Monday, September 12, 2011

Persistence & the Myth of Overnight Success

I’m always irked by the way the news media presents superstars, particularly in entertainment and the arts, as overnight successes.  The overblown images of these media darlings are much like icebergs.  All you see is the tip.  The many years of hard work and failures that it took for these people get there—the other 9/10ths of the iceberg— is hidden beneath the surface.

The reason superstars are painted this way, I believe, is that it sells newspapers and ad clicks.  Most of us don’t want to hear that Brittney Spears’ spent her entire childhood traveling around the country singing at shopping malls, desperately trying every angle she could to break into show business.  Or that Woody Allen was booed off the stage night after night, for years, until he finally developed his unique style of comedy.  Or that J.K. Rowling lived through a decade of poverty and strife while her writing was endlessly rejected by publishers.

Why don't we want to hear this?  Because it makes being successful sound so very difficult. 

But success is difficult.  It's difficult in any field, at any place, at any time.  

The  "instant success" myth is not only misleading, it's damaging to those just starting out.  If you’re trying to be successful at something and success doesn't come immediately, the way it seems to on TV, it’s only natural to think, "Well, I guess I just don’t have the talent, that magical X factor" and throw in the towel.

There is no "X factor."  We can all name lots of extremely successful people who seem to have very little in the way of raw talent.

The secret is persistence

If you study the celebrities I’ve just mentioned as well as successful people in all walks of life, you see that the underlying ingredient—even more important than talent—is pure, blind persistence.   I know that you’ve heard this a thousand times, but it’s true.

Mainly I’m speaking to the many fiction writers out there who are digitally publishing their books like I’m doing, trying to make it as self-published authors.  It’s a tough game, baby, I’m not going to kid you.  I was online for 12 hours a day, three months straight, before I ever sold even one book to anyone who wasn’t already friend or acquaintance.  It's disheartening to get up every morning and check your Amazon or Smashwords sales, and see: 1, 1, 1, 1, 1...knowing that the one book you've sold is the copy your mother or best friend bought as a “mercy buy.”  With everyone around you giving positive but shallowly supportive comments, accompanied by underlying looks that say, “What are you wasting your time with this for?  Don’t you realize it’s fruitless?”   

Under these conditions, the temptation to give up—to escape that debilitating feeling of failure—is almost overpowering.

However, if you persist, and you have something of true value to offer your readers, you will eventually break through.

But the same thing applies to any difficult endeavor in which you're struggling to achieve success.

I have always been impressed with stories of prisoners who were able to dig through a three-foot thick wall of concrete using only a nail or a teaspoon, simply through desperate, dogged persistence.  If you scrape off only 1/8th of an inch of concrete per day, after one week you’ll be one inch of the way through; after 3 months, one foot of the way through; and after 9 months, you’ll reach the other side of the wall.

Persistence.  There is no substitute for it.

Will you have to change your approach from time to time?  Definitely.  If your nail doesn't seem to be scraping away any concrete, sneak into the prison library and steal a paper clip.  Or wet the concrete with water to soften it first.  And by all means, peek into the next cell and see what your neighbor is doing.  If she seems to be making progress, copy her approach.

The theme of persistence is evident in many of my novels.  In Lust, Money & Murder, Elaine Brogan persists through hell and high water to avenge the wrongful imprisonment of her father—she spends four years studying hard in high school so she can get into the Rhode Island School of Design, where she takes a double major in Intaglio Printing and Russian, all so she is qualified to apply for a job at the Secret Service.  Once she gets in, she has to fight her way through the organization's incredibly difficult training academy...and those are just her first few steps!  In both Wild Child and its sequel, Kyle Dunlap persists in trying to find an acceptable solution for Brianna's severe addiction to the green water, going against the will of his domineering father, fighting off aggressive government agents who will stop at nothing to get their hands on it, and resisting Brianna's ceaseless pressure join her in drinking it and becoming an addict himself. 

