Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Two Moments That Define a Writer’s Life

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I stepped up to the microphone, palms sweating and heart racing. This was the moment I’d been waiting for, the culmination of months of practice and preparation.

Two Moments That Define a Writer’s Life

Looking out at the audience in front me, the bleachers full of anyone who had ever made fun of me, I took a deep breath and held it in. This was it. All the preparation, all those long nights of studying and preparing—it was all going to be worth it. And then I exhaled.

“A-C-Q-U-I-E…”

Stunned faces greeted me as my eyes opened to see my audience—peers, mortal enemies, and teachers—all with eyes on me. A few close friends grinned as they watched, and I closed my eyes again to focus, thinking back to the hours of study, of going to bed early, foregoing TV to squeeze an extra hour of prep time in the morning.

Staring at the back of my eyelids, I could see the words, hundreds of them, in my mind, having memorized what they looked and sounded like. I knew this word, had seen it many times. Now, it was just like remembering a photograph of a place I had visited before. I didn’t need to ask for a definition or a sentence; I knew this word.

“…S-C-E-N-C-E.”

I repeated the word to confirm I was done. Acquiescence. There was a pause, then the moderator, Mr. Simpson, spoke in his deep, resonant voice: “That is… correct.”

The school erupted into a roar of applause and cheers. My friends rushed off the bleachers, running, ready to greet me with high-five hands ready. I had done it. I had won the school spelling bee.

My opponent was an eighth grader who reportedly cried the whole bus ride home. Being a chubby, long-haired sixth-grader with an affinity for baggy concert T-shirts, I smiled a little upon hearing the news. It was a small piece of justice, payback for all those hours of study and all those years of being called a “nerd.”

It was victory, the first thing I had ever really won. The first accomplishment of which I could feel truly proud. But as they say, there is an intimate connection between pride and failure. And I was about to learn all about it.

What failure teaches us

The next year, I boldly stepped to the mic again, backed by an entire class of confident seventh graders winking at me, assuring me I had this one “in the bag.”

Convinced I was special and more gifted than my opponents, I didn’t bother studying half as hard this time. I just knew I’d win. I was wrong. Choking up on the last round, I lost to a sixth grader.

“That was an interesting spelling,” my science teacher, Mrs. Tuntland, said the next hour, right after watching me strike out in front of the entire school.

“Yeah, well… there was another word on the list like it. And I just mixed them up is all,” I said. Having misspelled the word flourishing, adding an e instead of a g to the end, I was a little defensive.

Making matters worse, I’d lost to none other than a sixth grader. Now that was justice. I may have shed a tear or two myself while walking home that day. I thought I had the whole thing in the bag. So why did I lose? Was I not confident enough? Was I not talented enough?

No, it was much more obvious than any of those reasons.

The truth is I hadn’t studied the list nearly as much as the previous year. The reason? Because I didn’t think I needed the practice. I was already a winner. Naturally gifted. What was the point in studying?

Because of my confidence in previous accomplishments, I failed to work as hard as before, and for that, I paid the consequences.

Why practice beats talent

In life, we are given certain gifts and talents. No one would deny this, that some people are better at basketball, or accounting, or singing, than other people. But how one goes about acquiring such skills is the real mystery. Is it innate or the result of hard work? In fact, it might be both.

What I learned from the seventh grade spelling bee is that no amount of natural talent can compete with diligent practice. Being naturally talented is never good enough. Without the work that precedes the moment onstage, you, too, will fail. Not in a “I tried my best” kind of way, but in a regretful, “I could’ve done better” way, which is the worst way of all to fail.

At the time of my failure, I wasn’t mature enough to admit my culpability. There were more important things to me that year, like fitting in and going to parties and finally getting a girlfriend (which didn’t actually happen but was a goal, nonetheless).

For years after, I coasted on “being smart,” letting years of practice and privilege give me the upper hand on my classmates — until it finally caught up with me. Upon entering high school, my GPA dropped, which concerned my parents but didn’t worry me. I signed up for a few extra-curricular activities and eventually joined my first club sport: the golf team.

All the while, I was searching for something, exactly what I didn’t know, but something nonetheless.

