Thursday, 20 August 2009

You Make You Own Luck. If You Want it Badly Enough You'll Succeed...

...and other posionous lies the books will tell you

As an author, I'm always looking for tips on how to "make it". Writing's no different from most walks of life like that. And in writing as in regular life, these are two things I come across all the time. Almost as much as I hear it on sports commentary ("she won because she wanted it more").

Of course it's baloney. I won't say why here, because I've promised that post to How Publishing Really Works' Bad Science series (suffice to say it's to do with a basic misunderstanding of causation and correlation).

What I want to say here is something more serious. This kind of motivational mumbo-jumbo is plain dangerous. It ruins lives, and if I hear or read you pddling it, I WILL call you out on it.

OK, so why? Surely we all need a good kick up the backside. We all need to be inspired! Well, yessirree of course we do. When I read about Einstein beavering away in his patent office on relativity, Catherine O'Flynn sitting typing away in the shopping mall and coming up with What Was Lost, I get inspired, and I think, well yes, there's hope for me yet.

There is nothing - repeat, nothing - so inspiring as a role-model. Someone like us. A nobody who shares our uncertainties and our frailties, and overcomes them to triumph. They can push us to persevere just that little bit longer, to work just that little bit harder.

But suppose we don't make it after all the work and the perseverance. What happened? Why did we fail? Well, the answer's simple if you believe the self-helpers. If those who want it enough succeed, then if we don't succeed it's because we didn't want it. If you make your own luck, then if you get unlucky it's your fault.

Nice, eh?

I'm sure it's all well-meaning. "Yeah, but I didn't mean it like that," is an answer I often get from the well-meaners when I pick them up. But if you don't mean the sucky flipsdide, then the fluffy upside's worth precisely zero.

One of the hardest lessons we can ever learn, is the importance of drawing a line and saying "I will NEVER succeed at this." I'm never going to beat Usain Bolt in a sprint. No matter how hard I try and how much I want it. My legs are just too short. And it's the same with writing. Millions of people want to be writers. but not everyone has got what it takes to make it. Ever. Whcih doesn't mean they should stop writing - just like my inability to outbolt Bolt doesn't mean I should stop jogging. It DOES mean it's just plain cruel for friends, family, and so-called help books to carry on telling them "of course you'll make it, just try a little bit harder". So they try and they try and devote their whole life to it and one day they wake up and they're 80 and disappointed, and they realise that actually if they'd tried to make it as a cross-stitcher instead they might have done it. Only they were too busy being encouraged to flog a dead horse.

So now it's my turn to play guru. Before you decide you want to make it as a writer, do the following:

1. Decide what you mean by "make it"
2. Give yourself a timeframe in which to achieve this. Make it realistic. It WILL take time. If you want to have something published it may take a year or so of hard work; if you want to give up your day job it's more likely to take 5-10.
3. Set milestones for yourself so you can see if you're on track.
4. Get going, and be a human sponge (more on this next week)

So what do you do if you're not meeting those milestones? Well, it might be that you're not working hard enough - of course it might - but when you set the milestones you should work out how much time you realistically have and set them accordingly. Nonetheless, experience might mean you have to tinker. Carry on, workl hard, and find you're still struggling? OK, maybe the answer is you're not doing it smart enough. Maybe you've got a great blog but no one's reading it. Or you're writing amazing books on a subject no one wants to read about. Experiment, change your approach, try and be smarter.

Get to the end of your 5 years of hard, smart work, and still nothing? You know what? Keep writing, keep loving your writing, but DRAW THE LINE and see if there isn't something else you CAN make a go of.

Put it like this. If you saw someone who's five foot nothing slogging themselves to death in the park for 6 hours every day; pushing themselves to tears every time you see them; and someone standing there telling them to damn well try harder, what would you do? Ball them out or call the police? So why, when roomfuls of struggling writers undergo the same treatment, resulting in the same tears, is it called self-help?


  1. I do hear from a lot of writers and other creative types that they would do this even if there was no paycheck involved. I don't know if they are just telling themselves this or if they really believe it. The question perhaps is what qualifies as success in writing or in any other creative effort.

