Why talent is a myth, and the 3 things you actually need to be a bestseller

Why writing talent is a myth, and the 3 things that can actually help you become a bestselling author.


I was scrolling through my Instagram feed on Monday when something stopped me:

“I’m afraid I’m not talented enough.”

It was a caption on a pretty photo of a journal, and it was by a young writer who wasn’t sure she should keep going.

I could almost picture the real scene. The paralysis and anxiety about opening her manuscript. The embarrassment and self-criticism over what she’d written already. The fear that it was all for nothing. The escape to social media so she wouldn’t have to face those hard feelings.

I know it all, because I’ve been there, too. Who wouldn’t rather watch panda videos instead of doing the hard work? (She says as she Googles for panda videos…)

But anyone who’s ever written anything, from a novel to a blog post to a pitch letter, has had those same sinking feelings.

What if we don’t have what it takes? What if we’re not talented?

This nagging fear crops up everywhere, and it makes us wonder if, no matter how much effort we put in, we’ll just never be any good. We say we want to write, but then life gets in the way. Yet if we’re honest with ourselves, what’s really keeping us from writing?

It’s us. Our own fear.

The fear that we’re not talented enough.

how to become a bestselling author

But here’s what I’ve come to realize, after nearly a decade of working with writers and successful authors: that person who seems “talented”? They just have more experience.

It may seem like talented is a natural state for some, but that’s because all we see is the output of today and not the inputs of their entire lives. It’s a totally bogus construct. Most likely, that person began paying attention to writing before you, or maybe, through luck and circumstance, they have more time each day to pay attention to writing. They’ve simply accrued more hours on their experience meter, or they’ve had higher quality inputs. They’re not innately “better” than you–I promise!

What do I mean by inputs? I know we’re not machines, but I’ve always found it helpful to think of the creative mind like a container, one which has both inputs and outputs.

The output—the quality of your work—can only be made with the inputs that already exist in the container. Inputs can be anything. A creative mind is like a sponge, and it sops up anything and everything it finds interesting, even if it has no immediate use for it.

Inputs can be:

  • Books
  • Magazines
  • Art
  • Music
  • TV shows
  • Advice
  • Classes
  • Research
  • Nature
  • Conversations

See? Anything. But the key is:

The more high-quality inputs you have, the higher-quality your output is.

If you started reading The New Yorker at 7, you will be a better writer than most people, simply because you’ve absorbed the cadences of good writing. If you’re reading US Weekly and corporate memos most days, your inputs are mucking up your mind, and you may have to unlearn some bad cadences and turns of phrase.

Since we can’t see most people’s inputs, we assume their superior output is coming from someplace else: their talent. Instead, it’s coming from their superior inputs.

Which, trust me, is great news: it means all you have to do to up your game is fill yourself with the best writing, reading, and other inputs you can.

But fears are like whack-a-mole. You finally stop worrying about whether you’re talented, and then you start worrying about whether you’re self-disciplined enough. Or smart enough. Or clever enough. Or literally [any adjective] enough. Instead, we need to unplug the game and go get a drink at the bar. Um, I mean…stop letting the moles run the show.

That’s what separates bestselling authors from struggling authors. They know that the fears will always be there, but they don’t let them run the show.

Instead, bestselling authors have 3 deep beliefs about themselves and the world that make them completely unstoppable.

That’s why I believe that part of the work of being a writer, blogger, or creative of any kind is character-building. Without methodically developing these 3 beliefs, just like you methodically develop your writing or photos, you can only go so far.

Here are the 3 beliefs that separate bestselling authors from the rest:

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How to waste time in a way that makes you more creative

3 ways to flex your creativity and stretch your brain, even if you don’t have energy to read or write.

“I am SO tired.”

I had just finished working, and I was collapsed on the couch, feeling dazed from staring at the screen all day. We had dinner to make, laundry to do, a million to-dos still pending from the work day, and all Jarrett and I wanted to do was zone out in front of the TV.

So we did just that. We poured some wine, scrambled some eggs for dinner, and planted ourselves onto the couch to watch House Hunters. (Have you seen Tiny House Hunters? I’m in love!)

