I once heard an anecdote from a famous literary agent’s assistant that made me laugh:
‘Every author wants a publishing deal. The authors who are critically acclaimed want to be commercially successful, and the authors who are commercially successful want to be critically acclaimed.
‘Every author is desperate to win an award. And those authors who win an award are most miserable of all, for they see the award as an albatross around their necks and fear nothing they ever do will scale those heights again.’
(Basically, every author is miserable!)
People definitely compare themselves upwards. None of these authors were thinking ‘It’s so great I have an agent!’ They were taking that for granted and wishing they were more successful. So there’s definitely something to be said for being extremely grateful for where you are now in life, rather than always striving for more.
But if I had any advice for achieving your goals, it would be along the following lines:
Work out what you want to achieve. You can’t aim for a target you haven’t set. I know many people who want to lose weight, but that’s such a nebulous goal that it doesn’t focus the mind. In contrast, a goal to lose 4 stone is specific and measurable, and you know when you’ve achieved it.
Figure out the steps between you and your goal. Break it down into manageable chunks.
Recognise that you’ll fail before you succeed. You’ll take two steps forward, one step back. If we’re talking creativity, everyone gets rejected at times; everyone has to produce more than will ever be published or used. Just think of all the many drafts of novels. Remember Samuel Beckett’s quote: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
Keep going. You’ll fall down, but make sure to keep getting up and attempting to succeed. You’ll be amazed by how many people fall by the wayside. The person who succeeds is often the last (wo)man standing. So keep your goal in mind when things get tough.
You never know when your luck will turn – when you’ll come to the attention of a gatekeeper who could change your life, or just get an exciting opportunity. Last week, I was headhunted for a role. It wasn’t right for me, but at least that person now knows I exist.
I also got invited to debate Brexit on Good Morning Britain. They went with another guest in the end, but I wasn’t expecting the invitation, and the randomness of it cheered me up. (Though I was also slightly relieved at being stood down to be honest – pretty sure Twitter would have been unusable for me for about two days afterwards thanks to angry Brexiteers!)
Writers: remember to preface harsh feedback with ‘in my opinion’. I’ve been told before by a literary agent that I can’t write. It floored me; I had to remind myself I’ve written endless columns for the Guardian, and lots for the Spectator and the Sunday Times. That knowledge helped to reframe this person’s opinion as ