Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Learn to Love the Work, or Do Something Else (and Other Lessons on Enduring Greatness)

Today, there’s a lot of emphasis on sudden success. If a book doesn’t hit a bestseller list the week it comes out, it is quickly forgotten. If a record doesn’t hit “the charts” on Week 1, it is considered a failure. But is this how great art is made?

Enduring Greatness

This is a question that has bugged me for years: is it better to be dynamite, exploding onto the scene and then erupting into nothingness, or a candle that burns slow and steady for a long time? The world would have us believe it is the former, that overnight successes are what get riches and attention. But now, I’m not so sure.

For years, I thought this was the goal: to be a bestseller, to make a million bucks, to be famous. But every time I achieved one of these milestones, I re-learned an old lesson: what makes writing so powerful is not the occasional milestone you achieve, but the process.

You either love it or we don’t.

Learn to love the work (or do something else)

Do you know the phrase “I hate writing, but love having written”? I hate that phrase. It doesn’t make any sense.

You wouldn’t hear a golfer say, “I hate golfing, but I love visiting the bar afterwards.”

You wouldn’t hear an entrepreneur say, “I hate business, but I love making money.”

And you wouldn’t hear a runner say, “I hate running, but love having run.” If they were doing it for hours a day, mile after mile, you’d expect them to love it, right?

But with certain vocations, like writing, we have a different set of criteria. If you want the result, then you should be willing to endure the process. I want to argue that this is the wrong way to think about your craft. It is impatient and unsustainable.

Instead, we should adopt a new maxim:

Anything less is not honoring the process. It’s a shortcut, which may afford you a few quick wins, but won’t lead to long-term success.

Recently, I had some personal experience with this.

Beware the allure of titles

When you’re trying to prove a point and the opposite happens, you’re left with an interesting dilemma. With my latest book, I was intentionally trying to not hit a bestsellers list because I was focusing on the “long game” instead of the short-lived success that so often comes with instant bestsellers.

So many authors strive for the elusive “bestseller” status, not realizing this title in and of itself doesn’t mean much. Many of the books that end up on The New York Times Bestsellers List hit the list for a week or two and then never sell more than a handful of books afterwards. Similarly, the musicians who hit the top of the charts with a single song but never produce anything after are quickly forgotten.

It’s a flash in the pan, not a long, steady flame.

Contrast this “one-hit wonder effect” with the too-many-to-count perennial bestsellers that never hit a major list but continue to sell tens, even hundreds of thousands of books a year. A recent example of this is Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle Is the Way, which never landed on the NYT list but has sold over 400,000 copies and continues to sell every month. How did he do it? By actively avoiding the allure of a title and instead focusing on the slow burn.

When I set out to launch Real Artists Don’t Starve, this was my strategy: long-term growth over short-term success that is quickly forgotten. But then something unexpected happened: the book debuted on The Wall Street Journal Bestsellers List at #6.

I was legitimately surprised, even baffled. And honestly, it felt good. Hitting a list feels good. It does. Even when you know it doesn’t necessarily mean a lot, it feels validating. But that feeling lasts for five, maybe ten, seconds. Then, you’re left with an important question: What now?

In case you don’t know much about this sort of thing (because I didn’t), becoming a bestseller means you sold a significant number of books (think thousands, not millions) in a single week. It doesn’t mean your book will keep selling or that people even liked it. It just means you now have a new title: best-selling author. And here is the essential problem with titles: they can convince us that we’re doing the work when we’re not.

Author Derek Sivers has a fascinating antidote for this feeling. He says that you have to keep earning your title or it expires. Even though he had launched and sold companies for tens of millions of dollars, he realized he couldn’t keep calling himself an entrepreneur just because he had run a company years ago. If he wasn’t going to keep launching businesses, then he needed to stop. Here’s why (in his own words):

By using a title without still doing the work, you fool yourself into thinking future success is assured. (“This is who I am!”) That premature sense of satisfaction can keep you from doing the hard work necessary.

Stop fooling yourself. Be honest about what’s past and what’s present. Expiring old titles lets you admit what you’re really doing now.