The mystery of motivation

Now, I can see what I wanted was something to excel at, something to drive me, something to give me purpose. Like winning the school spelling bee against someone two years your elder, we are all looking for a challenge worthy of our motivation. But this was a mystery to me for a very long time.

If the feat is too small, it will be boring. If too large, it will be demotivating. What we all seek is some project that is both attainable and at the same time a little unreachable, so we are required to grow.

In high school, I started acting in plays and enjoyed them. Words had been a part of my life for so long at this point that it wasn’t difficult for me to memorize a script and then regurgitate the lines on stage. This was lacking in our theater department and immediately set me apart, so I began to score many of the leading roles.

At sixteen years old, after several failed attempts at playing a musical instrument, I finally picked up the guitar and didn’t put it down. My dad taught me to play a few chords, and before I knew it, I was in a band with a couple of friends. Most weeks, we would rehearse nightly for hours on end. It was what I thought would be “the thing” but soon realized it was yet another shadow of my true calling.

Playing old Nirvana songs and strumming a few Zeppelin tunes was fun, but my real passion was creation. I wanted to make something, something other people would hear and enjoy, that would inspire them the way music had always inspired me. Which led me back to words.

In a way, it took mastering one skill to lead me to another.

Finding resonance

I had always written but as I began approaching college, I started to take writing more seriously.

Weeks before graduating and going off to college without any idea of what I might major in, my English teacher who was notoriously hard on her students returned a paper to me that said, “This is excellent. Please consider a career in journalism or writing.”

I received an A on a report of a book I had never read.

To me, this was a sign of giftedness. It made me feel special to not try hard and still get a good grade. But the truth is my mom had been reading me the dictionary since I was a kid. I loved words, of course — that part is important. But I also had a lot more practice than many others. Which is also important.

The following year, I remember sitting in my parents’ car during summer break after my first year in college, puzzled as to what I should do with my life. Reaching into a box of old papers, I pulled out that old book report, hoping it might provide an answer. I suppose it did. But it wasn’t just the giftedness I remembered — it was the practice.

Those two moments — the spelling bee and the English paper — are more connected than I realized. One was a triumphant result of practice, and the other was the epiphany I’d been waiting for, the key to help me unlock the mystery of what my life was about.

The two moments that define a writer’s life are the moment when you realize you were born to write and the moment when you realize how hard it will be. In finding our life’s work, we need both these moments — the times when we realize something comes easier to us than it does to other people and the acknowledgment that without hard work, all the motivation in the world doesn’t add up to much.

Two moments that define a writer’s life are the moment when you realize you were born to write and the moment when you realize how hard it will be.

Are you called to be a writer? If you want to hear the rest of the story and learn more about what it means to write for a living, check out the webinar I’m doing later this week. You can ask me anything. Sign up for free here.

What accomplishment are you coasting on? How has a season of hard work paid off at some time in your life? Share any experiences or questions in the comments below.

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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  • David Mike

    Writing is one of the hardest, but most rewarding things I’ve ever attempted. In July, I will be able to say that I am a published author!

  • Liesha Petrovich

    You’re responsible for my biggest moment in writing. I don’t remember the post or where you said it, but you told me (because I’m sure you were speaking directly to me) to call myself a writer. Sounds so simple, but I didn’t have the courage to do that before you told me I could. So thank you very much!

  • Andy Bouchard

    I’ve been writing all my life. Only rarely have I ever put anything in print. My ‘writing’ has mostly and incessantly been in my head, all day, everyday. When I was 27 I read that Henry Miller (my idol at the time) didn’t write his first book until he was 34. That gave me plenty of time to get started. Now, almost 30 years later, I hope I’m finally getting it together and trusting that it’s never too late to have a beginning.

  • I’ve been coasting on ‘walking the walk’ for 30 years and now comes the time to ‘talk the talk’. After decades of crafting things with my hands I’m now crafting words to help others craft things with their hands. A full and very rewarding circle. Lots to learn? You bet!

    Also feel that your words ‘to be a writer, you just need to write’ were a turning point.

