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Nobody Knows how to be Successful

All you can do is try on advice, and return if it doesn’t fit.

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This may come as a shock, but nobody knows how to achieve their dreams. Sure, we have some ideas. But no secret formula. A lot of success just happens. Sometimes people don’t even have to work that hard. Others labor for decades and die unknown.

Vincent Van Gogh only sold a few paintings his entire life. Some historians think he only sold one. He painted for about ten years tops, and he produced his best work near the end.

Van Gogh killed himself, and became famous a few decades later. John Kennedy Toole did the same thing, and eventually won a posthumous Pulitzer for Confederacy of Dunces. If he hadn’t committed suicide, he probably would’ve drank himself to death.

So, there’s that strategy.

The problem is that you won’t be around to enjoy your success.

We call someone a creative genius when they break the rules. But knowing which ones is hard.

You just have to break them, and see the results for yourself.

The web overflows with advice on success. The most popular piece is the 10,000-hour rule, introduced by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. If you practice something for 20 hours a week, for ten years, you’ll succeed.


It’s more like this: If you don’t put in your 10,000 hours, you probably won’t succeed — unless you get extremely lucky.

If you’re an artist, you’re desperate for any kind of knowledge that might help you get ahead. There’s nothing wrong with seeking advice. No single tip or trick makes or breaks your career.

Nobody knows how to get rich.

We’ve all heard the stories about Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates. They had some special drive, or spark. Everyone wants to find out what made them so successful, bottle it, and sell it.

It would be nice if we could do that. But we can’t. Because happenstance played a big role in their success. You can only market chance half the time. The other half, it blows up in your face.

One reader recommended a book to me called Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. His book explores how a hundred little factors, including your own personality and decision-making, contribute to your short-term or long-term success.

Can we judge the success of people by their raw performance and their personal wealth? Sometimes — but not always…at any point in time, a large section of businessmen with outstanding track records will be no better than randomly throwing darts…However, they will fail to make an allowance for the role of luck in their performance.
— Nassim Taleb

We don’t like hearing this truth. Americans especially want to believe in individual talent, hard work, and discipline. True, that usually pays off. But massive success, or even moderate success in a competitive field, requires some things beyond our control. Let’s work hard, but also not judge ourselves too much if things don’t work out the way we want.

Nobody knows how to make a tweet go viral.

There’s some general ideas. Make it funny and timely, or profound and timeless. Or insightful.

Use puns, or don’t. Write a short tweet. Or a long one. Tweet about sex, or about relationships. Make fun of yourself.

Be careful about making fun of someone else. But if you don’t care about your reputation, type out something offensive at the wrong time.

Who knows? The only thing you can do is read a lot of tweets that have already gone viral, and look for trends.

You can try to emulate what other people have done. That’s great practice, and it might help you find your own voice. We all know that the worst way to make a tweet go viral is to ignore all of this advice. But, hey, try tweeting the alphabet and see what happens.

Nobody knows how to write a best-seller.

We know you need a sympathetic protagonist. Some plot twists. Research. And decent writing. Some best-sellers come loaded with sex and violence. Others slide in with a G rating.

We know that some of the greatest novels in literature bombed when they first came out. Fitzgerald’s best known work, The Great Gatsby, tanked so hard that it basically ruined his career. His productivity dried up, and he didn’t publish another book for almost ten years.

That one, Tender is the Night, also didn’t do too well. In 1940, Fitzgerald had a fatal heart attack while eating a Hershey’s bar.

He died in relative obscurity.

With a twist of irony, reception of The Great Gatsby revived just a few years after his death. These days, it sells hundreds of thousands of copies a year. So death is turning out to be a fairly good predictor of success.

But we also know that someone’s fan fiction can become a huge hit, almost by accident. That makes some writers furious.

But there’s no point in getting worked up. Try writing your own fan fiction and see what happens.

We know that some writers collect 50 or even 100 rejections before getting the one acceptance that matters.

And we know that some writers revise a hundred times. Others write crap, and their agents work it into magic.

