What defines success? Sometimes, it’s being the one still standing at the end of a long journey. Like the boxer who goes the distance with the champ. The Ironman triathlete who crosses the finish line late into the night. Or the superhero who refuses to give up.
Sometimes I wonder how I made it through engineering school. I look back on it realizing now how naive, undisciplined, and unfocused I was throughout those years. I was only the second person from my family to go to college – my older sister preceding me – and a lot of that time was spent flailing and failing. I often wonder why I didn’t stop. Give up. Change majors. Leave school. Quit.
I honestly think I was too stupid to try giving up.
I legitimately think that at that point in my life, I was so inexperienced that giving up on college just didn’t occur to me. Don’t get me wrong – I realized that I had to have a job in order to survive, pay for rent, eat. But all the jobs I worked were on campus jobs – things I could only get as a student. I was in school doing school things working school jobs…so I just stayed there. Even though it was hard, I didn’t really know any other path. So I put my head down and kept at (with a couple of detours later – but those are for another post).
I made it through college because I didn’t give up; because I didn’t know any other way to live my life at that point. I graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering because I just kept digging. Not necessarily because I was good, although I did find I was capable enough.
I’ve noticed this aspect to my life elsewhere.
When I was younger, I ran 5k and 10k road races. Nothing fast; I wasn’t competitive. I just liked to do them, I did the decently well, I got swag from them (new t-shirts were especially useful), and they were good exercise.
I did a few in the flat lands of my home town, then went to college where I kinda forgot about them for year or so. After finding my lovely wife, I saw one advertised that would take place on college grounds. It sounded fun, so I signed up and without one iota of training, ran an 8k in the mountains of Utah where my school was. Several thousand feet higher in altitude than my previous stomping grounds.
I finished in decent time, got congratulations from my wife, and promptly proceeded to vomit all over the ground because I had pushed myself too hard at altitude with training to adapt to it. There were several points along the 8k where I felt tired or woozy, but I just pushed on, not really thinking about it. I didn’t know to slow down. Bullheaded.
Have I mentioned I can be really dumb when it comes to sticking with something?
Applied to Writing
No, the lesson is not “I learned I’m dumb,” although I probably could do a whole post about that too. Rather, it’s this idea of sticking through something difficult. Sometimes, you’re not even aware that you are doing something difficult.
Writer success stories suffer from surviorship bias. When we read about an amazing author who wrote her story on napkins at a local pub or the self-published phenom who gets signed to a multi-million dollar contract with a large publishing house, we’re hearing the successes. Those who made it. Even if we heard a thousand success stories such as these, got every detail, could an aspiring writer really replicate it?
Knowing how “X Author” broke in and became successful isn’t going to give a struggling newbie an understanding of what it takes to succeed because she isn’t hearing the hundreds of thousands of stories of failure. People who fail to become writers don’t spend a lot of time telling others the “why” they failed, and that’s believing they even know why. So how would that struggling newbie know if she is doing what it takes to succeed if they don’t also know what to avoid doing to fail?
So, what does one do in that case? If I, being a new author trying to get represented and published, can’t rely on success stories, and don’t have access to all the failures, how am I to proceed?
As a college student or a runner in that 8k, it was the same. As the student, I knew of people like my sister who had graduated (though in a completely different field), and I knew the people in the same courses, classes, and labs as me, but I didn’t know anything about those who had failed, dropped out, or never made it in; they had been lost from my associations. As the runner, I could see people disappearing ahead of me (being a little more successful than I) and those who were right around me running at my same pace. The ones behind who had to stop because of cramps, dehydration, or fatigue – and even those who never entered – I knew nothing about them.
So, what I’m trying now as a writer also is the same approach. I have been learning about those who succeeded; my writing group all about the same place as me; but the failed aren’t on my radar. And I likely don’t realize at this point how tough becoming a published writer actually is. The best I feel I can do is take the same dogged approach: never knuckling under, never giving in, and never giving up.
I’m not saying that being bullheaded will guarantee success as a writer, for me or anyone else. But I have seen how many times in my own life where continuing to show up, day after day after day, finally lends itself to my success.
I’m fortunate in my life right now that converting to a writing career isn’t a financial necessity for me. I can continue to be an engineer for decades to come. So I’m not under the pressure that some of you reading this will be under. This post may not be for you. If you’re looking for tips on success, I’m not sure I yet have them to offer. But I do know the value of continuing to plug away until something relents and lets you in. I have learned that there are ways of “succeeding” that won’t match what initially intended, but when viewed with hindsight absolutely constitute winning. And for right now, that’s enough for me.