An Overnight Success
Well… That’s a Lie
I graduated college with a degree in creative writing—and actually, fiction writing, to be specific. For those that don’t know, creative writing doesn’t tend to be a very lucrative field, nor is that sort of degree thought to be very valuable. I remember sitting in multiple classes throughout my college experience, my teachers making jokes of the poverty that comes with writing. It’s as if they were trying to prepare us to accept that as our fate. “Get ready to be poor for the rest of your life,” they would say—either overtly, or in the undertones of their stories.
Equally so, people outside the department questioned why I was studying something like creative writing.
I grew up in a very wealthy neighborhood—top 1% in America. Almost every house is a mansion, and a “standard car” is a BMW or a Mercedes. There are more Bentley’s and Ferraris on my home town street than any other kind of car.
My family, included, was fairly well off. We would often have dinner parties at our house, some of our family friends being wealthy, some not. And it was interesting the facial responses I received when answering the question, “So Cole, how is college going? What are you studying?” I would explain, usually while holding a very nice glass of some sparkling beverage, that I was studying creative writing. Their eyebrows would raise, or their mouth would curl downward on both sides while their cheeks tried to force a smile. Everyone was worried about me. Here I could have studied anywhere, had every opportunity at my fingertips, and I had chosen to, in their words, “Take a gamble with my future.”
The hardest moment, or at least the one that sticks out so jaggedly in my mind, was the day I moved into my first apartment after college.
It was a small studio apartment, only slightly larger than the walk-in closet of my adolescent bedroom. There was no air conditioning. The bathroom and the bedroom and the kitchen were all together, separated only by a transition from dirty tile to weathered wood to dirty tile on the floor. The windows were cloudy and unwashed. The blinds were plastic, broken and stuck a third of the way down. The edge of the shower was moldy. The kitchen sink lacked its shiny luster. And from the hallway, stale cigarette smoke crept under the door and into my single space hideaway.
I had my mom, dad, and younger brother help me move in.
We had two of our BMWs parked in the back of the building, filled with garbage bags of my clothes, boxes of my books, my desk chair, and so on. Each of us grabbed something for our first trip and made our way up the stairs. As soon as we approached my floor, and the stale cigarette smoke greeted our noses, I watched their three faces scrunch up.
“So this is where you’ll be living…” my father said.
“This reminds me of our first apartment,” said my mother, trying to lighten the mood. I remembered stories, their first apartment out of college, long before my father became a successful spine surgeon.
We set our bags down in front of my door and I pulled out my new set of keys. When I opened the door, and we all filed in, no one said much of anything. I looked at my father’s face: confusion, worry, or some alchemy of the two.
When we had moved everything from the cars to my apartment, my three family members stood by the small door to say their goodbyes. I hugged my mom and thanked her for the help. I hugged my brother, told him I’d see him soon. And then as I went to hug my dad, very subtly (although my mom and brother could see clearly what was happening), he went to shake my hand.
In his hand was a small wad of folded dollar bills. $100.
As he shook my hand, he made eye contact for a brief moment, before looking around the apartment and away.
“Good luck,” he said.
In that moment, I felt two things: one, an overwhelming disappointment, and two, what he must have felt, that same disappointment; failure.
My father gave me everything growing up. My first car, at 16 years old, was a BMW. Every vacation was spent at a high-end resort. I didn’t have the burden of college loans. I was always enrolled in the best schools, the best summer camps, any and every opportunity—if it meant increasing my chances of being “successful.”
When I moved into that tiny apartment right after school, I truly felt like I had let him down. I imagined what it looked like from his perspective: all that money being spent on me, all the hours he sat at the kitchen table helping me study for tomorrow’s Algebra test, the new computers, the speeding tickets, all the things he bought and endured and sacrificed within himself in the hopes of seeing his oldest son succeed.
What he was looking at, that day, was not success.
It was the apartment of a kid who had lost his way, graduated with a meaningless degree, and just signed himself up for a lifetime of serving coffee, barely living above minimum wage.
