The Power of a Small Tribe

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Paul Angone, who is the creator of and author of 101 Secrets for your Twenties. Follow him on Twitter @PaulAngone.

How do you justify all the hours spent alone working on your craft, when the rapidly slamming doors all seem to shout, “Keep your day job!”

For years, I’ve been plagued with this question.

Power of a Small Tribe
Design by Paul Angone

I’m passionate about helping twentysomethings struggling with the question of, “What now?” And my debut book on that subject releases this week.

It’s the most honest and vulnerable book I could write about the ups-and-downs of a decade filled with unknowns. And it took me seven years to see it happen.

2,555 days filled with: book proposals, re-writes, dead-ends, do-overs, tears falling down my cheeks while reading seven pages of bullet points and everything target readers wouldn’t like, emails from publishers saying, “We really like your book and actually think it has the potential to be a bestseller, but we can’t risk on an unknown author.”

Cue the long walk on a pier, in the fog, to violin music.

You know you’re becoming a writer when you feel like your heart has been broken into pieces and sold on the black market. Time and time again.

As I sit on the verge of my real, live book entering the world and look back at my writing journey, I realize it wasn’t a literary agent or finely-crafted book proposal that finally opened the door for me. It was a passionate tribe of people who shared a message that resonated with them.

A small tribe can shout very loud. A small tribe can do more than any finely crafted book proposal, marketing plan or well-connected literary agent can ever do.

At least, that’s been my story.

When the way closes

Years ago, I was sure I’d made it. Planning out my speaking tour, third book, and crafting my humorous, yet authentic answers for my Conan O’Brien interview, I was read.

I’d snagged a prominent literary agent, and we worked for a year polishing my manuscript and proposal. Then I sat back, refreshing my email for that one “yes” that would change my life.

But that “yes” never came.

How do you continue believing you have a message worth telling, when no one seems to want to listen?

After pitching one publisher three separate times, and hearing the same response that they still loved the book but wouldn’t sign off for an unknown author like me, the writing was on the wall and smacking me in face.

I needed to find another way — or start selling insurance because this writing thing was obviously not working out.

The platform a small tribe built

I ended my contract with my literary agent and started a website. I finally stopped waiting for a publisher’s approval to share the message my audience needed to hear.

For a year, I wrote to a small, growing, passionate tribe. And I began connecting with my readers — young adults who felt like their twenties were caked in massive amounts of un-success.

My own professional failures were letting me speak into the meta-narrative of my generation. And here’s the lesson I started learning:

Sometimes, you have to go to the dark, dismal place of defeat if you’re going to show people the way out.

The tipping point

Entering a coffee shop on a Sunday for the 1,365th time — baristas and free refills being my best friends — I compiled a list called “21 Secrets for your 20s.” It was mainly a compilation of truths and ideas I’d been crafting over those seven years of frustration and heartbreak.

Three days after posting that article online, my website crashed due to tsunami waves of traffic. I didn’t know such a thing was possible.

Calling my web host, I pleaded with them to turn my site back on. Two days later, the site crashed again and lay shipwrecked on an island in the Philippines for five hours. Again, I didn’t know such a thing was possible.

Thousands of emails from twentysomethings have since poured into my inbox:

  • A senior in college from Indonesia
  • A 24-year-old gal from Kenya
  • A recent grad from Wyoming
  • A professional in New York.

People from all over the world, in all settings from all backgrounds, were communicating their gratitude and relief that they were not alone. All the stuff I’d been wading through for years was being redeemed and used with a purpose and a plan that I never could’ve planned myself.

Seven lessons in seven years

During this seven-year journey, I’ve learned some hard but valuable lessons about life, dreams, and writing:

  1. If writing is solely about being published, you’ll eventually stop writing.
  2. Writing isn’t about external accolades; it’s about how it changes you in the process.
  3. A writer has simply mastered the art of staying in the game, no matter how lopsided the score.
  4. A writer cares more about the message than a publisher’s approval.
  5. Your insecurities as a writer don’t disappear with a book deal. No, they’re just as real and even harder to hide.
  6. A true writer is someone who has consistently carried bucket after bucket of water to fill up a well. People celebrate you the moment it all spills over without realizing the 10,000 buckets you carried to make it happen.
  7. The most formative and vital point of your writing career is when you’re forced to quit and start over. Because at that point you have to find the true reasons of why you do what you do and for whom you’re doing it. Finding your passion is more about failing forward than succeeding on the first try.

This road to getting published has been anything but easy. But I needed to learn how to stand on in spite of failure and rejection f I was going to lead people to do the same. Now, I’m honored to offer hope and encouragement to those making the same climb.

And here’s the last thing I’ve learned: As a writer, leader, or entrepreneur, you have to go first. I wrote this in my book, and it seems appropriate here:

The possibility for greatness and embarrassment both exist in the same space. If you’re not willing to be embarrassed, you’re probably not willing to be great.

Redemption doesn’t show up when planned. But it’s there, waiting for the right moment to turn your greatest failures into something the world is ready to hear. Will you be ready when it comes?

Note: Check out Paul’s debut book, 101 Secrets for Your Twenties, which releases this week.

What’s your story of struggling with rejection? How has a small tribe helped you succeed? Share in the comments.