  • Haley Reasons

    Hi Jeff,
    I am new to your blog and really can relate to it. I had early success in life as a teenage professional athlete. I thought my life course was set. I had a natural ability that could not be taught and was seen as gifted. As a result of this, I dropped out of school to carry on with my career. I has no idea the consequences of that action on my future. My career abruptly ended in my early twenties and I had never felt so lost. My life went on many winding paths that led nowhere. I married in my thirties and now have two beautiful girls. I’ve spent the last thirteen years being a mom, but always have felt there was something missing. I’ve always been creative and enjoy watching something materialize from a thought or idea. Someone said to me one day “you see things that others don’t.”. I lack confidence in my abilities due to my lack of education and have let that block me from trying anything too challenging. I have been looking for something to motivate and inspire me. I recently took a chance on something new. I enrolled in an online writing children’s book course. I have loved it and started writing. It is much harder than I expected, but the excitement I feel when the words just start flowing is worth every moment of work. I have completed two books and I’m working on more. I’m not sure what step to take next, but I know if I keep working and learning, it will come. I’m so glad that a friend, Aaron Armistead, suggested that I check out your blog! I can’t wait to learn more. Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge with others.

  • I was born with a natural talent for drawing and artwork. I drew constantly and later cartooned for newspapers. I then began oil painting, but mostly coasted. Finally, I decided to get serious and flew to Idaho to study with a master landscape artist. That trip led to others and took my artwork to the next level. To your point: Find a good mentor and then work hard on your craft!

  • Jeff, thanks for your honesty and for sharing your story. Balancing confidence with drive is something I feel like I’ve spent my whole life fighting to achieve and you put it into words well.

    When I was about sixteen, bloated by previous high placements in various writing contests, I submitted an article to a youth magazine only to have it returned. “I’ll let you try again,” the editor said, and pointed out a few ways to tighten up my approach. I reworked it and submitted again. “I’m still not ready to accept this,” the editor said, pointing out yet a few more problems. “I’ll let you try one last time.” I never did submit again.

    Now, when I reread that article, I know exactly what was wrong with it and what I could not see before. But I was too full of my own self-importance to view it with the necessary critical eye. That dampened my resolve for a while. Until about three years ago, I really struggled with feeling like I wasn’t a “real” writer. What kicked me in the gut was your challenge: “What makes you a ‘real’ writer?” I realized that I had been defining “writer” by an arbitrary standard. I was ALREADY a writer because I wrote and would not stop writing. I just needed to claim that status.

    That’s when I started to DO more with my writing. I submitted to contests and won nothing. I blogged fiercely. I set myself goals. Then last year, I earned Silver Honorable Mention in a very competitive international speculative fiction contest. The practice of the last few years and the tenacity of my momentum suddenly coalesced for me in that moment.

    I couldn’t coast on my natural talent for words, nor could I hide my gift for fear that I might fail. I simply had to write what burned in me, share it, and leave the results up to God. The calling is both beautiful and hard… but it is already worth it!

  • Tyerone Johnson

    Great article Jeff. I’ve always done well in English and was encouraged by my teachers to take up creative writing, but it has only been in the last five years that I got serious with the craft. I used to write only when the mood was right, but I now write everyday. As for talent my philosophy is you and both talent and skill to rise to your full potential.

  • I’m in the middle of realizing how hard it is.

  • Thanks Jeff. Will be listening to your talk this week. This quote got me “Two moments that define a writer’s life are the moment when you realize you were born to write and the moment when you realize how hard it will be.”. In my case substitute ‘to write’ with ‘give Akashic Readings’. It’s an age-old art to do what I do, yet in our modern society it’s still a relatively unknown field and open to ridicule and misunderstandings. The writing for me is a part of that skill. Learning so much from you, thank you!

  • Yo Jeff, I loved this piece, and really enjoyed the great storytelling you incorporated.

    My moment #1: The epiphany struck in the bathroom. I was 30, looking in the mirror, and realized I was meant to write novels. I always knew I loved writing but never knew where I wanted to focus my writing until that moment. I’ll finally publish my debut novel later this year.

    My moment #2: My first story coach offered me a refund. It was a few years into my novel writing journey when a well-known pro story coach read some of my stuff and said, “I can’t coach what I can’t understand.” Of course, I kept grinding and come full circle, I guest posted at his site last October.