But that feeling of guilt, that I was “wasting” time when I should have been reading the millions of books on my TBR list or writing my next piece? It wasn’t there.

In fact, I waste time like this every week. Even though I work on books about productivity, creativity, and personal growth, I totally veg out sometimes.

And that’s okay.

In fact, science shows that you’re at your most creative when you’re tired at the end of the day. So wasting time—either by doing nothing at all or doing something not goal-oriented–will actually make you more likely to make novel connections between things and to refresh your perspective for the next day.

And you don’t have to feel guilty about it. Because isn’t that the double-edged sword? We feel guilty when we “waste” our time going down rabbit holes online or channel surfing, but we also feel unhappy and exhausted when we pack every minute of our days with useful, productive things.

The reality is: even those things we think of as time-wasters are incredible for our creativity and learning, as long as we’re engaging in them the right way. What’s the right way? More on that below!

3 ways to transform your time-wasting tasks into creative rocket fuel

(even if you don’t have energy to read or write)

how to be more creative anytime

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6 mindfulness practices to relax into your work

It’s 77 degrees in Alexandria today. (What?!)

Spring is popping up in every corner, and Pepper has had more long walks this past week than she knows what to do with. She loves to chase squirrel trails (which I’m convinced she’s just pretending to pick up on so that she can go berserk), and she runs so fast that she practically drags my lazy butt down the running path.

mindfulness practices for writers

But it feels so good to finally be entering into spring—I love that feeling of both new energy and slow growth. It’s equal parts raring-to-go and stop-and-sniff-the-flowers (or be dragged away from the flowers by your embarrassingly athletic dog).

Isn’t that the same balance we strive to keep in our work? Excited and energetic, yet still calm, composed, and present. Which isn’t easy for writers—I think nearly every writer or blogger would own up to being neurotic or perfectionistic or overachievers or wound a little too tight in one way or another. (I think their agent might be guilty of this, too. Ahem.)

So today I’m sharing 6 mindfulness practices that can help bring a little more zen into your day-to-day work. I think we’re all guilty sometimes of being so results-oriented and efficiency-driven that we completely forget that we actually like doing this work that’s in front of us.

I know that happens to me all the time! Half the time that I’m editing proposals or answering emails my shoulders are so tense and my jaw so clenched that it feels like I’m shouldering through some sort of terrible trial. But in reality, I love editing proposals, and I love chatting on email with my authors. With just a few calming breaths and some of these mindfulness practices, I’m reminded that I love this work I do and that it’s okay to relax and enjoy it.

Maybe the same thing happens to you?

You sit down to write and find yourself so pressured by the ticking clock or the word count or your own expectations that your whole body tenses up?

Or maybe you find yourself knotted into a ball of stress as you’re drafting query letters, or writing social media posts, or responding to email?

If so, head on over and read this article on The Kitchn!

It’s framed around work in the kitchen, but these practices can just as easily be applied to showing up at your computer to write or facing a stack of pages to edit.

I hope it’s a little reminder in the middle of your week that, once we learn to relax into our tasks, anything can become the soothing and meaningful experience we search for in meditation and yoga. So for those of you who show up to a manuscript or a computer or a kitchen every day, remember to breathe, feeling deep gratitude for this moment, right here, right now, with this work.

Mindfulness Practices for writers


What I’m Reading This Week

Ready to Learn How to Write With Purpose? (Kristen Kieffer of Well-Storied): Since we’re chatting about being purposeful today, it was perfect timing that Kristen released this free 46-page workbook! Aren’t we all trying to bridge the gap between what our ideal workday looks like and our actual habits? If you’re nodding “yes” along with me, then this is a great resource to help you take a few more steps toward getting it right.

The Why of Urgent Vs. Important (Seth Godin): “The reason we go for urgent is that it makes us feel competent. We’re good at it. We didn’t used to be, but we are now. Important, on the other hand, is fraught with fear, with uncertainty and with the risk of failure. Now that you know why, you can dance with it.”