The most important advice I can give to anyone who is struggling to be successful at anything, is simply:

Never give up.


  1. You know, Mike, you are such an encourager and I like the way you see to the heart of the matter. Nothing good is ever easy, period. We have to learn to look behind the lies. Too good to be true always is. As Proverbs says, "a workman is worthy of his hire." Work hard = get paid...slack off = starve.

    Definitely tweeting this and sending this article to my critique group. Thanks!

  2. Definitely hit home. I've put off querying again for one more round of critique groups too many times after the first batch of rejections. Time to bite the bullet and submit again. Different genre, teen sf/fantasy, but same problems. I'm finding as many non-campaigners to follow as campaigners. Go figure. I'm at
    You can follow me back there for a chance of chocolate or a gift card, and vote for my flash fiction if you like it. Thanks for the encouragement!

  3. I agree, Mike. Talent is a word used by people who have never worked hard at anything to describe people who eat, breathe and sleep what they do -fun or not.

  4. this is a wonderful article. All writers need to read this, to heed this and to REMEMBER this advice.

    you must FIGHT for your dreams. Thank you for being an advocate for writers. Keep it up

  5. Like you were speaking right to me. Of course, most of my frustration comes with the book itself. I'm not done making it the best it can be, so it's not out there right now getting me sales (or not getting me sales). I get frustrated by how looooong the process is when some people can roll out 12 books in 18 months. If anyone has advice for how you write faster without allowing the quality to suffer, I'm all ears :).

  6. You and me both, Aric. About the people who appear to be rolling out so many books in a short period, I believe many of them are just pulling out all the unpublished manuscripts they've written over a period of years, giving them a quick polish (or not), and digitally publishing them. I think this is a temporary gush and will settle down eventually. So hang in their and stick to quality, it will pay off in the long run.

  7. All I can say is "Amen!"

    I'm ending up a hybrid author with both indie books and a new NY contract for a series because I kept scraping myself up off the floor and trying again. Persistence truly is the key to success. Oh, and hard work and good writing, too.

    Thanks so much for telling it like it is, Mike!

  8. I have spent most of my afternoon at the day job reading past posts (shhhh don't tell anyone), but this one really got me. It is so very true. Being a serious newbie to the game I have been soaking up all the info I can. I dream about selling millions of books and being lumped with some of my favorite authors, but I also know it will not happen overnight. I have merely dipped a toe in the literary ocean and have a looooong way to go. On one side it scares the bejezzus out of me. On the other, it is the most thrilling thing I have ever done.

    Thank you for keeping things real.

  9. Overnight Success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
    But you know the media...unless it is instant they don't want to know. Great post and such inspirational truth.

  10. In "Outliers" Malcolm Gladwell points out the Beatles' years in Germany playing an incredible number of hours for not much money, but they were honing their craft. He goes on to say that if you want to be world-class at anything, just spend 10,000 hours doing it. Either Steven King or Ray Bradbury has said that anybody's prose will suck until s/he's written a million words. I leave as an exercise to the student the computation of the number of words per hour you should shoot for.

    I used to think that my obscurity and the obscurity of all unpublished writers was a terrible thing, and if only we all had a book deals, all would be perfect. Poppycock. I hadn't written a million words yet. Jon Acuff points out in "Quitter" that obscurity is a good thing. He was cranking out his first blog that nobody saw and nobody criticized while he made all his rookie mistakes. It's freeing to know that if you screw up, nobody will yell at you.

    Thus I think Mike's advice is spot-on, and if you really need a decision point when to give up, set it at 1,000,001 words or 10,001 hours of writing time. (Of course figuring out howto market your books, that's extra.) If you want to be a writer, this is the price you should plan on.

  11. Mike, I too thought of Gladwell's "Outliers" as I read your article. It really hits the nail on the head. Although many of us know that it takes persistence, it always helps to hear from people like you as a reminder. Now, back to my writing.