    To use your own cross stitch comment, there is no such thing as publishing a cross-stitched picture. You just frame it and hang it on your wall. So, maybe in terms of writing it's just the ability to tell the story you want to tell in a way that satisfies you, and maybe it will never be published.

    I'm not arguing against you, but I think the best measure of success might be doing the things that make us happy, and if writing makes us happy then perhaps we should keep doing it.

  2. I agree with you totally, Dan. I do think we can do amazing things just through sheer willpower & having a high expectation of ourselves, but I also think that we need to recognize our weaknesses too. "Wanting something bad enough" will never make it happen...there has to be talent and hard work in there too.

    And there's nothing wrong with writing just for the sheer joy of it, without needing to be published. More people should realize that, I think.

    Great post!

  3. ouch. I think I'm feeling your pain Dan.

  4. Think this has a lot of truth in it - some believers in positive thought take the frankly dangerous stance of saying we can create our own reality to the point where we are responsible for our own health and illnesses - not remotely helpful.
    However, I do think there is a place for positive thinking - providing you don't look on it as a god. For example, positive thought can make people feel more confident and improve self-esteem which - while it won't make you a better writer necessarily, could be a huge help when you're going out there pitching your book, selling it on TV/radio etc....
    Like most things, it's good in its place and in the right measure. Trouble is, people abuse virtually everything!
    (over from Authonomy, btw)

  5. m.m.Fahren (talewagger in Authonomy)20 August 2009 at 10:54

    Well! My two bits to the pie. Is it some law of physics I missed that energy initiated (from energy of course) continues, however it transmutes? I mean of course that pendulum effect, or the drop in the pool, or the echo in the Universe(s). The perpetual ripple. So--writing= energy. The whole may continue in one seam or it may transmute. It may communicate now, or much later. It is that echo in the Universe. It will be picked up somehow. So nothing's 'lost,' or that's how I console myself and egg myself on after 24 yrs. of 'empty,' futile and personally expensive work, training, application and 'failure'--necessary to 'success'. I think, in short, 'success' is how you define it. Blogs, paper publication, on-line publication, exerpts, feedback, are all being 'published'! Do you receive money for energy? Fame? Conversation? New vision? That's my ticket. I work for clarity and concision (not here apparently-HAH!) in hopes that somewhere somehow my 'plink' in the Eternal Pond continues its ripples, and the dead tree that no one hears fall in the forest has not lost its sap nor its pulp in vain. Or its veins loaned to my pages).
    Sure, I'm looking to pulp-publish my lifelong work, and I've done my homework and my revisions, and am just learning all the networking (hermitess that I am), and I know there are no guarantees. As the author said, "All I'm guaranteed is a good morning's work" (night in my case). And you call the shots. Define 'publish.' Define 'success.' Define 'failure.' Then Change the definition. Change is Life. Growing pain is a healthy part of it and so is healing. For me, it rotates. . .all of it. The 'SECRET' has nothing over that and personally, I say we are ALWAYS creating our own reality. Isn't that what's going on right here? Good thinking in here. Thanks for the invitation. My first post. Finally.

  6. Thank you all so much.

    @niftyknits funnily enough, there isn't any personal pain on this with my writing. My real feelings come from my experience with mental health difficulties (both my own, and my wife's. I also sit on a couple of steering groups - I consulted on "Final Demand" on debt & mental health, which at 140,000 is likely to be read by more people than all my novels ever! - and have just been commissioned to write an article for One in Four magazine).

    @Alissa I will always write - I did it for years as a hobby, and would carry on doing it as a hobby. I gave myself 5 years from January 2008 to make a go of it and go part time with my day job. With cross-stitch I would have agreed with you till I started my "View From the Shoe" column - there are etsy stores out there selling amazing "extreme cross-stitch". In fact, I think etsy may just be the most wonderful thing on the Web (I interviewed @fortheloveoflaw a while back, who's mainly an embroiderer but dabbles in cross-stitch, but I'll have to find a cross-stitcher to do a column soon). Are you Alissa of the WNA, by the way? We should absolutely keep doing what makes us happy - it would just be nice to get to do it during office hours as well!