And if you don’t like the idea of losing your title, then do something about it! This goes for titles like “good friend”, “leader”, or “risk-taker”, too.

Don’t get stuck in failure (or success)

When he was 21 years old, Kevin Smith saw an indie movie called Slacker which inspired him to make movies for a living. He went to film school for four months but dropped out halfway through an eight-month program so that he could keep the $5000 in saved tuition and started making a movie.

His parents gave him $3000 to help him finance the film. He rented a camera and some other gear, asking his friends to act in it as a favor to him. It took only a few weeks to shoot and was shot entirely in black and white.

The public screening only had three people show up. Smith was disappointed: “Why did you do this?” he asked himself. But then 20 minutes into watching it, he relaxed. After the movie was over, he decided to:

Pay the movie off and make another one, because you loved who you were when this was happening.

That line — “you loved who you were when this was happening” — struck me, because I don’t love who I am when I’m launching books or hitting bestsellers lists. I don’t dislike that part of the process, but it’s not me at my best.

What I’m doing when I love who I am is writing. I love working on a book: the research, the ideas, the stories — seeing it all come together. I love living in that in-between place, not knowing what’s about to happen. That is the most thrilling part of the creative process for me: right in the middle when anything’s possible.

Start the next one

When he was just at the beginning of his career and had finished his first novel, Steven Pressfield met with a neighbor who also happened to be a well-established author. Steve asked him for some advice.

“Now that my book is done,” he asked, “what should I do?”

“Start the next one,” the author said.

That’s all we can do. Keep doing the work. Find the thing that makes us feel most alive, and do that. Because the truth is as much as we want to control the outcome, we can’t. All we can control is the process. And that is more than enough to keep us satisfied.

Fun fact: that movie that nobody went to see at the public screening? It ended up doing pretty well. One of the three audience members ended up being someone who was well-known in the film world and started recommending Clerks to everyone he knew. The movie was shown at the Sundance Film Festival, and the rest was history, launching Kevin Smith into a successful career as a filmmaker, where he’s still making films to this day.

Sometimes, even our failures aren’t really failures — as long as we don’t get too caught up on any single achievement and keep creating. It’s worth noting that before all the success, and even through some failures, Smith continues to make his art. Good film, bad film. Big success, huge failure. He understands that his job is to keep creating.

What did I do when I hit a bestsellers list? The same thing I did when I didn’t hit a bestsellers list.

Start writing the next one.

Resources

Here are some resources you may want to check out:

What are you doing when you love who you are? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • I had honestly never heard that “hate” phrase before, but you’re right; it doesn’t make any sense! A couple of months ago I watched two opposing TEDx Talks. One said, “Follow Your Passion” and the other said, “Don’t Follow Your Passion.” You have given a third option (good job not succumbing to the ‘either/or’ fallacy). Someone needs to find something they love, or LEARN to love what they’re doing. I think that’s simple yet brilliant because we all instinctively know that some of us will need to collect trash, clean bathrooms, or change diapers for a living…but there is a key: to LEARN to love aspects of the job or to seek out a new one.

    For me, I do love writing, fiction and non. I love seeing the characters develop and change and write the story “for me” and I also love the editing process. Tweaking an existing work and creating a more honed message gives me a thrill…strange but true! But overall, as I thought about your question, the thing that drives me most is asking questions. I love to invite others to think…on purpose.

    My husband has recently affirmed my decision to really “go for it” in the world of writing so I’m excited about where it will lead and am currently working out concrete goals! Thanks for being a constant encouragement. I get a shot in the arm each time I read your blog.

    • That’s great, Lana! Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Mohan Lal Sharma

    Thank you so much. That’s all I can say.

    • I’ll say it right back to you: thank YOU.

  • Ken Hughes

    Superbly put – this one is going straight in my Perennial Recommendations file.

    “Bestseller” has really been a requirement for the main kind of book and music success, because most stores and promoters are quick to kick you off the front shelves to make room for next week’s thing. But that ignores those works that go to the back shelves and just *hang on* there and keep selling for years and more. (And that was before current technology destroyed the finite “shelves” themselves.)