Remember Chutes and Ladders? Book Publishing is Just Like the Game (Emily Wenstrom on The Write Life): This is a great inside look at how to speed up (or slow down) your journey toward reaching your publishing goals. And yes! Be bold and chase down any leads, always staying professional along the way.

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds (Elizabeth Kolbert for The New Yorker): “People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.”

12 Tips for Pitching Articles to Publications and Websites (Dianne Jacob): Essential tips for pitching to both online and print outlets! Make sure you scan through these before starting in on pitching a piece.


What We’re Eating This Week

Another week without traveling for work means lots of fun things to cook! And would you believe this: we ended up with the pickiest eater of a dog. I’m now the world’s most accomplished chopper-upper of hot dogs. There has to be a culinary award in this.

Monday: Ah, Monday. I always feel better about you if I have a salad on deck for dinner. Otto-inspired Italian chopped salad it is (with extra salami, of course).

Tuesday: Soboro beef with rice and broccoli, using this Bon Appétit recipe. Easy, yummy, and not a hot dog. Checks all the boxes!

Wednesday: Thai chicken and rice noodle soup, from my author Jenn of Once Upon a Chef. Because springtime means soup…? I don’t know, I just wanted soup. Welp.

Thursday: Arroz cubano, just like my Yaya makes! Start by packing some white rice into a cup, turn it over, and shake it out to form a little mountain. Then top with whatever kind of tomato sauce you like and a crispy-edged, olive-oil-fried egg. Kids love it; adults love it; dogs better not decide they love it.

Friday: ??? I have no idea. Can we have gin and tonics for dinner?

Cheers!

A self-guided study to overcome rejection

How did you survive Thanksgiving? I ate way, way too much and loved every minute of it. Then I cooked an enormous pot of turkey soup based off of this recipe and over-ate for another two days. I love the holidays.

But now that we’re in the slight reprieve between Thanksgiving and Christmas, let’s tackle a big subject: rejection.

books-about-rejection

Rejection is an inevitable part of the creative life (and of regular old life, too), but most of the time we focus our energy on trying to avoid rejection, rather than expecting it and building resilience to it.

Let’s turn that around. Because if I’ve seen one thing in my years in the publishing industry, both as an editor and a literary agent, it’s that rejection is part of the job.

So then, our work as people who are engaged in the business of art, is to make peace with rejection. It’s not a bonus skill that will help you get ahead; it is the way ahead.

We’ve talked before about how every single person in the publishing industry gets rejected by one person or another–authors get rejected by agents and publishers; agents get rejected by editors; editors get rejected by acquisitions committees; publicists get rejected by producers.

And we’ve also talked about what to do in those moments and days right after a particularly tough rejection rolls in. But what can we do to steel ourselves against these blows to our souls? How can we dig and then fill a deep well of resilience that allows us to withstand rejection?

Well, the answer, as always, lies in BOOKS. Books are the repository of all human wisdom and knowledge, and you can bet you’re not the first or the last person in history to get kicked about in this particular way. Books also allow us to design our own self-guided studies of any topic known to mankind, and then to spend a good many afternoons on the couch, having our minds blown right open.

That is and will always be the most deeply important thing to me about books. The wisest and most expert minds in the world wring every last drop of their knowledge into a book and sell it for $19.99. If that’s not the best thing about our society (and a really nice deal to boot), then ship me off to the moon because I know nothing.

(Oh, and if you went a little too hard on Cyber Monday and don’t want to drop a few $20s on a few books, may I remind you about libraries? Libraries are the world’s collective knowledge and experiences, assembled over millennia, available to every last person for the price of $0.00. Show me a better deal anywhere this season.)

So this December, let’s hunker down with a self-guided study on rejection, so that we can be fierce and stubborn and relentless rejection warriors in 2017.

I truly believe a rejection study is an essential part of any writer’s self-education.

Only by being in a civil working relationship with rejection will we be able to look it in the eye around the water cooler, roll our eyes at its same old complaints and lies, and huff a little despondently as we walk back to our desk and get to work. Sorry, rejection, we have work to do, and we’re not going to sit around all day whining about how things could have been. Try someone else.

Now let’s get to work and buy or borrow our way to a stack of books that will show us how to build resilience in the face of rejection.