    @Jamie yes, taking a hobby that gives us joy and deciding to make a business out of it has the potential to kill our enjoyment of it. There are very few hobbies where that happens (none of the people I pass on the course on the bus home from work wants to be Tiger Woods), but with writing it happens an awful lot. If I get nowhere career-wise by the end of 5 years, I hope I'll not have lost the joy I get from it. One thing's for sure, I certainly haven't so far.

    @exmoorjane - Hi! Must find you on Autho and read your book to say thank you for coming over. You're absolutely right, of course. I was a powerlifter for 4 years (you wouldn't thin it now!), for much of that time at a reasonable level. Visualisation and framing techniques were absolutely essential (let's face it, if you look at 205kg on a barbell, and think of it resting across your shoulders, if you didn't have a way of framing it, you'd just run for the hills). I learnt more from that than from anything. I trained hard - super hard, and as a result I knew exactly what my body could do. I knew there was no way I would squat 300kg - no matter how hard I visualised it. On the other hand I knew I COULD do 200kg. I just had to approach it right. I think it's the same with all "positive thinking". It DOES have a place (one of the things that has helped me with depression is cognitive behavioural therapy, which is a KIND of positive thinking), but it needs to be used in the right place and the right way. The problem, as always, is generalisation. People are individuals (which is why there are so many great stories to tell!)

  7. mm - how fantastic to see you here! No one writes like you. If people want a definition of "voice" they should read anything you put your pen to.

    I think you put your inimitable finger on what I was trying to say more prosaically - before you start a project, you need to work out what it means for you to succeed. And don't be put off by anyone who tells you it's something different. Of course, if you don't make it, what it would be really handy to do is to reframe what you mean by success - but really hard!

    I certainly am not saying people shuoldn't follow their life's ambition. I just see so many broken lives because people always wanted one thing, were told to pursue it to the end, did their damnedest and didn't make it. It boils down like I was saying above to treating people as individuals and valuing them for what they are - letting the other stuff come next. And that's what a lot of self-help is bad at. It sees generalities where there are only specifics.

  8. sadly the way teachers are encouraged to behave towards pupils will perpetuate the myth. Everyone has to succeed, there are no failures. I was taught to mark great big ticks on correct answers, ignore wrong ones. Everyone has to be praised, all the time - so kids assume they really can do anything and everything. I've been looking for something I read by Brian Rix, but can't find it. He was (maybe is?) chaiirman of Mencap, and had a daughter with Downs Syndrome. The quote I was looking for was about the futility [for his daughter] of believing you can achieve whatever you want if you try hard enough - for some, it just isn't going to happen.

  9. Looks like he still is. Wow - I remember him being associated with Mencap when I were a lad.

    Not a lot more I can say because I agree completely. And it IS cruel, because as soon as they leave school they wonder what's happening and why things aren't as they were told they'd be.

    I taught A-levels for several years & was encouraged to mark "encouragingly" (not to the exam board's mark scheme. When students who'd been given As all year suddenly got a D in their exam they would be in tears - they thought they were doing what was needed. It's just wrong. One of those cases where being "nice" in the short run is so damaging in the long run.

  10. Dan, I hate to say it, but I think that having short legs may not be the only reason for your inability to beat Usain Bolt ;)

