The Surprising Secret to Becoming a Great Writer

How do you become great at something, maybe anything? One of the biggest myths I see people, especially writers, believe about growing in their craft is that it’s all about practice. Sorry, but that’s just not true. There’s more to it than that.

As I’ve written before, practice is essential to getting better at any skill—especially writing. But how this is done is often a mystery to many people. Becoming great at a particular skill is not just about what you do or how you do it. It’s also about who you learn from.

I’ll say that again to emphasize how important this really is. Any fool can practice. But to master any skill, you must find the right teacher.

How Hemingway became better, then became great

Ernest Hemingway moved to Paris in the 1920s to become a writer. And what was the first thing he did? He sought out the greatest writers he could find, many of whom happened to be living there at the time.

This was not a coincidence. Since coming home from serving with the Red Cross in WWI, he was determined to become a great writer. He began with journalism, living and working in Toronto for a year. But he soon realized this was not enough for him. He needed to be around the writing teachers he never had.

So he moved home to Chicago and sought out Sherwood Anderson, a popular novelist at the time. Hemingway asked Anderson what he should do, and Anderson told him to move to Paris, where “the most interesting people in the world lived.”

What happened next is what resulted in a young journalist becoming the most famous author of the 20th Century. I’m not overstating my case here. Mention the name Hemingway to anyone familiar with the English language, and they will nod in recognition of the name, even if they’ve never read anything by him.

But how did Ernest—the unknown writer—transition to Papa, the legendary writer history won’t soon forget? And how did it all happen in seven short years? The difference wasn’t any innate talent of Hemingway’s. It was the education he received in Paris and the people he learned from there.

Hemingway became better by practicing. There’s no question about that. He had incredible discipline and dedication, but he didn’t learn these things on his own. No one does. In Paris, he had the right mentors who guided him in his journey towards greatness, and that’s everything.

Take Hemingway out of Paris, and you don’t get Hemingway. And there’s a lesson in there for all of us.

Greatness begins with learning from the greats

The first step towards greatness is to get around the right people. Fortunately, you don’t have to move overseas to do this. But you can’t get great on your own. You will need help. And the good news is help is all around us. We just need to recognize it.

I call this an Accidental Apprenticeship.

In the Middle Ages, people became professionals by studying for years under a master. They often worked for free in exchange for free living quarters and invaluable experience. Most apprenticeships lasted seven years before the apprentice went to work on his own. Incidentally, this is precisely how long Hemingway lived in Paris.

Today, most professions lack a formal apprenticeship process. There are still a few vocations that require it, but for many of us—especially those working in the arts—the best apprenticeship we may have is a summer internship fetching donuts for our boss each morning, which will not lead us to greatness.

So what can we do? Are we lost to squander our time here on earth, unable to reach our potential because we lack the right guides and teachers? Not at all.

Note: If you want to join me for a free book study this summer, you can join here for free. Each week, we’ll read a chapter of my best-selling book, The Art of Work, and I’ll do a live video answering any questions you may have. Click here to watch last week’s session.

What we have is a network of mentors all around us—in books, blogs, and even in our everyday conversations. The hard part, then, is to recognize these people while they’re in front of us so that we can make the most of the opportunity.

The truth is life is your apprenticeship, and the more you embrace this reality, the more you will learn. And the more you learn, the better you get. So if you want to become better at what you do, you can’t just sit in a room and practice for eight hours a day. You have to learn from the greats, which begins with a very important but scary choice.

You won’t have just one mentor

Most of us will not have one lifelong mentor who changes everything for us. We will have a multitude of mentors, some of which come in and out of our lives without our even noticing it until they are already gone.

But as I said before, the better you get about recognizing these people, the more you will grow. How do you recognize a mentor? Simple. A mentor is anyone you can learn anything from. In other words, anyone can be a mentor.

The way you find the right teachers, though, is you learn to ask the right questions. And let’s begin with the wrong questions to ask. Here are the things you should avoid:

  • Can I pick your brain?
  • Can I ask a favor?
  • Will you mentor me?

That’s right. These are practically the worst things you could say to a prospective mentor.

Why?

Because picking a person’s brain does not honor their time and experience. Instead, ask to buy their lunch and come with specific questions about why they made this choice or that and how it led to their success.