    Thanks for letting me share some of my story. 😉

  • WHEW! What a post! Here are my moments.

    Born to Write Moment:

    Writing has forever been my stress-relieving outlet and after a 10-year relationship combined with owning two companies, there was, and has been only one way to get the demons out. This past year I applied Pavlovian tactics to trick myself into writing about anything once a week. What came out of it? A good habit and my first book, AstroWed!

    How Hard This Will Be Moment:

    It’s not the effort that gets me, it’s the money, the investment, the investment in yourself and this life-long project that has an incredibly long shelf life on a very windy road. I knew how hard this would be the moment I wasn’t yet satisfied, but the small incremental achievements along the way keep me filling up perseverance like a travel mug.

    I’ll drink to this post and to all the others who realized writing was meant for them and they were meant to write.

  • Jacob Zoller

    I cannot believe this! I swear, I won my elementary school spelling bee in 3rd and 4th grades, then I slacked off my 5th grade year because I was the oldest kid and I was totally going to win. Naturally, I was quite humbled when I lost to a much younger kid. I still remember the fateful word – “elusive,” which I spelled “illusive.”
    It’s so funny and crazy to hear your story!

    I can’t say I’ve a had a single moment of knowing I was a writer, but there have been small milestones along the way. The first time I worked for hours but at the end felt satisfied that I’d said it right. The first time someone said, “Thanks, that helped me.” The first time someone wanted to read more of my writing.

    I am entering a season of hard work as I devote myself full-time to blogging this summer, and I’ll let you know when it hits home how hard it will truly be!

  • Jodi H

    I love your story in the beginning. Very captivating! I believe anything accomplished means more when hours of practice is involved. It makes me feel capable and worthy knowing I can achieve my goals with effort, passion and conviction. And it is good to enjoy the journey every step of the way.

  • Jo-Marie

    Hi. Love your stories. I was a teacher and saw kids go through the same experiences many times. I knew I was to be a writer when my students “nudged” me into it. Never tell 10 year olds that you have a secret dream you’re not living, especially if you harp on them to live their dreams. When did it become hard? That night when I stared at a blank computer screen.

  • Steven Jackson

    Love the story Jeff. I too won all the spelling bees in grade school and had straight A’s in english and college but never wrote anything. In third grade I wrote a poem and my teacher gave me a C. I never wrote another poem again until one day when I was 45 the windows of Poetry Heaven opened over my life and in the last 13 years I have written about 28,000 pages of poems and parables. I couldn’t believe it happened. Now I am in the battle of my life to publish them and build a platform. Man I need help. I have been a painter all my life and I am struggling to change.

  • Elizabeth

    The moment I realized that I wanted to write was when I was in the first grade. My young creative mind never failed to fashion a world way beyond what I knew. I wrote about dragons that could lay eggs. I wrote about how being the only girl out of my three brothers was a special thing to me. I wrote about anything that popped into my head at the moment. And whenever I had a bad day, I could always write down how I felt and branch that feeling out into a new story with a happy ending.

    Then I reached a moment in my life where I realized that writing was hard. Not only did familial and personal issues take a toll on my writing, but those familial and personal issues changed me as a person. I wasn’t that creative, happy go-lucky girl anymore, because I got a glimpse of reality, and that made me think that I couldn’t create other worlds for other characters anymore. That point in my life, I was depressed. And even during that depression, I couldn’t take that feeling and turn it into a completely different story. That made me realize that I was blocked.

    It wasn’t until I started looking at life like I did when I was a little girl that I realized how much I loved writing again. I began to think more positively. I began to think about the universe and life and how I am one of those lucky people blessed with a talent to write down how I interpret life. Now, I can look up at the sky on a clear, sunny day and tell a story in my head. Now, I can look up at the stars on a clear night and tell a story in my head. I am still struggling, but I am not giving up.

  • N K

    Great article as usual Jeff 🙂 !!

    Can totally relate with the part of slacking off after achieving something we worked really hard for. What we achieved was due to the practice, but as youngsters we stupidly believe we are naturally gifted and then slack off. Now as a full-grown adult I realize that you might have an innate gift, but to use that to create something concrete, you have to really, really work hard.

    Thanks for this beautifully written article.