  11. m.m.Fahren (talewagger)20 August 2009 at 19:30

    One mo' thing: Maria Montessori for a little while (and Alternative Education for a few decades) took the sting and the praise out of 'evaluation' in Education. Real Ed. in this ideology is intrinsic, self-motivated. The 'work' is framed to be self-corrective, so the pleasure comes in simply 'doing the work'. Both praise and 'error' calling are erased in preference to observation. i.e. "Ah, I notice that you are placing the red block in the blue circle area." (Obviously calling attention to Difference in choice, not necessarily 'error'.) Or, "I see the small pink cube is holding up the larger one." (And then it is tone of inflection which makes it a kind of game.) So how do I apply that to the comma splice or to character development, even? "Mmmmmh. The mailman passing by is very visual with description, while the main POV character, a neglected housewife, seems to be painted almost transparent. Is that important?"
    Or how apply it to evaluative feedback I receive?
    "Let's see, 25% or so find it irritating or missing something. Another 25% are hoping I'll leave it exactly as it is. 15% think I should move on to something else. About 35% (I'm being facetious--I can't do percentages!) think it's exceedingly remarkable and want me to 'just finish it'!" How will I allow this to inform my edits? Am I writing for all of these people or for only 35%?(Assuming this is candour and also that they will hold to these opinions.) Do I chance losing the life of it for the 15%?
    It IS a game. The A is a symbol of what? The D of what? What if I WANT to please only the positive people? Or am I desperate to only please the negative for that matter? HECK! What if I write what I absolutely hate just so somebody says, "You rock!" Sometimes the pink tower rests on a smaller cube.
    I hope I will not say anything else for a long time. And, uh, Ag's Shoes--thanks for the praise. . .hah. See what happens?

  12. @tony hmm, yes, being 37, a bit overweight, and with an ever so slightly dicky knee (not helped by the aforementioned powerlifting) might not help.

    @mm comment as often and at as much length as you like. That's a very important point about the subtle and insidious ways we shift the goalposts in our mind, and one day we can wake up and find the thing that was once a source of joy is now just a chore - and we never even noticed it happen.

  13. A lovely piece, Dan. I might just have to steal it for my own blog...!

    It's important, too, to remember that while one writing direction might not lead to success (whatever success is), another might do better: so, while a writer might find it impossible to get her novels published she might well have great success if she starts writing non-fiction or journalism. Sometimes you don't have to give up your dreams, just re-frame them a little.

    (As for cross-stitch: I can't stand it: it's far too little and careful for me. But I sew needlepoint almost compulsively and we have a few sofas we can no longer sit down on because of all the cushions I've made. Lovely stuff.)

  14. Bless you, Jane - it's sort of the practical conclusion of the piece I sent you for your Bad Science series.

    My wife is a cross-stitch wizz. Model-making too. I have absolutely no idea how she can work with that degree of "tweezer skill" as I believe it's called!!

  15. I'm coming in on the tail end here. It's a great post and an important issue for those of us who toil in the arts/writing industries. Luck has so much to do with success, more than we want to recognise. Random accidents of fate propel some up some down. If you are lucky enough to have something in hand when the opportunity comes along then well and good. If not, well that's how life is.
    Not everyone meets their soulmate (vile term), has children, stays healthy and so on. What we expect and what happens are often wildly disparate. I think a solution is to keep very fluid and accept that while commercial publishing may pass you by, all your efforts have brought you other things, other opportunites, other journeys to take, other people to befriend and other shades of your own self to know. Quite often the whole process is like posting a letter - it may arrive at it's destination ten years later and contribute to what you are doing at that time.
    With a painting you have to know when to stop, and with a book too, it's good to develop that insight, even if the painting or mss is flawed - you have to let it go and keep moving. I gave myself five years to get a commercial contract and I was offered one after three. I'm a mutant. But all it really means is the goal posts shifted a bit - if still got to practice and work and face the possibility of tanking. If it still feeds me what I need, but I'm sitting in the garbage bin at the back of the publishers office, I'll keep going. Not to be a success but because it's what I do - whether others like it or not.
    What a ramble!

  16. I heard of some serious research into the 'Just Try Harder' style of motivation and its effects recently. It turns out that people with high self esteem make better use of it than the rest of us, who just get depressed and don't get anywhere.

    There's a strange mix of luck and hard work and maybe other stuff involved in setting our limits. Much stranger than simplistic stuff these guys trot out.

  17. Hi Mr Kimi - yes, my wife has alerted me to the research Richard Wiseman (twitter's favourite scientist and all-round interesting guy) has been doing on this - in academia, it seems, there are instances where positive visualisation leads to lesser performance, because people don't work as hard.

