It’s like failing to harvest mature wood from an oak sapling, then abandoning it because you think it will never grow big enough to be worthwhile.
Often we start something in a flush of enthusiasm. But when it doesn’t yield significant results immediately, we get discouraged and give up. The gym routine, language class, or novel is dropped because you thought for sure that a month or two of effort would be enough to make progress.
But take a different view. How would future you feel if you persevered with small efforts now? In five years, what can you achieve by daily practice?
Graphic designer Ethan Tennier-Stuart showed stunning improvement over five years. Every skill responds to deliberate practice. Talent has to be matched with effort to achieve its potential.
Small Numbers Still Count
All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small. Lao Tzu
Everything starts off small — a word, a note, a brick — but put enough of them together and you can build something astonishing.
Write two hundred words daily and you’ll have enough material for four novels. Writing over a third of a million words is guaranteed to hone your skills.
Years ago I wanted to write seriously. But I was juggling home and work and exhaustion, and couldn’t see how to find time or energy for it.
So I committed to one hundred and fifty words daily after dinner, whatever happened, even if I just typed I’m so tired over and over. Sometimes it was gibberish but eventually those words turned into short stories, then a novella.
If I’d waited for the ideal conditions I might never have started. My daily goal was tiny, but that’s exactly what made it achievable. Persistence pays off in the end.
When it comes to ageing, we can’t turn the clock back. But we can slow some processes down. Future you will thank present you for wearing sunscreen daily, cutting out that dessert or bread roll, and getting enough sleep.
Walk thirty minutes daily and you’ll see your health improve. Make time to connect with a child daily, and reap the benefits. You’ll build better connection in fifteen intentional minutes daily than in the most amazing annual vacation.
It’s all about building big improvements in small increments.
One step after another in the right direction will take you as far as you need to go. Don’t discount any small amount of progress — success is built of innumerable tiny actions.
The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.
Make time work with you, instead of feeling helpless.
Time will pass anyway, so use it to build something you’ll be proud of. Pick up your first pebble right now and start to move your personal mountain.
Do you sometimes feel like you’re banging your head against a wall?
Your puppy fetches the ball, but won’t drop it. Your golf handicap is stuck at 22 despite taking lessons from the club pro. You can’t get past 25K words in your novel.
Or maybe the situations are all internal. Despite resolving to work smarter, you can’t stop playing that online game. You resolved to write 500 words daily but you wrote barely 500 in the last two weeks.
All these situations share one thing; you’re not getting what you want. Instead, you have effort without progress. You’re tempted to shout in anger or walk away in disgust.
It’s just not working. And you don’t know what to do next.
You might assume that as you become more skilled or experienced, frustration lessens. Sadly, that’s not true.
The novice knows she lacks skill. She has everything to gain and getting it wrong is a necessary part of the process. She endures the frustration of failure because there is no other way to improve.
Now consider the skilled practitioner who wants to improve. She’s gone through the early stages of learning and she has a decent level of skill. Now she wants to step up her game. She knows what she wants to achieve and she’s confident, having done something like it before.
If she enters a new arena where the players are more advanced, she must return to the novice position. This isn’t easy, because it entails putting aside her hard-earned pride in her skills. The frustration in failing again at what ought to be easy is huge.
Some years ago I took a postgraduate course on teaching adults. A twelve-month course was condensed into eight. The students were all respected professionals with letters after their names. Enthusiasm varied but the course was mandatory and how hard could it be?
We struggled. Every one of us.
The academic writing style was alien to me and my tutor’s comments reflected that. We were used to working hard for top scores; what do you mean the marking range is 50–60 marks?
We couldn’t accept that a mark of 54% was deemed a reasonable pass, that 58% would be excellent, that 60% was perfect and impossible to achieve. The workload was tough, on top of demanding full-time work and managing both practice and teenage family.
One woman, traumatised by failing an assignment for the first time in her life, never returned for the second module. I was used to being a high achiever, and suddenly I was in unfamiliar territory with a hard deadline to meet.
I had to find another way, fast.
Beginner’s Mind is Only the Start
Needing to have things perfect is the surest way to immobilize yourself with frustration. Wayne Dyer
Beginner’s mind is that state in which the student is like an empty cup, waiting to be filled. In it we accept that we don’t know; we keep an open mind.
In reality, we can’t jettison everything we think we know so easily. For expert professionals, a great deal of self-worth and ego is tied up in knowledge and competence, the things for which experts are respected and rewarded.
A pragmatic compromise is to separate things we know from things we don’t yet know. It’s tempting to let real skills in one area bleed into an assumption of skill in another. Hence pop stars try to act and actors try to sing, with varying results.
For me and my postgraduate student peers, it meant returning to a state we’d left far behind us; a state of ignorance.
I had to let go of my past behaviours and assumptions. The minimum needed to pass was an aggregate score of 51%. That miserable number still required a ton of work.
We could argue about which referencing style was superior, or we could accept that the university required the Vancouver style and get to learning it.
