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:

1. A belief in your own mutability.

Do you believe you can learn to do anything?

Successful authors see things that would terrify most of us—speaking to crowds of thousands, being live on The Today Show, pitching to a conference room of publishing execs and bookstore buyers—as challenges that they can and will overcome.

They don’t innately want to do those things, and they’re not necessarily good at them. But they do know that if others have learned to do it, they can, too. They start small; they forgive themselves when they fail; they keep trying. They accept that struggle is the nature of the process, not a reflection of their abilities.

2. A belief that you have agency.

Do you believe no one is responsible for your success but you?

Successful authors learn everything they possibly can about marketing, and they forge ahead with their own plans, on a tireless mission to get their book into the hands of everyone who needs it. They’re comfortable talking about their work and why they believe in it, and they’ve found their voice for marketing and selling.

They’re not afraid to ask for what they need, but they also appreciate and act on the expertise of their publishing teams, knowing that they can be more successful with the support of an expert team behind them.

3. A belief that the work is its own reward.

Do you believe you are in this for the long haul, and you’ll keep creating even if nothing ever comes of it?

Successful authors find joy and meaning in the sheer act of creating, and they won’t let anyone take that away from them.

They have, as Elizabeth Gilbert describes it in Big Magic, “stubborn gladness” in their own work, and they can’t imagine their lives without it. They’re not driven by external rewards but by intrinsic rewards, and therefore changes in outward conditions can only buffet them so much.

They understand that the creative process, by its very nature, has highs and lows, oases and deserts, and they allow themselves to feel those feelings and accept those changing conditions, knowing that each state will pass, and soon they will be back to the work that sustains them.

So promise me this, everyone: let’s all stop tearing our hair out about whether we’re talented. Talent doesn’t matter. Because learning + doing + loving it–that’s all we have to check off our lists each and every week.

And on that note, here’s wishing you a happy and productive week!

What I’m Reading This Week

The Women Who Rode Miles on Horseback to Deliver Library Books (Anika Burgess for Atlas Obscura): “They were known as the ‘book women.’ They would saddle up, usually at dawn, to pick their way along snowy hillsides and through muddy creeks with a simple goal: to deliver reading material to Kentucky’s isolated mountain communities.”

How to Prevent Every Writer’s Worst Nightmare: Losing Your Work (Blake Atwood on The Write Life): It’s happened to everyone at one point: you think you’ve saved something, but suddenly it’s gone. Worst feeling ever? Worst feeling ever. Here’s how to stop it.

Quiz: Book Title or Nail Polish Color? (Jamie Canaves for Book Riot): Oo, fun! I got 7 out of 10 correct. Can you guess them all? There’s some seriously hilarious titles in there.

I Started a Dinner Club and It Changed My Life (Lindsay Ostrum of Pinch of Yum): I ate up this piece, and now I really want to start a dinner club. Or a freezer club. Who wants in?!

How We Bridge the Real and the Ideal: Frederick Douglass on Art as a Tool of Constructive Self-Criticism and a Force of Cultural Progress (Maria Popova of BrainPickings): “‘True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are,’” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her arresting meditation on how art transforms us. That transformation is one of the most powerful personal experiences a human being can have, but it is also one of the most powerful motive forces of progress for humanity as a whole. In art, we depict our ideals and, in depicting them, we challenge ourselves to face the gap between aspiration and actuality, which in turn challenges us to stretch ourselves and close that gap.”

What We’re Eating This Week

We’re cooking out of From Freezer to Table every night this week to celebrate its release! I’m so proud of this beautiful and hardworking book Polly and Rachel of Thriving Home have created, and I know it’s going to help so many families eat healthier and on budget. (And if you really want to be spoiled, Polly and Rachel have been giving away a fabulous gift every day this week on their blog—enter the giveaways here!)

Monday: Cilantro Lime Chicken over salad, from page 68. Because yes, you can still get light and fresh meals from your freezer!

Tuesday: Baked Chicken and Broccoli Alfredo, from page 150. Because double yes: you know you want ooey-gooey comfort food from your freezer, too.

Wednesday: A friend from Miami is in town to get away from the hurricane, so we’re trying Balkan small plates at Ambar!

Thursday: Sheet Pan Lemon-Garlic Chicken and Veggies, from page 88. So, I have to admit I haven’t made all too many sheet pan recipes yet. But this one…oh, boy. I’m ready to drop it into the regular rotation.

Friday: Easy Beefy Quesadillas, from page 103. I will make anything that has the words “easy” or “beefy” in it. It’s a principle of mine.


Get one email per week with book recommendations + literary printables delivered to your inbox!

how to become a bestselling author

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *