The Secret to a Successful Writing Career (Is Not What You Think)

Do you want to know what the secret to a successful career in just about any field is? It’s failure. As a writer, I’ve experienced this first hand. But what I’ve discovered through the process is we often misinterpret failure.

Picture of a typewriter
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Most of us treat as an obstacle to be avoided. But failure, as I wrote in The Art of Work, is really a friend dressed up like an enemy.

We think that when we fail, we are moving away from success, but we’re actually moving toward it. That is, if you fail in the right way. So what’s the right way to fail?

I love telling people my current website was my ninth attempt at blogging. What happened to the other eight, you ask? Well, they were total flops. That’s right — I had to fail eight times before succeeding once. Not a great track, I know, but as it turns out, this isn’t quite so rare.

Albert Einstein worked in the patent office for the greater part of a decade before creating his first breakthrough success. Steve Jobs was fired from the company he started, launched a failed startup, and drifted from one project to the next for years before finally returning to Apple.

But of course, these men weren’t just biding their time. They weren’t waiting for the world to notice them. They were practicing. And that’s the secret to using failure as the ultimate tool to succeed.

What failure taught me about writing

It took me seven years of failure to learn a simple lesson about writing. After those years of frustration, I finally figured out why my attempts at “making it” weren’t working. Now, I see others making the same costly mistake.

We think getting our work noticed is about chasing trends or finding the right topic. I certainly did. A slave to the whims of the masses, I would pursue any idea or approach to writing that would win me some eyeballs. But the more I did this, the more I felt like my craft was dying.

I wasn’t writing from the heart, and it showed. Nobody read my stuff, and even fewer people liked it. Feeling like a fake and about to give up for good, I discovered an important truth, one I had been missing since the beginning.

One day, while sharing my frustrations with another writer, I was complaining about nobody noticing my work in spite of my hopping from one news-worthy trend to the next. And thankfully my friend put me in my place. “Jeff,” she said, “good writing isn’t about finding the right topic. It’s about finding the right voice.”

Oh. So… I tried that.

I began writing in a way that resonated with me, which sounds a lot easier than it was. But I tried it, anyway, and was surprised by what I learned. And the more I looked around, observing the styles of best-selling authors, popular bloggers, and world-renowned comedians, the more I saw the same thing. The secret behind the world’s most successful communicators is they all have a voice, a worldview, a perspective that makes them unique, and worth following.

This paradigm shift helped me tap into the power of my own voice and gave me the confidence to share it. Suddenly, I didn’t have to be like everyone else. I could be myself and trust that someone would read my work. And it wasn’t long before people did just that. Maybe all that failure was the perfect preparation.

The truth about failure

When you are in a season of failure, one of invisibility in which the world hasn’t recognized your genius yet, the truth is you may not be failing at all. You may be laying the groundwork for the future. That was certainly the case for Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs.

During his years of working in the patent office, which was the only job he could get at the time, Einstein started a discussion group called the Olympia Academy.

This group of intellectuals met regularly to discuss science and philosophy and challenged Einstein in his thinking, influencing the work that would later make him famous.

After being fired from Apple, Jobs led a small animation company called Pixar. He launched NeXT Computer, which in spite of being funded by Ross Perot failed, except for the fact that it created the operating system that now runs every Apple device. At Pixar, Jobs learned how to be a CEO. And at NeXT, he created the technology that would eventually save Apple from bankruptcy.

Both men were revolutionaries in their own right. They succeeded because of how they approached failure, seeing it as an opportunity the practice their skills and prepare for the next season. They weren’t dreaming of a big break. They were setting the scene for the next act.

Sadly, most writers don’t do this. They try to imitate someone else’s success, copying the strategies of someone they admire. They neglect the opportunities failure provides and chase after the dream of tomorrow instead of doing the work of today.

But what if you did something different? What if instead of waiting to be noticed, you used whatever opportunity you have today to make an impact? What if, like Einstein the nobody, you created your own network so you could start honing your craft anyway?

What if, like Jobs, you used failure as an advantage, and spent some time finding your voice, figuring out what you wanted to say and how you wanted to say it? What if you started doing the kind of work you could be proud of?

Well, then you just might be on your way to finding your tribe.

Three lessons on finding your tribe

A tribe of dedicated followers and fans is a powerful thing. This is what allows you to publish a book or start a business. It’s what can lead to that career change or the distinctive that makes your work stand out. As Seth Godin has written many times, it’s hard to succeed without one.

There are three lessons I learned from my failure as a writer that ultimately helped me succeed. Maybe they’ll help you, too:

  1. Don’t chase trends. Write what you want to read. What resonates with you just might resonate with an audience. This is a far more secure way to approach your craft than just doing the popular thing.
  2. Don’t try to find the right topic. Find the right voice, and let the rest of the work come. This is the secret to doing sustainable work you can be proud of that allows you to shift your focus over time (if you so desire).
  3. Don’t just follow your passion. Find your tribe by making your work matter to others. Do the hard work of serving your audience and trust the readers will come (because they will).

Getting people to care about your work is tough. It really is. But it isn’t impossible. There is a way out of this rat race, one that allows you to not feel like a fake while still getting the attention your message deserves. And it starts with you finding your tribe.

Start building your tribe today

For the first time in seven months, my online course Tribe Writers (where we teach you how to get your writing noticed) opened this week for registration.

This only happens a couple times a year, so if you’re looking to become a better writer, build an audience, and get your work noticed, you don’t want to miss this. And if you join before midnight tomorrow (August 6), you’ll get three exclusive bonuses that won’t be available later.

Here’s what we have for you:

  • The Book Launch Crash Course from Tim Grahl (a $50 value)
  • The Rapid List-Building Course by Bryan Harris (a $225 value)
  • Learn Scrivener Fast Student Level by Joe Nicoletti (a $127 value)

I’m a huge fan of each of these guys and the work they do, so it’s fun to offer these to you if you sign up soon. Don’t forget: This is in addition to the hundreds of dollars in other bonuses you can see at

What’s more, if you join Tribe Writers Premium, you’ll also get one free ticket voucher to the Tribe Conference and save $200 if you sign up before 11:59 p.m. Pacific on Thursday, August 6, 2015. After that deadline, the price goes up. So if you’re on the fence, now is the time to join!