These are the books I would recommend as a start, but as with any self-guided study, only you know how you learn best. If you prefer a more kick-in-the-pants approach, find some authors who will shake you up a little. If you like to supplement with audio and visual learning, search out a few podcasts or video courses on the topic. But I do recommend getting one or two books—books have the incomparable advantage of living in your home, patiently waiting to be pulled down when you need a moment of counsel with them. (They make great home decor, too!)

(By the way, I only recommend books I’ve read or that I’m genuinely excited about reading myself. Life’s too short to read mediocre books. But if you do feel like picking up one of these, it’d be great if you bought them through one of the Amazon Associate links below. It supports the many hours of work this team of two [me and Jarrett] put into this little corner of the web!)

Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible Through 100 Days of Rejection by Jia Jiang

jia jiang rejection proof book cover

Think you’re down and out? Jiang put himself (voluntarily!) through an experiment to seek out rejection for 100 days. This boot-camp approach helped him deflate the dread of putting himself out there, conquer his feelings of self-doubt, and build him back up so he could dare to live more boldly.

From the back cover:

“Jia Jiang came to the United States with the dream of being the next Bill Gates. But despite early success in the corporate world, his first attempt to pursue his entrepreneurial dream ended in rejection. Jia was crushed, and spiraled into a period of deep self doubt. But he realized that his fear of rejection was a bigger obstacle than any single rejection would ever be, and he needed to find a way to cope with being told no without letting it destroy him. Thus was born his ‘100 days of rejection’ experiment, during which he willfully sought rejection on a daily basis–from requesting a lesson in sales from a car salesman (no) to asking a flight attendant if he could make an announcement on the loud speaker (yes) to his famous request to get Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the shape of Olympic rings (yes, with a viral video to prove it).

Jia learned … techniques for steeling himself against rejection and ways to develop his own confidence–a plan that can’t be derailed by a single setback. Filled with great stories and valuable insight, Rejection Proof is a fun and thoughtful examination of how to overcome fear and dare to live more boldly.”

Get the book!

Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution by Brene Brown

brene brown rising strong book cover

Already a classic—if you read only one book on this list, make it this one.

From the back cover:

“It is the rise from falling that Brown takes as her subject in Rising Strong. As a grounded theory researcher, Brown has listened as a range of people—from leaders in Fortune 500 companies and the military to artists, couples in long-term relationships, teachers, and parents—shared their stories of being brave, falling, and getting back up. She asked herself, What do these people with strong and loving relationships, leaders nurturing creativity, artists pushing innovation, and clergy walking with people through faith and mystery have in common? The answer was clear: They recognize the power of emotion and they’re not afraid to lean in to discomfort.

Walking into our stories of hurt can feel dangerous. But the process of regaining our footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged. Our stories of struggle can be big ones, like the loss of a job or the end of a relationship, or smaller ones, like a conflict with a friend or colleague. Regardless of magnitude or circumstance, the rising strong process is the same: We reckon with our emotions and get curious about what we’re feeling; we rumble with our stories until we get to a place of truth; and we live this process, every day, until it becomes a practice and creates nothing short of a revolution in our lives. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness. It’s the process, Brown writes, that teaches us the most about who we are.”

Get the book!

The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday

the obstacle is the way ryan holiday book cover

Want to tackle rejection from the angle of the ancient Greek philosophy of stoicism? Try this one.

From the back cover:

“The book draws its inspiration from stoicism, the ancient Greek philosophy of enduring pain or adversity with perseverance and resilience. Stoics focus on the things they can control, let go of everything else, and turn every new obstacle into an opportunity to get better, stronger, tougher. As Marcus Aurelius put it nearly 2000 years ago: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Ryan Holiday shows us how some of the most successful people in history—from John D. Rockefeller to Amelia Earhart to Ulysses S. Grant to Steve Jobs—have applied stoicism to overcome difficult or even impossible situations. Their embrace of these principles ultimately mattered more than their natural intelligence, talents, or luck.”

Get the book!

