to a writing project, without an expectation of a result, this approach instills the patience or fortitude required to see results.
Put another way: If you put a timeline on achieving specific results from your creative work, and you allow yourself to get discouraged when those results do not manifest, you may just stop working. You might quit before you win.
The more demands and expectations we have of a process, the more we can subvert it. The more we let go and remain open, the better chance we have at success. Furthermore, an open attitude helps us recognize hidden opportunities, especially when failure (inevitably) strikes.
I hope these insights allow you to see that one little thing you might do differently. And that is actually another, separate insight, one I learned from editing Bill O’Hanlon’s Write Is a Verb. Rather than decide you’ll revolutionize your writing life starting tomorrow, and change everything from top to bottom, instead, change one thing, one small thing you can commit to. After weeks or months have passed, and it’s a habit, then identify one other thing you can commit to. It’s a kinder way of treating yourself, and also a more realistic and reliable method of instituting real, meaningful change over the long term.
What major insights have flipped an important switch for you? Who has changed how you live the writing life?