    But thank you for taking this beyond industry-built illusions. Of course focusing on the “prize” can make us think our work is done… when the real question is what we can do next, and what we can be along the way. Spending 40 hours of every week with no satisfaction except making rent is a terrible deal, and we wouldn’t even think of applying to writing: we know “the reward for spending years locked in a room with your dreams is getting years locked in a room with your dreams.”

    A title or milestone is just a snapshot. It really is about the journey.

  • Madeleine

    Thanks.. I’m in for the long term launch on my first book. Firstly, it’s all new to me and secondly, it’s very stressful to explode like dynamite. I like the idea of the ‘slow burn’. I love myself when I am writing, teaching mindfulness or when I was in the process of creating a mindfulness wearable that still hasn’t launched, but I loved the process and I still love my creation.

  • I have actually heard people say they hate writing and love have written. I scratched my head. It didn’t make any sense. I have loved creating ever since I was little and writing when I learned how. I wrote my first novel at 16 without a teacher or a mentor. I didn’t get an MFA degree, I graduated with a Biology degree–the complete opposite end of the spectrum. I love who I am in both writing and in the lab.

    I love writing and creating. I learned to hate ‘selling’ early in life, but that was until I discovered a different way to look at it.

    I agree with the main message of this post in creating long term success instead of flash in the pan success. The pressure to be a bestseller is absolutely painful, especially when everyone around you is running for and claiming that status. I see how they work so hard and burn out, but they have to keep stoking the flame to keep it from petering out. And for the most part, I don’t like who some people have become. I don’t want any of that. I just want to be free to create without all that other pressure that doesn’t really mean anything.

    Thanks for taking us beyond the empty promises the industry makes. If someone hasn’t been there, then how can they know?

  • Patricia Salem

    For those of us who have been writing for a long time and not coming at it as a new passion or profession, there can be periods where we need to relearn how to love the work. I’m not starting a blog or a novel while working another, perhaps more lucrative job.

    I confess one of the worst things that happened to my love of writing was to become a full-time professional freelance writer. Between the long hours to make ends meet, the obligation to satisfy mercurial editors with “trending” yet didactic content, and the simple brain drain of giving everyone else my words all day, I insidiously stopped writing my own pieces and realized one day I had completely lost the urge to write. While it would have been ideal to transition gradually into a writing career and be able to turn down low-paying, often insulting gigs, my personal circumstances did not afford me that luxury. Would that I had discovered you sooner, Jeff!

    The good news is there were still enough embers buried under the ashes of my former lust for wordsmithing that I could rekindle the fire and prevent it from going out completely. The key for me has been to go back to journaling (early in the day, before my energy has been usurped elsewhere) and to create rituals around the process that make it rewarding instead of punishing.

    I approach my daily chores in much the same way; I don’t love cleaning up the yard after my dogs every evening, but if I do it at magic hour, I can enjoy the last of the sun on my shoulders and the final rush of the birds to finish up their days too. Activities like sweeping the floor, watering the garden, and doing the dishes become enjoyable in their own right, in a kind of Zen way, rather than something to be rushed through and checked off on an overly long to-do list. If I don’t do these things, I actually start to miss them.

    The to-do list may be a killer that snags writing in its jaws as collateral damage. Sometimes it’s okay to not like writing, along with other things, because life just gets hard, or overwhelming, or sad, or … The writer who can stay in it long term is the one who can find his or her way back from the precipice of abandonment each time, like partners in a successful marriage. Easier said, however, than done.

    Thanks for the reminder, Jeff. Your post is like going to a wedding when you’ve been entertaining fantasies of seeing a divorce lawyer. Sometimes you just need to hear the vows spoken in a different voice.

  • wendygoerl

    I once saw a documentary on aerobatic pilots, and one of the pilots said he didn’t actually like all the work of putting on the performance, it was just what he paid to be able to enjoy the result. As a writer and artist, I can say both paintings and books have their “ugly phase”–though with books it’s more of a nagging conviction that nobody’s going to want to read it than actually disliking what I’ve done so far.