Taking that $100 from his hand, I felt like a failure.
But here’s the thing:
No one, not my teachers, not my peers, not even my own family members saw what I saw. My vision was my vision, and that’s the thing about going your own way—no one can see what you see, and that’s the point. The hardest part about walking your path is to remember that people don’t doubt you because they don’t believe in you. They just simply aren’t in your head. They can’t see what you see, and you have to be ok with that.
From the moment my father, mother, and younger brother walked out of my studio apartment that day, I committed myself to relentlessly following my vision. I didn’t study creative writing because I thought it would lead to a high-paying job. I studied it because that’s what I loved, and I believed in myself enough to take what I loved and turn it into something unique, rewarding, and dare I say, profitable.
For four years, I was not profitable.
I worked 50 hours a week as an entry-level copywriter at an advertising agency, making close to what a barista makes. I bought groceries in bulk. I bought the cheap chicken, the kind that soaks in slimy water. I only allowed myself to eat out once per week, and that wasn’t at a nice restaurant—I mean Chipotle. I didn’t date, because I couldn’t afford it. I took trains and busses, not cabs. I hardly ever bought new clothes. I slept on an air mattress (couldn’t afford a real bed). And in the summer, since there was no air conditioning in my apartment, I would sit in my desk chair, naked, a fan blasting five inches from my face.
While sweating uncomfortably in my hot-boxed, cigarette scented apartment, I would write.
For four years, this is how I lived—for the most part. I moved a few times, and the apartments were incrementally nicer, but not much. I went from being able to eat Chipotle once a week to twice a week. A raise at work meant I could sometimes buy the better chicken. But all in all, there were very few signs that my lifestyle would be changing anytime soon. And when back home, attending family dinner parties and answering that same question, “So Cole, how’s work going? Are you still at that agency?” my responses would provoke the same odd-shaped facial expressions lingering somewhere between forced happiness and uncertain pity.
How could the child of such successful parents wind up so lost?
Like I said, for four years, I was not profitable. But that did not deter my vision. I was positive, absolutely positive, that as long as I kept investing in myself and my craft, one day, I would become “successful.” I would prove them wrong.
And then finally, it happened.
My 4th year, everything I had worked so hard for finally came together.
I published my first book (the one I had spent many sweaty summers slaving over), Confessions of a Teenage Gamer. It went #2 in 2 categories on Amazon its first day.
I became a paid columnist for Inc Magazine.
I decided to take the leap from my 9–5 agency gig and go all-in on freelance writing and ghostwriting for other people.
My first month out, I doubled my income.
My second month out, I doubled it again.
My third month out, I doubled it again.
Those final 3 months of my 4th year of investing in myself as a writer, I made more than I had the entire 9 months prior. Shortly after, I launched my first company, a ghostwriting agency called Digital Press, specifically for serial entrepreneurs, CEOs, and executives looking to share their insight and personal stories online as a means for building influence and their personal brand.
It’s almost a year later, and I am now one of the most sought after ghostwriters on the Internet. I work from my laptop. This year, I’ve traveled to 4 countries: Budapest, Amsterdam, Paris, and Colombia. And (for those that judge success this way), I make more money ghostwriting than any one of my twenty-something peers who studied something more “lucrative” like finance, accounting, business, etc.
I share these details for no other reason than to show you the drastic difference between where I started and where I am now.
When you invest in yourself, and you really trust in that “vision,” you have to realize that you are playing the long game. Those 4 years were really hard. I watched many of my peers, those with better paying jobs, showcase their social lives on social media. I said “no” to a lot, either because I couldn’t afford it or I wanted to spend that time investing in myself and my writing instead. For those 4 years, I can say with complete confidence that 99.8% of the people in my life had no idea what I was actually aiming at, and never really thought that what eventually happened, would ever happen.
And when it did, guess what?
To everyone else, it was an “overnight success.”