  • Cheryl

    Your post is scarily relevant. My “Born to Write” moment: more of a realization as I did the “Artist’s Way” about 11 years ago. I loved the writing part. It was so freeing, and I found that I loved to write. But my “This will be hard” moment was last week. Ugh. I went back and read some posts on my blog this is kind of, temporarily-I-hope, asleep. It was the most self-conscious, terrible, stilted writing. And I saw that this isn’t easy. If I’m going to write and write well, I have to work on it. I don’t even know where to start or how to find the time.

    • Arianne

      Cheryl, gosh I feel for you. Don’t do it alone, can we connect? Check
      out http://www.noahuniversity.com it changed my life. Don’t give up hope. Even
      20 minutes a day is worth it. Practice makes perfect. I am limited on
      free time but hate to hear you struggle without a band of sisters or
      brothers 🙂 makes a big difference to have friends, honest business
      partners as fellow writers with you. Let me know and maybe we can get on FB messenger together. Take Care! Keep at it

  • Paul Haluszczak

    I finally had my “ah-ha!” moment and committed myself to writing daily back in December. If I were to put a number on it, I’d say it took me about 5 years in all to muster up the courage to divert from my “natural” skill-set and instead pursue the skills that fueled me.

    I have always believed in experimenting with a variety of things in order to learn something new every day and determine whether or not that topic/activity is something I want to further commit myself to. After years of experimenting and feeling things out, I finally realized writing is what I need to pursue.

    I have spent the last three months developing my first website and as of yesterday, it officially went live. These three months gave me a true sense of “this is going to be hard.” Working 40 hours a week at a job that strictly deals with data analysis, I had to make time for my creative outlet during the time I had left in my day. 4am mornings and many late nights was the result and seeing my weekly progress made it all worth it.

    Now that the website is launched, I look forward to venturing into stage two of this journey. If anyone out there is questioning whether or not to pursue their passion (writing or otherwise), embrace the discomfort and take action. Your future self will thank you.

    – Paul
    yourpenpaul.com

  • I never considered myself a writer, especially of fiction. Then I saw a picture of a girl with a knife and a pumpkin in interesting lighting. For some reason I knew who she was and somewhat about her, a victim of human trafficking.
    So began the story starting with the end first. I just kept backing up and filling in more details. What a way to write! Backwards. I eventually finished it and revised it. It is not published, but I hope to someday.

  • Soo

    Enjoying your sage advice, Jeff!

    Born to write moment: When friends would tell me how much they enjoyed my letters. Yes, I grew up during a time when handwritten letters were the norm. Some years ago, I would submit a photo (with description) occasionally to a community monthly about events in our particular neighborhood. They liked my photography and descriptions so much that they asked if I would take 20 photos of an event and they would pay me. The next month, they offered me a job to write a monthly column about community events with photos. I did that for three years.

    Hard to do moment(s): Nowadays, I have a blog to share about our travels and anything I want to write about. Also have three YouTube channels. I’m retired now and lazy days are my life. Your motivating emails are perfect reminders. I will only get better IF I WRITE DAILY. Thanks, Jeff!

  • LarryTheDeuce

    Just over a year ago, I received my performance review. I had gotten B+ every year for as L go as I remembered. No reason to expect different. Except that I had a new boss. And this post helps me see even better that Inhad been coasting, just using my talent and not putting in the practice. Thanks Jeff.

