One thing I hear people say over and over is, “I wish I had self-discipline.” I even hate to admit that those words often come out of my mouth, too. In previous blogs I have confessed that I used to be reigning queen of Do-It-Later Land, a sad realm nestled in the Post-It Note Mountains. Over the past couple of years, I’ve managed to change a lot of bad habits, and I am much more productive. How did I do this? I finally understood a couple of core principles, which I am going to share with you guys today.
If we really take a hard look at successful people, are they really just so much more talented? Lucky? Gifted? Maybe. Yet, one day something life-changing stood out to me. If we look at a lot of the best-selling authors—James Rollins, John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Tess Gerritsen, James Scott Bell, Bob Mayer, Amy Tan, Allison Brennan (to name a few), what do we see?
A bunch of big names. Noooo. What do we really see? Aside from all the best-selling titles?
James Rollins—a former veterinarian and now an avid explorer, spelunker and diver.
John Grisham—criminal lawyer and member of House of Representatives from 1983-1990.
Michael Crichton—doctor and graduate of Harvard Medical School.
Tess Gerritsen—graduated Stanford then went to medical school at University of California. Practiced medicine in Honolulu, Hawaii.
James Scott Bell—formal trial lawyer later taught as an adjunct professor at Pepperdine.
Bob Mayer—Graduate from West Point. Served as a Green Beret and leader of an A-Team. Also runs marathons.
Amy Tan–Pursued a Doctorate in Linguistics. Left the doctorate program to consult for the Almeda County’s Association for Retarded Citizens. She spear-headed a language development program for the retarded. Later Tan started a very successful business writing firm.
Allison Brennan–Consultant for the California State Legislature, and later a homemaker who reared FIVE kids…and kept them alive and clean and out of jail while WRITING NOVELS.
Sure this is a group of highly intelligent and creative people, but look at the backgrounds. What do they all have in common? Perseverance, self-discipline, and the ability to put off short-term gratification for long-term reward. The ability to be self-directed. Veterinary school, medical school, law school, Special Forces training, endurance sports, homemaking and successful entrepreneurship all require the same elements. The exact character traits that make a successful doctor, lawyer, soldier, mother or consultant are no different than the character traits that make a successful writer.
It is all in a change of mindset.
In my almost 10 years of working with writers, I’ve met a lot of highly intelligent, supremely gifted writers. But, after talking to them fifteen minutes? I know they won’t be around very long. It is clear that despite talent, they have life attitudes and habits that will always keep success beyond their reach unless they change their approach.
Successful people are willing to get up earlier, stay up later, work harder and never stop. They will outpace their competition every time. Why? Because self-discipline isn’t a once in a while thing, “Oh, I was so good today.” Self-discipline is the foundation of the successful life….not an accessory worn when we feel particularly inspired.
So do you have self-discipline? It is easy to say “no.” I know my nature is actually quite lazy. If left to my own designs, I am so lazy I think my heart might stop. For years, and years I had so much trouble staying focused. I would “be good” for a day or two and then would fall off the wagon, roll under the wheels and get caught up in the axle of said wagon until someone heard me whining and cut me free.
Then one day I understood something so fundamental that it changed everything.
You have self-discipline. I have it. It is part of who we are. Confused? It’s okay. Try this.
Unless you have suffered a birth defect or tragic farming accident, you have a bicep muscle. If you can use your arm, it means you have a functioning bicep. Now, it might be puny and withered and buried in fluffiness…but you have a bicep. So do I. So does every person on the planet with functioning arms. Yet, unless you USE your bicep, train it, feed it good nutrition and vitamins, it won’t do much more than move your arm. To have strength and tone…you must exercise your bicep so it can grow stronger.
Same with self-disciple. The more we use it, the stronger it becomes until it is tough as iron…just like our muscles. So some simple principles:
We Must Be Wise How We Train
Just like working out our biceps, we must be wise how we train our self-discipline if we hope for long-term success. If I wanted to build my bicep and I went to the gym and did 500 curls with a heavy dumbbell, then who is the REAL dumbbell? My arm would be sore and likely injured, and it certainly wouldn’t inspire me to want to return to work out. Self-discipline is the same. Don’t start Day One trying to have the discipline of a Shaolin Monk. That is a formula to fail.
We Must Be Mindful To Progress
Just like curling the same dumbbell eventually can cause a plateau, self-discipline is the same way. Make sure your goals get progressively more difficult as time goes on.
Start with small goals and progress from there. Small successes inspire us to try harder, bigger, better tasks. Too many writers start out with some stupid word count goal that is destined to fail long-term:
I am going to write 5000 words a day.
What happens is they burn out and hate their writing (been there, done that got the T-shirt). Start with 250 words(one page) six days a week and go from there. If 250 was way too easy (like curling a 1 pound weight) then adjust until it is slightly beyond comfortable. Once that word count becomes easy, increase by 15%….just like weightlifting.
This works for any self-discipline. Don’t go on a diet and cut every last unhealthy thing out at one time. Start with lowering the number of sodas and increasing water intake. Then no soda. Then onto no fast food. Easing into these life changes helps make them life-long habits. Just like writing 5000 words a day cannot sustain a career, eating nothing but celery and protein shakes is no way to eat for life.
Learn to Fail Forward
Failing Forward by John Maxwell is one of my favorite books. Successful people are successful because they have a healthy relationship with failure. They view it as a learning experience, reevaluate and then try again, and again and again, each time modifying the approach. Persistence is more than not giving up. There is a fine line between persistent and stupid.
If my goal is to climb Mt. Everest but I’m on Mt. Shasta and refuse to give up, I am not persistent, I’m a moron.
Yet, how many writers keep shopping the same manuscript that’s been rejected time and time again? They refuse to dig in and do the tough revisions or move on to a new book and in the end it kills their success. The first book is often a learning curve. Use it. Learn from it. Fail forward.
Failures must be stepping stones, not tombstones.
Don’t Let Feelings Vote
How I managed to change my life around was I learned to stop consulting my feelings. They no longer get a vote. I don’t wait until I feel like writing. I write. Writers write. I don’t go to the gym only when I feel like it. I get exercise. I plan on being a career author and that requires me to be fit, healthy and relaxed.
I look at the old Kristen and want to go hide my head. I waited for inspiration on everything and that’s why I had a lot of messes and very little victory.
People have a mistaken understanding of how life works. Most of us believe the feeling comes first, then the action and then the change. Heck, I did.
Action is always first. Action, then the feelings will change and finally the results change.
I always tell myself, “Kristen, I know you don’t feel like going to the gym. You only have to get on the treadmill 10 minutes and, after that, if you are still tired, depressed, etc? You can go home.” In three years I have gone home only once. 99.9% my feelings change as soon as I get moving.
Feelings are a horrible guide. Feelings can be affected by diet, weather, activity level, the news, traffic, PMS, kids, cat puke in our slippers. Feelings are a terrible compass. Are they important? Sure. The bumper on my car is important, too, but it makes a lousy navigational system.
Just remember, “Amateurs wait for inspiration. The rest of us get up and go to work.” ~Stephen King.
So the next time you look at those authors you admire so much, you might rest easy knowing that you very well could be just as talented. Talent isn’t something we can much control. But, this is good news. This means, then, that the only things separating us from the Author Big Leagues are life habits that we can control. And that is FANTASTIC news!
What stumbling blocks do you guys face? What challenges? Any tips or tricks to share? Great books to read about self-discipline? What is your success story? I want to hear! Are you a reformed slacker, too?
I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of August I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.
In the meantime, I hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.