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

angela duckworth grit book cover

If you’re going to get kicked around by life (and we all will), you’ll need a bit of grit to get back up. This instant New York Times bestseller has gotten so much attention and praise because of its research-backed look at this new concept of “grit”—the combination of passion and perseverance. It shares dozens of stories of rock-bottom moments in the lives of high-achievers and how they pulled themselves out of the mire of disappointment.

From the back cover:

“Drawing on her own powerful story as the daughter of a scientist who frequently noted her lack of “genius,” Duckworth, now a celebrated researcher and professor, describes her early eye-opening stints in teaching, business consulting, and neuroscience, which led to the hypothesis that what really drives success is not “genius” but a unique combination of passion and long-term perseverance.

Winningly personal, insightful, and even life-changing, Grit is a book about what goes through your head when you fall down, and how that—not talent or luck—makes all the difference.”

Get the book!

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

big magic elizabeth gilbert book cover

This book will give you the kick-in-the-pants you need to move on from the tortured artist stereotype and bring some serious delight back into your creative life. If lately your work is feeling like a slog rather than a source of energy, get plugged in to this book STAT!

From the back cover:

“Readers of all ages and walks of life have drawn inspiration and empowerment from Elizabeth Gilbert’s books for years. Now this beloved author digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity. With profound empathy and radiant generosity, she offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives.

Balancing between soulful spirituality and cheerful pragmatism, Gilbert encourages us to uncover the ‘strange jewels’ that are hidden within each of us. Whether we are looking to write a book, make art, find new ways to address challenges in our work, embark on a dream long deferred, or simply infuse our everyday lives with more mindfulness and passion, Big Magic cracks open a world of wonder and joy.”

Get the book!


What I’m Reading This Week

Maya Angelou on How a Library Saved Her Life (Maria Popova of Brain Pickings): This beautiful piece on the magic of libraries is right on point for this week! I especially loved the quotes Popova started the article off with: “’You never know what troubled little girl needs a book,’” Nikki Giovanni wrote in one of her poems celebrating libraries and librarians. “’Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom,’” Ursula K. Le Guin asserted in her beautiful essay on the sacredness of public libraries.”

The FLASH Drives (Seth Godin): “Fear, loneliness, anger, shame & hunger. They drive us. They divide us. They take us away from our work, our mission, our ability to make a difference. And yet, sometimes, they fuel our motion, leading to growth and connection.” (This backs up my long-standing belief that we can’t get anything good done when we’re hungry. So get something to eat!)

Bookish Gifts Under $20 (Kelly Jensen): Once you’ve stacked a pile of books under the tree, you’ll need some accessories for stocking stuffers right? 😉

The Kitchn Holiday Gift Guide (The Kitchn): Not sure what to buy your favorite cook? Start with this very-cute, very-practical flowchart (which also leads to some extremely fantastic cookbook recommendations!).

How to Write a Great Story: A Roundup of Best Advice (Jane Friedman): All the storytelling goodness you need in one place. Bookmark this one and come back to it whenever you have a little pocket of time in your day!


What We’re Eating This Week

Finally, a normal week again! I spent our 8-hour Sunday drive from Ann Arbor to Alexandria thinking about what we’d eat this week. Here’s what I came up with with an iPhone, a lot of time, and a desperate need for more vegetables.

Monday: A giant chopped salad based off the chopped salad I always order at Mario Batali’s Otto in NYC. Because if I’m going to be good and eat salad, there better be salami in it.

Tuesday: Penne with prosciutto, asparagus, and kale, adapted from my favorite Italian cookbook (which is written in Italian and now out of print, or I’d share it with you all!).

Wednesday: This recipe for cauliflower steaks, but with leftover pesto instead of the lemon herb sauce. And a side of Rich Lemon Rice from Viana La Place’s classic cookbook Unplugged. (Yes, I’ll share this recipe with you all soon–it’s so, so good!)

Thursday: This Serious Eats recipe for One-Pan Chicken, Sausage, and Brussels Sprouts. Plus adding cabbage to the pan. I’m telling you, I went into a deep vegetable deficit over the holiday.

Friday: Derek Brown’s Miracle on Seventh Street Christmas bar with friends. Cannot wait.

Cheers!

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