I still had my skills in studying, revising, and time management. I still had expert status in my own field. Being a beginner again didn’t negate those things.
I only pushed through my frustration after a clear analysis of the work and resources needed, but without overvaluing my past experience.
There’s no shame in not knowing, as long as you’re prepared to learn.
A Different Playing Field
You have expectations about the effort needed and the results you can expect from that effort. You experience frustration because either:
You’re putting in an effort but not achieving the goal.
Your actual effort is less than your perceived or promised effort.
1. Nice Try But No Cigar
You must figure out what is blocking your progress and then be ready to act, even if it goes against the grain. It’s okay to ask for help. High achievers have coaches and mentors on their teams.
Do you need to lean into practice? The very best practitioners in all disciplines practise over and over. They hit millions of balls, run thousands of miles, or write millions of words before the world sees them winning.
Moving up a level in your field rests on doing more. And then, when you’re sick of it, do it again.
Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did. Newt Gingrich
Improving in a new field means checking your ego at the door. Listen to the coach and follow instructions. You can’t win at baseball using a golf club or marathon running techniques.
2. The Lies You Tell
Are you guilty of complaining? You tell anyone who’ll listen that you just don’t have time to write, you’re too busy to work out, or you have special circumstances that stop you from doing what you said you would.
Before you can lie to someone, you first lie to yourself.
You already know what stands in your way. You prioritised it and did that instead. Hard work is hard and boring. You want an easy life — but here’s the thing.
You can have excuses, or you can have results.
You can have excuses, or you can have results. The choice is yours.
Other people have achieved what you want with fewer resources and greater challenges. So decide what you really want and commit to it fully.
Assume you’ll fall into bad habits again, then plan around your weak spots so you keep working.
Fill the fridge with healthy food options. Pack your gym bag at night and put it in front of the door so you can’t avoid it the next morning. Use distraction-free software to keep your focus on the words you’re producing.
Tell yourself the hard truth. You are the only one holding you back.
How Much Do You Want It?
Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe. Sumner Redstone
Why suffer through frustration when it’s easier to give up?
Because the obstacle doesn’t block your path — it is the path.
The obstacle is there to teach you humility, to test your resolve and strengthen your muscles, to drive your growth.
And the prize will be all the sweeter after the struggles you endured. It’s time to stretch for the higher fruit.
Have a comment or question? Drop it in the form below and let’s talk.
Are you tired of giving away your best work and seeing no return?
You’ve taken the advice of experts who say they’ve cracked the code.
It’s simple. People don’t buy from strangers, so you need to build a following. Show up consistently with great content at no cost and earn the right to offer a paid product. Frame it as service, sharing your gifts with the world, or whatever else. The expert’s smiling profile picture beckons you. It can be done and they’re the living proof.
So you work and put your words out there, and you start to see results. You get more reads and votes. Then the excitement of those early gains fades. You’re still working, but not breaking through. You work harder to produce better stuff but it doesn’t translate into bigger returns.
You’re shouting into the void.
You begin to question yourself.
How far are you along the road to success?
How much more effort do you have to put in before it bears real fruit?
Are you on the edge of a breakthrough, or should you cut your losses?
You Don’t Know How To Think About Art
Most professions have a defined path. You study certain subjects at school, get a degree, then pass further qualifications. That’s how I became a doctor. Attaining defined milestones guaranteed success. I proved myself and the world recognised my achievement.
The artist’s way is different. Each creative person brings a unique set of skills and desires to their career and there is no one true way to achieve their goals. There is no map. There is no prescribed skill set or summative assessment. There is no definitive endpoint to say you’ve made it.
How can you continue to work under those conditions?
The issue is not lack of commitment. It’s a lack of certainty. The artist must commit to the work knowing that the outcome is uncertain. Progress in art is not measured by simple metrics.
Progress is hard to measure in any creative endeavor, I think. It’s often a matter of instinct, of feeling your way through what works and what doesn’t. Kate DiCamillo
A professional attains a required standard and then uses their skills to make a difference. An artist makes a difference by practising their art and sharing it. There may be different notions of what makes good art, but the artist must create and share in any case.
Embracing the essential uncertainty of the path and committing to making a difference despite the uncertaintyis the keystone of the artist’s mindset. Without that acceptance, you will falter and fail. Creating something new entails taking risks and leaving the known behind. You must be willing to sacrifice some security in exchange for novelty.
Even though the artist’s path is variable, undefined and badly lit, many people have walked their own version. I believe it’s possible to find a way through.
Do Just One Thing To Guarantee Failure
You’ve already done so much, and you’re sick of it. A hundred posts, a hundred rejections, ten thousand hours, you’ve done it all.
But remember that everyone, no matter how successful now, started at zero. Zero followers, reads or votes. Zero book sales and earnings. If you are past zero on any measure then you are already succeeding at some level. Give yourself some credit, and keep going.
When you look at the successful people in your field, remember survivorship bias. Their results look better because the failures have left the field. You don’t know what combination of hard work, talent, and blind luck got them to their current position.
