Monday, June 14, 2010

How to Find Success


Day 30 of 42

I chatted quietly with a few of my friends as we waited for my English teacher to finish marking our assignment. Unlike past assignments however, I was eager to get this one back. I'd spent two hours the night before working on it, an unusually long period of time for a single assignment. At least for me. Although I'd been put in 'gifted' classes back in elementary school, those days were long behind me. The past year, as a Grade Eleven student, I'd brought home seven D's on my report card. As a high school student, I was more interested in making people laugh than my grades. I was determined to change that, determined to bring my grades up. Part of the inspiration was my teacher, Mr. L. Suffering from a painfully advanced arthritic condition, he moved through the school on special crutches. As a young man, Mr. L had been an excellent athlete, but arthritis had robbed him of his mobility. What it hadn't taken however, was his determination and the sheer force of will that helped him excel as a coach and a teacher. He was frighteningly organized and pointed in his criticisms, but he knew how to give praise when you earned it as well. Perhaps because he was so sparing with it, praise from Mr. L was like earning a medal.


He called me forward, beckoning with fingers permanently curled forward. This was it. I waited eagerly for his compliments on my work, but when I looked at my sheet, my jaw fell.

"C minus? But I spent two hours on this?"

He shook his head.

"You didn't read the assignment correctly. That's not what I was looking for."

I picked up my assignment, staring at the mark and red ink spilled on the page.

"I spent two hours on this." I said again, more quietly.

"It doesn't matter how long you work on something, Steve. What matters is that you get it right."

I didn't know it at the time, but Mr. L had given me my poignant lesson in success. For so much of my life I'd relied on charm and humour to get by. (I'm the youngest, what can I say) Despite the example from my parents, the concept of hard work eluded me. I couldn't fathom slaving away for hours at a job that I hated, and since most people worked at jobs they didn't like, I knew that one day I would eventually have to do the same thing. Just not today. And now that I'd finally put forth some effort, I'd assumed that I'd be rewarded, only to be shot down by the one person who I would never question. I internalized the lesson, but it'd be years before I really understood what Mr. L was teaching me.


Over the years I've bumped into a number of aspiring writers. Every writer, especially the successful ones, can tell you stories about people they meet who talk about writing a book, usually a memoir about their "very interesting life". It's usually pejorative, since they make it sound like writing a book is, you know, not THAT big a deal. And they may ask you for advice, but what they're really looking for is someone who will listen to them bloat about their story and acknowledge that if they could "just find the time", they could write as well as you do. They say this, blissfully unaware of the thousands of hours you've spent holed up in caf├ęs and libraries scrawling away, perfecting your craft with little or no encouragement, alone and sipping cold coffee on Friday night while your friends plan their weekend, to which you've uninvited yourself because you "have to finish this chapter." Oh, and did I mention that as a writer you're also working a full time job, and if you're in a relationship, it probably only works because your significant other fully supports your writing. But you know, anyone can do it, Steve, you just have more time than I do. They're right. I do have more time. Of course, I don't have free time. And if I want free time, I have to give up something… whether it's working a full time job and being able to afford all the niceties of life… or working full time and finding time to read and write four to six hours a day. And here's the real catch; I am not a published novelist. Not yet, at least. Yes, I've published a few articles, and could publish more if that was the direction I wanted to go, but my heart is set on writing novels. And the prerequisite to attain the most basic level of skill in my craft has been thousands of hours of work. (So there you have it. Advice on success from an unpublished novelist. I'll be expecting a cheque when you make it.)

Ultimately, success requires commitment. It requires sacrifice and the ability to prioritize. Even as an unpublished novelist, I've heard so many excuses over the years from people who are unwilling to sacrifice, unwilling to put their video game down to work, that I'm afraid I've become a bit jaded. This is especially evident in systems where hard work is not rewarded. The public school system comes to mind. I worked with a number of young teachers pouring their heart and life into their students, only to watch the older teachers, who had apparently "paid their dues", leave early each day. In the screwed up hierarchy of our education system, the older teachers were usually making double what the younger teachers made, with much less investment, using the same lesson plan from ten years ago. Understand, this type of system can kill your success motor. We teach students that they should work hard, but show them that hard work isn't that important once you "get in." After working for the school board for six years, I was thoroughly jaded, and it's taken two years to erase those lessons. Two years of working as a trainer with no sick days and no vacation. If I don't work, I don't get paid. And more, since training is relatively expensive, my clients are all successful, and in watching them, watching how they work and why they're successful, I've learned more in the past two years than I did in all my years of schooling.


It's cloudy this morning, and a bit humid, with the promise of rain. A good day for writing. Two years ago I would have already headed home, seeing as how I'm working on about three and a half hours sleep again. I've been up for four hours, and it is not yet 9am. My last day off was about two weeks ago. And as a writer, there's no such thing as a full day off. Don't get me wrong, I love writing, but it's work. All that said, I've never been happier. (Or more exhausted) The past week I met an old classmate from my hometown, who told me that they had decided they were going to concentrate on their writing. He didn't want to work however, and couldn't understand why people couldn't simply see his brilliance. I empathized, because I'd felt much the same way when I was younger. My empathy was limited however. Through the years I've sold door to door, spent three years telemarketing, worked in so many different jobs that my students used to ask me what I HADN'T done, that I have little sympathy for aspiring artists who are unwilling to do menial labour as if it's beneath them. If you're not willing to work, if you're not willing to make the commitment to success, what makes you so special that you should have it? Other people are just as talented… why you?

I know what some of you are thinking. Steve, I've seen your bank account, what makes you think that you can talk about success? The answer to that is easy. Because I think that I'm a success. One of the first keys to success is understanding that only you can define what success means. That's true in our relationships, in our work and in our passions. Don't let others define it for you. Believe me, if I accepted the traditional North American measure for success, money and material goods, I'd be an abysmal failure. I choose to define my success by my progress towards my goals and the quality of my relationships. Which leads to my second point. If you don't know what you want, your life will be defined by other people. If you let other people define you, you will never know the contentment of true success. Set some goals. You've heard it a million times, but if you're not willing to spend a few nights over a sheet of paper thinking about what you really want, you forfeit the right to complain about your life. And finally, understand that what matters is that you get it right. Allow me to give you a Mr. L moment. I read different blogs in the publishing industry, and I'm always amazed at the laziness evident in the comments and questions. Spend the time to get it right. Read the writer guidelines carefully. Go to the library, or sit in Chapters and read the books on your field there. Want to be fit? Commit to it. Turn the TV off. Go to the gym or go for a run. Do you work in an environment like the school system? Set goals for yourself and ignore your colleagues who would rather complain than work with their students. Is your relationship miserable? Stop complaining and do something about it. Figure out what you want, define your success, and start moving. Don't worry about the bumps and ignore the countless people who will challenge you because your 'movement' upsets them. As soon as you start, you'll notice something very odd. You'll notice that your life no longer feels like a treadmill. You'll notice that you don't take crap from people as easily. You'll notice that people will start asking you for advice. Most importantly, you will feel alive again, because you will have control. Most of us don't realize it, but as we age we generally cede control of our lives to everything from TV shows to cynical work environments. Start taking control again. Stand up for yourself. And if some people in your life are toxic by their laziness or complaining, limit your time with them.

One of the benefits of training is watching people who have never been fit slowly acclimate to a lifestyle of exercise and healthy eating, watch how suddenly they feel invigorated again and how it carries to other areas of their life. That can be you. All you have to do is commit.