The other week, I received an email from a young writer, asking this question:
I want to write a novel, but I can’t seem to focus. I carry around a notebook to capture ideas, but I struggle with sticking to one story for very long. Can you help?
This is a typical battle for anyone in search of their life’s work, the major issue facing most who aspire to do meaningful work in the world. The problem is this struggle is often based on one dangerous, false assumption: You have to start big.
The mistake we make
Every day, people pursuing their dreams make this mistake. They shoot for the moon without taking the first step. Here are some common examples:
- If you want to become an actor, you move to Hollywood.
- If you want to get a music career started, you buy some studio time and try to record a full-length album.
- If you want to be a writer, you start writing an 80,000-word manuscript.
This is WRONG. If this is your strategy, you will end up frustrated, unfocused, and bitter. So what’s the right way?
How a creative habit is formed
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
We become what we practice. If you do something long enough — anything, really — it becomes habitual. Second nature. Like you’ve always done it.
So if you want to “put a dent in the universe” (as Steve Jobs once said), you have to start where you are, not where you want to be. You have to take the first step.
Before you can play like Jimi Hendrix, you have to learn scales and chords.
Before you write the next Pride and Prejudice, you should begin with a short story.
This is the secret to a successful career as an artist: small increments of effort that build up over time to create something meaningful.
The ugly alternative
The only other option is to kid yourself. To create a lofty goal or aspiration and never practice, only dream. This will leave you (and others) feeling disillusioned.
Don’t do this. Your passion deserves better. Instead of going big, go small — really small. Start with something you can do today, even if it’s only for five minutes. And tomorrow, do it again. Maybe for ten minutes. And so on.
Everything from meditation to auto mechanics involves practice. So just begin. Don’t plan or make lists. Just pick up that guitar, sit in front of the computer, or jump on the treadmill.
The more you work, the more effortless it will become. And soon, you’ll find yourself falling in love.
If you need some inspiration, read (or reread) my eBook: The Writer’s Manifesto. It’s short (like 900 words short) and free and applies to a lot more than writing.
Here’s to taking small steps that lead to big impact. Good luck and Godspeed.
What’s something small that you can do today to begin your life’s work now? Share in the comments.