    As to chasing the “bestseller” status, it’s a nice feather in your cap, but there are plenty of books in the mid lists that keep their authors at a comfortable income. And on the flip side, one of my writing-group friends tells of an email offer he got that would supposedly make his book a bestseller. How? They would give away 100,000 copies to get the rankings up and then start paying him! (I can’t imagine my current library reaching 100,000 copies collectively, and one of them’s been providing me with a paycheck for the last three years.)

    (And Jeff–SPELL CHECK)

  • Jeff, I write a lot of different things, for money or for love (and sometimes both), but without exception there are moments and phases in the work that are sweet flights of fancy, because of the elasticity of language and how sentences and paragraphs can build in tension, promise, anticipation, humor and so many other dramas.

    Some of those sound like they should be exclusive of business writing, but they are not. Writing can be tedium and frustration at times, but it’s also something that can fire that creative spark, and it’s glee when the words are jumping into place. Thanks for a nice piece.

  • Rhauna

    Excellent post. I don’t get that phrase (hate writing…) either; that’s the part of the process I love the most. Too often in my writing process I get anxious about creating something
    that will be a commercial success rather than focusing on doing my best
    work and enjoying myself and the process. I’m going to put the quote by Kevin Smith up on my wall (love his films) because, without at doubt, I love who I am when I write or even when I’m doing all the prep work on a piece. Also, I’d rather create something that endures and really connects with people rather than just a quick “15 minutes of fame.”

  • Harish Subramanian

    Jeff this is one of the truth telling post which most people do not accept. It makes people believe to not to expect your outcome of your work. Just go with the flow of your work, and that is what you mentioned it as a process. Love the concept of yours. keep up the good work and continue the process throughout your life and give us amazing articles to read.

  • N K

    Amazing post, Jeff 🙂 What you say applies to not just writing but to other creative processes as well. When I started following your blog 2-3 years ago, I was looking to create a food blog as I love both cooking and writing. Have been sincerely following many of your tips, and down the way something weird happened. I never got around to start a blog, but somehow ended up building a side career for myself as a recipe developer. While I do contribute recipes to websites and books, I don’t have a blog as yet which was actually my aim when I started following you. However, I’m totally enjoying the process of creating new recipes and have even started conducting cookery classes!

  • I am a techy guy but i have no idea how i came to the art, I didn’t realized the process before this post. but it’s amazing. Thanks jeff for the eye opening post.– I have another post in the list to read which is your. ( infinite Ideas)

  • Hi Jeff,

    If I don’t love my work, I am wasting my time. If I do love my work, the work is the reward, and sales and traffic to my blog and comments are extra, just bonuses, icing on the cake, cherry on top. When I do get frustrated in human moments I think of JK Rowling, and how she had a billion dollar idea every time she was rejected by a publishing house….then how her idea had its time, and was going to take the world by storm, even if a publisher did so by listening to his little kid’s advice.

    Amazing message Jeff, love it. Thanks much 🙂

    Ryan

    • Hey Ryan, After reading this post I decided to delete those tasks from my scehdule, which I do not enjoy ( i mean the process ). heading over to your blog, catch me there.

  • Puja Garg

    Interesting. Kindly email a free copy of ‘Real Artists Don’t starve’ or a copy of the book. I live in Mumbai, India.

  • Hi Jeff, I came to your blog after a long time because I couldn’t resist the title. I was keeping myself back from writing but the fact that success is for short span is very true. All we have to do is to continue the work and not focus too much on the result.

  • Suzan Ozturk

    Hi Jeff
    I love my work being a Holistic Coach and Quantum Teacher. Also really enjoy offering healings and teach people about consciousness shifts.

    I havnt written my book for awhile as I’ve been studying on different platforms of Cosmos, Business and other soul connections.

    I’m writing a program up at the moment for Corporate Wellness. So as you can see I’m busy. My expertise is in the spiritual and Metaphysical world.

    Yes. Even though I have great skills in this area, I find the computer draining at times.

