Parc del Laberint d’Horta, Barcelona (Photo: Marcel Germain)
Big successes often seem like foregone conclusions.
In reality, most entrepreneurs (read: creators) who appear to have unique genius suffer through the same frustration as the masses of unknowns. They simply test and persist a few steps further.
Richard Branson will tell you this of his Virgin empire.
Tony Hsieh of Zappo’s shares similar stories.
Steve Martin can prove that it applies to anything creative, not just business.
Below is a piece of paper from 2005 I recently unearthed while purging books and folders from my house.
It reflects a complete failure–protracted over weeks–to find a good title for what later became The 4-Hour Workweek (4HWW). Most of the ideas are horrible beyond belief, and it wasn’t until I tested a few variations using Google AdWords that we decided on “The 4-Hour Workweek,” which I still disliked on multiple levels.
Here are two pages of frustrated attempts, two pages of dozens (click to enlarge, then click again)…
Let me know which title is your favorite ridiculous option. “This Sucks,” perhaps?
But, moving on, what of 4HWW writing itself?
I’m pleased to report that the writing flowed like a crystal clear stream. Perhaps a torrent of genius. Sometimes–how should I put this–I amazed even myself.
Oh, wait a second, I lapsed into fiction. Back to reality: the writing, for the most part, made me want to Hemingway myself. On good days, I’d settle for the impulse to slam my own head in a car door.
I tossed the first four chapters I wrote and almost gave up on multiple occasions. Futility was the brain soup du jour. Draft, doubt self, panic, hate self, throw out draft–rinse and repeat.
To give you an idea of how many rewrites it took to get right, here are two early draft pages of a sample chapter. Far from the worst I produced, but still far from polished (click to enlarge, then click again):
It changed only when I started viewing each chapter as a magazine article: strong enough to be a stand-alone piece, including a clear opening or “lede”, a clear middle with case studies, and a punctuated end with lessons learned.
From that mindset, a few trial runs, I developed a chapter template that involved starting with a dialogue or anecdote (even if it was scrapped later) and moving through the above steps to a resource-rich “Tools and Tricks.” I needed a repeatable process. To sit down to “write a book” was just too overwhelming, even with a table of contents as a blueprint.
If you plan on any creative undertaking, whether business, writing, or art, I strongly recommend the book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. If you spend a lot of time working alone and get trapped in your head, it’s required reading.
It saved my sanity and has done the same for several friends who’ve gone from “I want to quit” to New York Times bestsellers.
Most miraculous successes are nothing of the sort.
Those on front lines, the people who seem to jump into the limelight from nowhere, experience the same plodding frustration and trial-and-error as the rest of the world.
They differ in that they don’t expect luck to help them, nor good fortune to save them. As James Cameron would say: “Hope is not a strategy. Luck is not a factor. Fear is not an option.”
James might also tell you that the best creators are like ducks. They appear to glide along serenely on the surface. Beneath the surface, however, they’re kicking like a motherf*cker.
Keep calm and carry on.
Odds and Ends: NYC Launch Party Highlights!
The following video was shot and edited by the incredibly talented Michael Gebben.
The NYC launch event was an all-around huge success. Sadly, NYC weather decided to serve the coldest day of the entire season, and an unexpected mandatory coat check (due to fire hazard potential) backed up the line and left more than a few people freezing for far too long. This led some people to abandon ship, including many of my closest friends and family. I did my best to take notes, learn from it, and make amends.
For positives, the event helped raise almost $10,000 for DonorsChoose.org, it was a total blast, and I’m planning a summer party in NYC with a slightly smaller crowd.
I hope you enjoy the video:
And for those wondering, the song in the video is “I Want It All” by Copperview.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 500 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.