47 Years to Success

And why it’s time to start celebrating The Difficult. 

This is a follow-up to Difficult, my first post on Medium in May 2013.

I have made a video version of this essay, and it’s on Medium too!

Take a quick read of the Wikipedia entry for the Austrian director Michael Haneke.

He’s the guy who directed Amour, the movie which won a foreign-language Oscar in 2012, and was nominated for a host of others.

His first film, The Seventh Continent, was released in 1989. Haneke was born in 1942, which means he was 47-years-old when his film career started.

Here’s how Wikipedia describes his life beforehand:

After graduating, he became a film critic and from 1967 to 1970 he worked as editor and dramaturg at the southwestern German television station Südwestfunk. He made his debut as a television director in 1974.

And that’s it. The period 1974-1989 is skipped over.

Thing is, these 15 years are likely to have been some of his most interesting. It will have been when he learned his craft as a director, mostly (I imagine) by making lots of quite bad TV shows. That’s the only way you learn.

It will also have been his “difficult” period - his apprenticeship - his period of wanting to give up, or of nearly losing it all. He came out the other side in 1989 with a feature film.

Why do we ignore The Difficult?

In his must-read book Mastery, Robert Greene offers an explanation:

This part of their lives - a largely self-directed apprenticeship that lasts some five to ten years - receives little attention because it does not contain stories of great achievement or discovery.

No achievement; just relentless, repetitive, non-glamorous, hard-work and drudgery.

I believe skipping the Difficult Years gives young people and aspiring creatives a distorted view of how to attain success in work.

We read stories of successful artists, entrepreneurs, musicians, film-makers and are led - by narrative convenience if anything else - to believe they reached their peak by sheer talent, or worse, pot luck.

But we never read about the countless hours they spent practicing piano scales over and over again, or the six failed businesses, or the long lonely nights in writing yet another screenplay that eventually got rejected.

Yet without this difficult period, there is no success.

I wonder whether we should celebrate these ignored chapters in the story of achievement.

For example, would you read a magazine, or a web-series which interviews successful artists, and focused solely on their difficult years?

I’m toying with possibly doing this, so if you think you’d read it, let me know.

Seth Godin reminds us that successful artists are the ones who found a way to deal with the difficult and overcome it. That’s pretty much all that separates a Karp or a Spielberg from the one who never made it.

Maybe we all need a reminder that every success story is incomplete without its difficult chapter.

If you liked this essay, take a look at the video version.