What you should know is that by continuing to show up, you increase your chances of being in that group of survivors. When others give in to their doubts, put your head down and keep going.
Success lies along an exponential curve. If you put in the work and practise deliberately, you’ll move along that curve until you reach the tipping point.
You have to do the work and there is no shortcut. That means writing while implementing all the advice you’ve read, not just continuing to write the same way without implementing new techniques. That’s not real practice and doesn’t count toward the tipping point at all. Many writers don’t understand this. Act on advice so that you improve, and keep going.
If you stop before the tipping point, the rock rolls back down the hill. You’ll be crushed by the process and much less likely to try again. Go on without stopping until it starts to feel easier, and then keep going.
Every industry and creative endeavour has its rock stars. They are the titans whose success dwarfs all others. Each has such a massive audience that acclaim is almost guaranteed, whatever they produce.
You might notice that their later output isn’t actually stellar quality. No matter. They’re at the far end of the curve, and now receive high rewards for less effort. Their situation is the reverse of yours.
None of that matters to you.
They struggled in the beginning and stayed the course to make it. And the environment in which they succeeded is not like yours, because time has passed and everything changes. Their past success has nothing to do with your future success and does not prevent you from seeking it.
Stop reading them and indulging in self-flagellation or angry rants about their content. This is the embodiment of drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. It hurts you and only you.
Compare yourself only to past you. Are you moving in the right direction? Don’t chase unicorns, chase your future.
Serve Your People Better
“I haven’t got an audience,” you say. But you’re here and I guess you have a few followers or readers. The number isn’t big enough for you yet, but it’s not zero.
So what are you doing for those people? Are you like those annoying corporations who woo new customers with all their best offers and leave their existing customers in the cold? You’re so focused on the people who don’t know you that you turned your back on those who do.
Some people are watching. Some people have shown interest and faith in your work. Think of them as individuals, which is what they are. What are their needs, fears, and dreams?
Then ask yourself how you can meet their needs, nurture their dreams, inform and support and entertain. You’re here to serve in some way, so dive deeper. Give your fans 100% of your effort and knowledge and insight.
Discover the problems your actual audience has right now, and offer solutions.
An Inconvenient Truth
When you’re used to putting in the work and seeing direct results, this is a particularly hard pill to swallow. The action ⇢ result switch appears to be broken because you acted but nothing happened.
This is true — but only in the short term. If you continue and keep faith in the process, you’ll find that what you’re seeing is not failure, but delayed success. Keep going.
Time For A Reality Check
I know you want to give up because I want to stop too. The things I want seem too far away, and my efforts are too small to make a difference. I’m tired.
At this point, you need to remind yourself of your effectiveness. When you feel useless, it bleeds out into a generalised despair. But you’re not a total failure. You’ve succeeded at many things already both large and small. You’ve survived life so far.
I had a professional mentor once who I found almost impossible to work with. I needed the six-month placement to complete my training. Most of my days were spent just surviving because you can tolerate any job for six months, right?
I barely made it.
Almost nothing of what he tried to teach me remains, except this. He advised me to keep a compliments file. Since it was inevitable that someone would complain about my work, and I would feel bad about myself, the compliments file provided a reality check.
You feel like you’re useless and everybody hates you. But other people enjoy and are grateful for your work. Print out those comments and emails. Keep them in an actual file that you can see and feel. Person A felt your words helped them. Person B found your advice useful. Person C loved your way with words.
Recall your life successes, whether it’s a diploma awarded or a joke well told. Balance your negative with all the positive you can muster. Go find your nice comment, print it out so it’s tangible, and look at it to remind yourself you’ve won before, and you can win again.
You Can Conquer The Swamp of Suck On Your Path To Greatness
You’ll always have good and bad days. Know yourself and your triggers to navigate your downswings more easily. When you feel better again, think about how you got there and what you need to avoid or mitigate the trigger.
Cherish positive comments and hoard them for encouragement in difficult times.
Every win is a treasure. Track them, acknowledge them, be grateful for them.
Celebrate when you reach a milestone. Don’t just shrug it off and look at the next goal. Attach a treat to each milestone because the top of the mountain is a long way off. Even those who conquer Everest make camp along the way.
List your goals and write a reward next to each one. The only rules are
the reward must be within your power to give and
the reward must make you smile.
Do it now.
Your Engine Is Inside The Car
We quickly adjust to new situations, whether it’s more money, a bigger car, or the next thousand followers. These things lose their ability to motivate us and we say familiarity breeds contempt.
Extrinsic motivators like metrics and fame work for a while to pull you along. But if you don’t have them yet — and even when you do — you needintrinsic motivation. This is your engine. The small voice that won’t be silenced, that says after all this struggle you are still gonna write anyway and be damned because not writing is even worse than writing without immediate reward.
It is the combination of reasonable talent and the ability to keep going in the face of defeat that leads to success. Martin Seligman
So go forward, and write anyway. What else are you going to do? Take what you have, and keep going. I’ll see you there.
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