For most of my twenties, I jumped from one dream to the next. But through it all, I secretly wanted to be a writer. I watched friends bridge the gap between amateur and professional, and I wished I could be them.
Because I was envious of my friends’ writing success, I would try whatever it was they were doing that I thought made them successful. But the problem was I didn’t know what I was doing.
One writer I knew had a satire blog, so I tried writing satire. It didn’t work out; I just came off sounding mean. Another wrote about popular events from a faith-based perspective, so I tried that. That also failed. In fact, I made just about every possible rookie mistake.
What was I missing?
Turns out, I was still acting the amateur, thinking success as a writer was about finding the right idea or a big break. But the truth is that success in any field is more about commitment to a process than it is about finding one magic trick that will make it all come together.
Sure, there are ways to expedite the process, but it is still a process. And for me, I didn’t start to succeed as a writer until I began shifting my attention away from the results. When I began to mimic the process of professionals instead of just chasing their success, that’s when I started to see real results.
If you want to be a pro in your field, you’re going to have to break this terrible amateur habit of looking at what people have without paying attention to what they did to get it. Chasing the results without understanding the process will lead to short-lived success, if not outright failure.
A friend of mine, a hugely successful musician on his own terms, advises anyone who aspires to his success, “Don’t do what I do. Think like I think.”
How do you do this, exactly? Well, there are seven things I’ve discovered that professionals do that amateurs don’t.
1. Amateurs wait for clarity. Pros take action.
You have to know what you are before you can figure out what you want to do.
Self-awareness is an important part of life, and it’s especially important for creatives. Because so much of what you create is tied to who you are, you have to get clear on your identity. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about this.
In my case, I spent too long waiting for someone to call me a writer before I was willing to act like one. Now I’ve learned that clarity comes with action. We must perform our way into professionalism. We must first call ourselves what we want to become, and then get to the work of mastery.
Your confidence comes from know what you are, and your commitment to acting on that knowledge.
2. Amateurs want to arrive. Pros want to get better.
You have to become a student long before you get to be a master.
“We are all apprentices in a craft no one masters,” Hemingway once said. In words, you have to submit yourself to the teaching of those who have gone before you. You have to study their work and emulate their techniques until you begin to find a style of your own.
For the longest time, I just wanted to be recognized for my genius. It wasn’t until I started putting myself around teachers and around the teaching of true masters that I realized how little I knew and how much I still had to grow as a writer.
Hemingway did this, too — it wasn’t until he spent a few years at the feet of Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson in Paris that he grew from a good writer into a masterful one.
If you don’t do this, you delude yourself into thinking you’re better than you really are, which is the fastest route to failure and anonymity.
3. Amateurs practice as much as they have to. Pros never stop.
You have to practice even, maybe especially, when it hurts.
It’s not enough to show up and work every day. You have to keep challenging yourself, keep pushing yourself beyond your limits. This is how we grow.
I used to write a few hours on a random Saturday every third week of the month. I never got better, and I couldn’t understand why. Then I started writing 500 words a day for as little as twenty to thirty minutes per day. Within a year, I had found my voice.
Frequency trumps quantity. It’s better to work a little toward mastering your craft every day than a lot once in a while. John Grisham knew this, too: he wrote his first novel in small pieces, during the only free hour he had before work every morning. By the time he was done, three years later, he’d created a new genre: the legal thriller.
What if he’d decided it was too painful to get up to write at 5:00am every day?What if he’d given into the overwhelming feeling of writing a novel on top of 70-hour work weeks? What if you decide the same?
4. Amateurs leap for their dreams. Pros build a bridge.
You have to build a bridge, not take a leap.
It’s not about the giant leaps of faith or big breaks that will make your career. It’s the daily practice.
I recently spoke with a best-selling author who has sold tens of millions of books. Do you know when his career started to really take off? It was when he wrote his 125th book at age 45.
You have to put the time in, but it’s more of a marathon than a sprint. I took a leap every time I started a new blog. I did this eight times, every time I had a new idea. But none of those blogs stuck until I decided to stick with one, which is the blog I write on today.
What’s the thing that really needs to “stick”? It’s not the idea. It’s the person.
5. Amateurs fear failure. Pros crave it.
You have to fail your way to success.
What professionals know that the rest of us don’t appreciate is that failure can teach you more than success ever will. Failure is feedback, and truly successful people use it to move forward in their careers.
I used to think my failures prohibited me from success, that every time I failed I had to go back to square one. Now I know that failure is the only way you get to success and that each my failures has taught me something I wouldn’t have been able to move forward without.
Thomas Edison, in his efforts to invent a working light bulb, once said, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” How many times are you willing to get it wrong?
6. Amateurs build a skill. Pros build a portfolio.
You must master more than one skill.
This doesn’t mean you have to be a jack of all trades, but you must become a master of some. For example, all the professional writers I know are good at more than one thing. One is a great publicist. Another is really smart at leadership. Another is a fantastic speaker.
For creative professionals, this doesn’t mean you have to work at your craft uninterrupted for eight hours a day — at least not for most professionals. It means you will spend your time getting your work out there through a variety of channels and mediums, or that you’ll work for part of the day and master something else with the rest of your time.
Either way, you must develop your own portfolio.
For me, my portfolio consists of writing, marketing, and business. But for a long time I just waited for people to think I was a good enough writer, expecting the money to follow that one skill. It doesn’t always work like that.
I recently spoke with a creative professional in New York who makes a living as both a fine artist and a photographer. He knows, as all professionals do,that all our skills complement each other and, frankly, relieve us from putting too much pressure on ourselves to be the world’s best at any one thing.
7. Amateurs want to be noticed. Pros want to be remembered.
You have to care about legacy more than ego.
The professionals I know whose work reaches a lot of people and truly matters, aren’t just thinking about the quick win — the big book deal, the next speaking gig, the new product launch. They’re thinking about the long game, about what they want to work on that might endure for the next 100 years.
The amateur is concerned with the big break, whereas the pro is more focused on delaying immediate gratification in exchange for long-term success.
When I began writing, all I cared about was my byline, whether or not people recognized me as successful, famous, or important. Now, I understand that on the other end of the computer screen or book, there is a person’s whose life I want to influence.
When people started asking me how I became a professional writer, how I chased a dream and got the rare opportunity to do it for a living, at first I didn’t know how to answer them. So I rattled off some cliches — “I just got a vision and went after it” — but over time, I realized that wasn’t true. Looking back, I realize it was this process, these seven habits, that really made my career.
And these are things that I continue to practice today. They’re disciplines that you keep doing that allow you to keep succeeding. And if you don’t do them, you’re really just rolling the dice.
So if you want to be a professional at any craft, especially writing, I’d highly encourage you to start applying these habits today.
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