    Thankyiu for sharing your work with us. I look forward in seeing what you have to offer. 😊

  • Vickie Smith

    my favorite part of My Quiet Dolls is teaching one on one, or serving someone by making some very special dolls for some very special children. My goal is to be able to do more of that kind of work and less of the technical part…..the creation is the best part!….

  • Elizabeth

    I love writing, I love to write and I love the deep writing process.

    What I don’t love is showing my writing to others. Everyone is so critical and I’m already my worst critic. I have low self esteem and I lack confidence in myself.

    So the conundrum is the obvious fact that I am initially writing for those critical others. Knowing that “they” will be judging me effects my work and my desire.

    I don’t think there is a solution for my problem. Even now I am dreading the fact that you will be reading this and judging me.

    If you have any advice for this type of catch 22 writing issue I’d love to hear it.

    I appreciate every single email I’ve ever received from you.

    Jeff, you are my idol.

    Thank you for always remembering to send me your daily newsletter.

    Sincerely,

    Elizabeth

    • Kristina Au

      Hi Elizabeth, Your comment resonated with me. You are not alone! I understand your feelings about the very strong inner critic, and have been fighting this for years on many levels. One quote that helped me so much is this: What other people think of you is none of your business. (not sure how to attribute that to, but whoever you are, thank you!) Every time I start to compare myself to others this pops into my head and it helps me. We are all worthy and have value to add to the world.

  • Marsha Ingrao

    Hi Jeff, I loved this post because even after all these years of blogging, I’m trying to find myself. I’m TC History Gal because I WAS the Tulare County History Consultant and I loved it, but I’m not that person anymore. I’ve written one book about the history of my small town as result of a publisher seeing my blog, but that is now two years out. I’ve been floundering around learning more about blogging, trying to write a fiction book, and now trying to monetize my blog, with no success or real enthusiasm. Like you, I love the process of writing, seeing the work come together. I love blogging for the same reason. Right now I want to continue to create great blog posts and write a couple more books and make them the best they can be. Thanks for sharing this article, and congratulations again on your fleeting positional success, and your greater success of enjoying your trade, and providing opportunities for others to succeed as well. 🙂

  • Jordan Hunnicut

    Jeff, I can agree that it is so crucial to honor your process. I love teaching the most. I have been a professional tutor for several years and I love writing. I have done my best to combine the two into a sort of blog. As it stands, not much has come from it. I am hoping that I can get back to honoring these processes without overthinking or being overeager for the results. Thanks for your inspiration! -J

  • jin choung

    dorothy parker disagrees. and imo, it makes perfect sense – “i hate labor but i love having given birth to my baby” or “i hate running into burning buildings but i love helping people.” —
    how could it possibly be that everything that is worth doing is (and somehow needs to be) enjoyable? parker was probably overstating the case for effect but there’s a lot about writing that is legitimately HARD and NOT enjoyable. you need only look at quotes from authors about the process or all the books and articles about things like “writer’s block” and “finding a muse” to know that this is so.

    • Blake Verboom

      Jin, you are right that there are many things worth doing that are not enjoyable and sometimes writing is hard even for writers.

      But I think the heart of this post is not about situations like running into a burning building. It’s about what we choose to focus on as we engage with our passions. Focusing on the success we desire as we engage with the process is not a fun place to be. Focusing on what we love about the process as we go feels much better!

      What you are saying is not wrong, but I think it’s a discussion on a slightly different topic.

      All the best.

    • I disagree with Dorothy Parker, with tons of respect. 🙂

  • Marlane Mazur

    I’m an artist who for many years would give up her sleep when the house was silent at night, going to movies etc. to paint, However,in these last 2 years, I’ve discovered, I cannot be away from my writing for more than a day. I still love painting but I can set it aside when time is crunched, but not my writing. I don’t worry or fret about what I write about as much as just grabbing those moments to jot down my current thoughts. I find myself jotting notes at the counter while cooking supper! I know without a doubt who I am and the only thing I battle with is my own impatience to become better & better. This is true love for me. A relationship worth every bit of the work!! Thanks Jeff for the opportunity to share this. I don’t think I’ve put it in writing before.