Some publishers invest thousands into marketing and promotion, with mediocre returns. Other indie books spread like a jam.

Nobody knows what makes a great musician.

The other week, one of my in-laws asked why everyone loves the Rolling Stones. “Mick Jagger’s not a great singer,” she said. “And Keith Richards can barely play the guitar.”

Ask any guitarist, and they’ll probably tell you the Stones are average on a technical level. “But they never wrote a song I didn’t like.”

As a group, they just work. They’re a simple combination that you can’t explain. They’re good at writing music that connects with people.

And they have energy. Even now, as 80-year-old grandpas, they have more spark than people half their age. You can try to break their success down into little parts to analyze, but you won’t learn much.

The 10,000-hour rule probably won’t turn you into Keith Richards. But 10,000 drugs? That’s a real possibility.

Nobody knows what makes a viral blog post.

I’ve been blogging for a couple of years now, and I’ve read a helluva lot of blogs. What I can tell you isn’t special. A good blog needs an honest but catchy title, but way more.

You’re best off writing mid-length paragraphs. Tell a personal story. Make it relevant to your readers. Offer some takeaways or truths.

Use variety in your sentence length. Use headings, or don’t. Try to write the way you talk, but in a refined way.

Be careful how much you use “I” and “me” in your sentences, even if you’re getting personal. Draft your piece, and then try to cut out half your personal pronouns. Address your readers directly, and tell them why your story matters, but don’t use “This matters because…” Just say the thing that matters. That old advice “show don’t tell” doesn’t apply to blogs.

People are busy. They’re reading your stuff on their phone at a coffee shop. You have to tell them first, then show them.

Then you have to tell them again.

Still, not everything you write will go viral. Most of it won’t. That’s fine. You’re practicing, experimenting. You can come at the same topic from ten angles. Tell it in ten different ways over ten months.

Eventually, the words and pieces will come together in the right way in the right post, to connect with a wide audience.

Everyone knows how to give advice.

People who’ve made it like to offer all kinds of pointers. I’ve met dozens of writers who claimed to know everything about success in the creative world. But the truth was harsh.

They actually didn’t know that much. What they did know was kind of obvious, stuff that I’d already learned.

We scour the web for advice about everything, but especially success. Some only want a taste, so that they can start making money, by telling other people what to do. It’s a good gig.

It would be really easy for me, or anyone, to write a book on how to succeed at writing and blogging. For example, I could say something like “The key to success is to die your hair black, and wear red shirts all the time.” So much advice takes this route. The guru tells their own story, as if what worked for them will work for you.

Dozens of these books already exist. They’ll show you how to query agents, pitch stories to editors, and plot your novel. All of this advice sounds more or less the same.

And most of it’s decent advice. But that’s the minimum. You have to do these things for a shot at success. Knowing the format of a novel pitch only increases your odds against someone who never bothered to learn. This same general idea applies to anyone — from songwriters to photographers.

One big piece of advice you need.

The only real way to succeed is to try all the advice, and also learn your own way. That means painting a hundred portraits, making a hundred videos, taking a hundred photos, and writing a hundred tweets.

You might even try bad advice and see what happens, just out of curiosity. One writer told me to always stuff my submissions into a letter-sized envelope. “Editors prefer smaller packages,” he said.

The stakes were small. So I tried that, and it made zero difference. But at least I learned that much.

Trial and error takes a long time. But that’s how evolution unfolds. Think about how long the human eye took. Or the opposable thumb. Mother Nature has churned out some weird stuff over the eons, and only a small fraction of it survives today. Humans have changed immeasurably, but for some reason she got crocodiles right the first time.

You might get impatient with your art, but stay with it as long as you continue to enjoy the work.

Take some risks. Experiment. Take cues from other writers. Find a way to make aspects of their style your own. We all grow from borrowing and imitating the people we admire.

See how people react. Every new piece of art is a test. The worst thing that can happen is nothing. Use discretion, of course. Don’t murder a backup dancer in your music video. Bad for exposure.