  12. Good to hear this.
    I am slowly and steadily seeing sales rise and it feels good.
    The hardest thing is keeping on keeping on when it seems like everyone you hear about is doing so much better.
    At what point, though, if any, should a writer actually say, I've persisted, I've worked my arse off for X years, must I now accept I don't have the product, the talent to make it?

  13. Viv, thanks for your post, I'm glad things are improving for you. About that last question, I don't believe "talent" is relevant in discussions of success (can't really nail down what talent is in the first place, let alone find any correlation between talent and sales volumes) Second, if you don't have the product, as you say, then it maybe it's time to ask your current readers, "What is it about my book that you liked best, what did you like least, and how can I make the next one even better?" In other words, tweak your product (and perhaps the marketing approach) to make it appeal to a broader audience, and continue to tweak with each new offering. I don't believe there has ever been a successful artist in any field that did not have to bend his/her work or vision to some extent to start selling in larger numbers. The question then becomes how far are you willing to bend before it feels too much like "selling out" to you?

  14. Hi Mike,

    Great comments - and great encouragement for those of us that may be wondering just what good is going to come of all their hard work. Hang in there Mama and keep writing!

  15. I know you are referring to writing but I believe your words pertain to life in general!

  16. Thank you so much for writing this! It's odd why entertainment media don't talk about how hard people work, because stories like that are so inspiring! I'm just starting out in terms of self-publishing, and know I have a long row to hoe. All encouragement helps - and real encouragement comes in the form of advice a person can actually use, like that persistence pays off. I let myself get a bit discouraged this afternoon because my Kindle reports page wasn't showing the numbers I knew for sure had been bought (by friends and family, of course) and people in the forum said that some of my "buyers" had lied to me. I know they hadn't, and yet for some reason that bitter lack of faith got under my skin. So it was good to read this, thank you.
    By the way, I got here through a retweet by Michael Scott. That's pretty cool!

  17. So true--sometimes we just need to hear it again! Thanks for posting this!

  18. In the words of Randy Pausch, "Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want something badly enough. They are there to keep out the other people."

    You can't control luck or natural talent, but you can control dedication. I am a HUGE fan of persistence!

  19. Great advice. But as my daughter graduated from RISD I know they don't offer Russian. I guess that's why they call it fiction.

    1. Apparently you didn't read that section of the book very carefully--I said she took the Russian courses at Brown. Double majors can be set up between the two schools. I research my books very carefully.

      Anyway, thanks for your commment about the post.

  20. Thank you for the encouragement. I'm at the point in my 'writing' career where I'm staring at the beginning numbers of sales and they're not changing, and I ask myself: did I do something wrong? Hence, why I'm searching around and running into these kind of articles, hoping to find something to help me out. Again, than you so much. I won't give up.

  21. Thanks so much for this post! I really needed to read it just now. I was just about to start wondering what sort of appeal my book could have if no agent wants to take a chance on it.

    But it does. I just know it. :-D

  22. This is a great post. And I am glad I read it. Sometimes I get really scared when I think all the work that a writer needs to do. Thank you for give us some strength.

  23. Great post, Mike. It really made my morning. Especially when I also found that my Kindle book had sold a couple of copies in Denmark. Now that's not friends of family buying it!!

  24. i'm an artist,working on my art career now for 40 years,came up to nyc from baltimore in 1973,thought i was going to be an instant sucess,well,its taking a little longer than i thought-took 26 years to come up with anything orignal

  25. Nicely said, Mike. Sometimes it helps to gain a little perspective...I needed to read this. I have no doubt that I will be successful, but I need to be reminded that things may appear stagnant on the way there and it make take several years to reach my goal.

    Persistence matters because not only does it get us to our end goal, it's what helps us build our skill and strength. I definitely won't give up!

  26. I watched Katy Perry's documentary last summer and had no idea she had been working so hard, for so long, to become what she is now. This post is so true. Hard work and persistence are vital to success!