Because asking for favors is not something you do the first or second time you meet someone. It happens long after you’ve established trust with that person.

Because asking someone to mentor you is the worst way to find a mentor. The best way is to build the relationship organically and give a name to it later. Most mentors, though not all, operate this way. They want to invest in you and see if you are teachable before formalizing the relationship with titles that neither of you may necessarily be able to live up to.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If you can learn from practically anyone and they’re just an email away, how do you find them? Well, that’s the scary part: you have to reach out to people who might reject you. And most people do this the wrong way.

How to get an influencer on your side

People often ask me how I met Michael Hyatt, a popular blogger, and author who has been instrumental in my success. There’s no doubt that if I hadn’t met him, I would be much further behind in my career.

What people don’t realize is that I intentionally sought out Michael, spending the greater part of a year getting to know him. We met for coffee when it was convenient for him. (The first time we did this, I waited two months just for something to open up on his calendar.)

Then we exchanged over 50 emails (I went back and counted them) over the course of seven months before I asked him to do anything. What was I doing in those 25 emails I sent him that he replied to? Asking for small pieces of advice on my blog and in my writing career.

I learned this from my first boss and mentor Seth Barnes, who taught me that any time a person of influence gives you their time, you must take notes and then tell them how you put into action whatever advice you gave them.

This is so rare. I often tell people when I meet with them that if they do this, it almost guarantees I will help them in some way. Still, most people don’t do it. The way you get a mentor to invest in you is to honor their influence.

Three practical steps you can take to make this work

What does that look like practically? Put their advice into action. It’s just that simple. You don’t even need to meet them in person to do this. Here’s how it works:

1. Stalk your mentor

Yes, you heard me. Read everything they’ve written. Buy their books. Listen to their podcasts. Almost every leader has a digital footprint these days, so find it and use it to study this person. Become very familiar with their work before you reach out to them. No, this is not creepy. It’s how you honor people who have spent years developing a body of work.

2. Put the mentor’s advice into action

For example, I tell people if they want to write, they first should start calling themselves a writer. So when people tell me that my book helped them to call themselves a writer, an artist, or whatever, I love hearing that and often want to help share that story. My friend Bryan calls this the Poster Boy Formula. It works because you’re making the influencer look good.

3. Reach out to the mentor

After you’ve done all of this, your next step is to reach out to your prospective mentor and engage them. Like I mentioned above, this will take time and patience. But if you do this right, you will win this person over.

All you want to do in the first few emails is let them know how you’re applying what you’re learning from them (without them having to expend any extra energy teaching you one-on-one). Because it’s one thing to be a person’s fan. It’s another to prove their stuff works. (Incidentally, this works for authors of fiction, too; you just want to demonstrate that their words have influenced you in some way.)

If you do this, as Hemingway did, you will attract the attention of many mentors who want to help you succeed. They will find you irresistible. Why? Because a teachable spirit is rare.

Allow me to illustrate with an example.

Recently, I hired an editor who spent months seeking me out, offering to help me. I wasn’t sure what she was looking for. Was she just trying to do something so that I would owe her? Unfortunately, a lot of people take this approach, so many influencers can be skeptical.

But the more I interacted with this person on social media, the more I realized she had been reading and studying my work for years. How did I know? Because she would randomly reference my worst-selling book or recall some random detail about my life that I had blogged about years ago.

Did I feel creeped out by this? Not at all. I was humbled, honored even. Because this is why I do what I do—I want to connect with people.

Every writer secretly fears no one cares about their work. So when you, the apprentice, reach out to the master and tell them, “Yes, I’ve been paying attention and putting it all into action,” how do you not want to spend more time with that person, and help her in some way?

Like I said, hard to resist.

So there you go—a simple formula for getting influencers to pay attention to you and maybe even mentor you. Stalk. Apply. Ask. It’s that simple and that hard.

If you’re interested in learning more about finding a mentor, then join me and others this Wednesday for a discussion on this topic based upon my book The Art of Work. This is a free book study, and you don’t have to buy the book to join the conversation.

What have you learned about mentoring and getting in front of influential people? Do you have any experiences of doing this right or wrong? Share in the comments.