  • Arianne

    This is most certainly true. Writing since I was a young girl in a journal, I have long held my sacred pencil to my heart. I am a people person, fascinated by the story each person has to tell. I love crafting those into screenplays. My moment was knowing as I graduated high school that I was a writer, I have always known I want to write but it has never been regarded as a worthy way to make a real living financially. I took to my second love of food and cooking. As an accomplished chef I had worked my way up, not the best chef but hard working I learned the value of sweat equity. I learned to coast in cooking because I was a good leader, knew how to leverage the experience. As the Lord would have it the year my mom was dying of cancer I made a career change to a bank business job. Enjoying the 8-5 and weekends I found a new life. I cherished the extra time to write as 100 work weeks in restaurants I didn’t know what to do with all the spare time working only 40 hours. However, without a community, without a mentor and without a framework my writing has piled up without a forum or marketplace. It’s finally all come together, an online university mentorship course in Noah University changed everything. Now the hard work is following the framework, building a tribe (somehow) and remaining true to my gifts. The hardest part and really hard work is seeking hard criticism, having my editor tear me up and seek to improve. I want to coast on my dialogue skills, I want to whip up the story and move to the next one. I have long had many tell me I write well. However, I know I need to write amazing, moving and compelling stories that a producer can’t put down. I know I need to put the hard work into edit and edit again. I always cringe to edit. That’s the parts of any job, no matter the love or passion or gift you have to coast on it that you will encounter a part that comes down to hard gritty gnarly work. Just work man and nothing more. Tough to accept when you want to say I am 40 and paid my dues. I should be able to step back now in life and coast. So.. you can coast to exist like a jellyfish in the sea or you can swim like a dolphin with leaps, twirls and speedy swimming towards new adventures. Swim speedy as a dolphin or float idly as a jellyfish?.. It’s a choice we have to make.

  • Miriam N

    Thank You Jeff. Don’t know if your going to read this or not I mean life gets busy, (never seems to change so maybe busy is normal) but I just wanted to let you know that you’ve impacted my writing life way more then I ever thought possible. I know what I need to do and boy is it ever going to be the hardest and scariest thing that I’ve ever done.

    I have always known I was born to be a writer. But until after your webinar I had yet to have the second confirmation that you mentioned. This morning I was in my house making breakfast and getting ready for school in my usual morning routine. I’m usually lost in thought and today my thoughts were thinking about that webinar I believe. Suddenly a realization struck me.

    This is going to be different then anything else I’ve done. Because writing is so hard for me as I try to constantly fight against doubt and fear, this is going to be different then anything else I’ve ever done. I’m use to running away from fear and things that make me uncomfortable or anxious. But with this I’m going to need to do the opposite. Even just that by itself is going to be hard but combine the writing process and writer’s block and all those writing demons and you’ve got quite an enemy to go against.

    I realized that if I was serious, that if I really want to do this then I need to accept that this is going to be the hardest scariest thing I’ve ever done. And in that moment i realized that I was willing to take that risk. I was willing to let myself be vulnerable and scared and full of doubt. To let myself going through this process knowing that every moment isn’t going to be a piece of cake. I’m willing to make that sacrifice even if it traumatizes me because I love writing to much to give up now.

    I just hope that I can have the strength to make it through. Thanks once again Jeff for your influence on me. It’s much more valuable then any gold.

  • Heidi Mull

    Excellent post, thank you.

    There were lots of little moments that showed me I had plenty of talent talent in writing. One that comes to mind is when my boyfriend needed to write a half page summary of his martial arts background and got stumped after a first draft. I nonchalantly polished it in about 15 minutes, which to me was the easy part but to him was sheer magic.

    My second epiphany came when I thought of all the people I knew who had absolutely amazing singing voices but had never taken a stab at professional work. I thought about how shocked I felt that they had such amazing talent and yet neglected to “publish” it, so to speak.

    I realized I was doing the same thing.

    I think deep down I’ve always secretly hoped that I could somehow develop excellent writing skills that could earn income without setting to work on it in an intentionally disciplined manner. I was always afraid to put too much effort into it because if I wasn’t really trying all that hard then it’s no embarrassment if I fail, right?

    A couple weeks ago I realized that success was never going to happen that way and I needed to sit myself down and bust my butt to make something actually work.

    So now I’m having a serious go at it, and yep, the main problem in the past has been simply not putting in the work. THAT’S what I’m currently training myself to do. You’re right, it’s been a major defining moment in my life.

  • Liviu C. Caliman

    Jeff, this sentence is excellent; the whole article is great, but this part is, I think, special:

    “The two moments that define a writer’s life are the moment when you
    realize you were born to write and the moment when you realize how hard
    it will be.”

    I’d go as far as saying that you may rephrase it so to refer to one’s
    life calling/purpose, especially when it involves great challenges. I
    find the following idea to be true:

    The two moments that define one’s life calling are the moment when you
    realize you were born to do […] and the moment when you realize how hard
    it will be.

    Thanks for your work!!