    Phillipa, as ever, I don't have a lot to say, other than that you have a wonderful way of putting things, and it's been really nice to hear from people with experience of many fields of the arts. Interesting to hear it took you three years (and fascinating that, like me, you set yourself 5 years as the target. Maybe I'm not too far off the mark :-))

  18. Phillipa, how strongly your comments about "soulmate" (for want of another word), children, health and fluid opportunities resonate with me. My expectations for life 20 years ago were that I would find a man I could just about cope with living with, have lots of children who I would adore, and be generally healthy. Instead, I have had the exceptionally good luck to marry a man I absolutely adore, the rather bad luck of discovering I am unable to have any children at all, and whatever kind of luck that means I have a long-term mental health disability to deal with. No amount of "hard work" or visualisation can produce the children, but the amazing husband I now have is not one I could have visualised in a million years!

    Oh, yes, I am the wife who does the cross-stitch (which is why Agnieszkas Shoes picked that example), makes models and reads Richard Wiseman!

  19. Dreams aren't BS: depression is BS.

    Nobody should surrender their dreams because of a fear of depression. Life is too short.

    In my mental garden, I prune out depression the second it shows but my dreams are wild flowers that seed constantly and are abuzz with butterflies and bees. When they die, more replace them the next year and I let them grow over everything. If you want 'scientific' examples of the numerous times I've achieved impossible things, I'll provide them but for now, I like this image so I'll leave it at that. :)


  20. Rebecca, I appreciate your sentiment but I have to take exception to this comment of yours: "Dreams aren't BS: depression is BS."

    Real depression is a severe illness, just like cancer or pneumonia. Just like those other diseases, depression can last for years, can stop you functioning, and can easily kill you.

    I've suffered from depression on and off since I was eleven years old. I'm grateful to have been free of a full-blown episode for nearly a decade now but it's still there, simmering away beneath the surface and yes, there are sometimes things that I can do to chase it away; but when it really gets a grip on me I can't just refuse to play along with it and instantly be better. It's far too strong a force for that to be possible.

    Depressives don't choose to have depression any more than cancer sufferers choose to have cancer, and suggesting that people have any choice about whether or not they're going to "give in" to their depression not only reveals a lack of understanding of the condition, it's horribly unkind to the people who it affects (not that I think you mean to be, but there you go).

    Sorry to go off-topic for my rant. I return you all to normal service now.

  21. Gosh, it's getting hot in here :-) I had no idea when I posted this just what a reaction I was going to get.

    I wonder if maybe it's time for me to post something else now.

    Rebecca, it's a wonderful thing to have the mental fortitude to be able to do that, but my personal experience is there are times when that simply isn't possible, and holding onto dreams that one can't fulfil (I would say if I still believed I could beat Usain, but even I might give up on that, so let's say if I realy believed, 8 years ago, that I could be a world powerlifting champion [dicky knee and elbow aside, my arms and legs are just too long - they're the wrong shape for evertything, in fact]) can actually be damaging, because you add guilt and inadequacy to the existent disappointment. Sometimes you have to try and come up with other dreams, but when depression gets too much you have sometimes to put dreams on hold and just focus on surviving.

    Jane, I agree with everything you say.

    I've just re-read Rebecca's comment and I can see that actually the point you're making is not there's no such thing as depression but that depression sucks - on which I'm wholly in accord with you. I do try to nip it in the bud whenever I can feel it coming, boy I try (and it DOES help knowing what the onset signs are). But sometimes I just have to admit it's stronger than me. I find it's rather like facing a tidal wave. If one stands on the beach and tries to hold one's ground, it will just knock you down. If you jump in and let it take you, eventually it'll run its course and you'll come out the other side.

    And now for something completely different - a brief guide to the Bookbuzzr

  22. let me just quickly say...(from the southern hemisphere, so you are all asleep and i always have to come in late) I tell my kids 'if you study hard you will get a good job.) I know it's UTTTER bullshit. I studied hard and have three degrees mouldering in my study to show for it. But I can't say to them 'make the best of what comes your way, be flexible in your goals, recognise good fortune when it happens to you, consider the journey not the destination and remember your dreams and desires are quite often manufactured by a system that wants you to spend money rather than live as whole a life as possible.'
    I can't say it because a. I want them to study hard and b. they don't f**king listen to me anyway

  23. Coming in here very late Dan. I read this earlier and went away to hunt in my memory for a book I read some time ago. Have you come across Steve Salerno's "SHAM, How the gurus of the self help movement make us helpless"?

  24. Thanks, CDU. I haven't, but I will certainly take a look. It does seem that the people who benefit most from the self-help industry are the practitioners.

  25. You mean there are people out there who will pass comment on our efforts? I will have to emerge from underneath my stone then...

    Solipsism, you can't beat it. My vision is right and true and it's the failure of all mortal folk out there who can't see it for all its dazzling fulguration. Is this any less destructive than the 'Must try harder' brigade?

    Writing communities will only get us so far. Our chosen art form is still a subjective and isolating one. Someone gets the sniff of a book deal, they'll be off like a shot. There is no way they can pull us their mates up the ladder with them.

    Sorry to be a touch negative, but it's been 25 years and counting for me. I persist, because my CNS demands that I do.

  26. Sulci, I have known a couple of people who've had a snif at a deal. A smaller couple who actually have a deal. They do more for their literary fellows than anyone I know.

    You in particular persist because history would be poorer if you did not.

    You really should unleash your writing upon the world more often.

  27. Ha, history is for and written by the victors. (Maybe those exhorting us to 'try harder'?) I today's terms that either means commercial success, or being an internet "Lege".

    As to unleashing frequencies, as the earth's magnetic poles are currently in the long, drawn our process of switching polarity, I don't want to do anything that risks perpetrating knocking it off its axis any further. These are trying times.,,

  28. I came across a blog yesterday with that title (history is written by the winners) and was expecting an uplifting cultural challenge. It turned out to be about baseball!

  29. A sport where the athletes still chew (and spit) tobacco... History is indeed written by the winners. In this case a load of drug cheats who hold all the batting records

  30. I'm coming in a bit late to this, I know. Draw the line, you said, Dan. Good advice, though knowing when and where to draw it is tricky. I nearly went bankrupt in a business I had started a few years ago, because I was so convinced (into Positive Mental Attitude big-time) that if I believed a bit more, worked a little bit harder and / or a little bit smarter, etc. ("KBO", as Churchill used to say) then things would work out. Things didn't and eventually I had to draw that line but I should have done it sooner. Despite the financial consequences of that experience, I am not yet as cynical as W C Fields: "If at first you don't succeed ... give up. Don't be a fool."

    BTW, I especially liked the fact that you advised people to decide for themselves what they meant by "make it": we are many of us too influenced by society's definitions of success. And your implication that if you give up the "day job" it will, or at least might, take you longer to get there, not shorter.

  31. Hi Micahel thank you for coming over. It's interesting that the very most "successful" people we see in the business world have often gone bankrupt or come close in teh past. I think there is a certain amount of risk-taking required to be at the very pinnacle. The problem is that most of us see those people and model ourselves on them - but most of us don't want to be at the summit. We DO want to do the very best we can, but in terms of financial reward, most of us just want to get by - and I think that requires a very different mindset - and one that doesn't make for such glamorous self-help books. I LOVED "The Black Swan" - but I think as a guide for the person in the street it does way more harm than good. Most of us need a very solid business plan, a very acute sense of self-awareness, and a healthy dose of realism. Not very glamorous, but more useful than the "reach for the stars" stuff we often get sold.

  32. "Most of us need a very solid business plan, a very acute sense of self-awareness, and a healthy dose of realism."

    I am making another anachronistic and months- later remark to this thought (in case anyone is still looking here).

    As a generalization this is generally very wise, Dan. I'm not sure extreme artists ever fall into the 'wise' category. However, pragmatic and successful while highly talented persons have this stamp. Genii Bach, Chaucer, the Rennaissance painters, and Shakespeare all had it. Arguably, it is the age we live in that determines just what is too risky to our being and what is essential TO our being here at all. Arguably, mania and dedicatory destitution are Sometimes necessary components in artistic profiles. Eastern Europeans tend to favor this thought and remnants of the Romantic age. Van Gogh and quite a few notable poets seem to adhere to it. However, some people decide 'life' over art is the thing. Survival is life. They find a path that reconciles the passionate drive with the need to remain in body to be passionate. That probably says/adds nothing to this discussion, but I thought I'd jump in half a year later anyway. And say it.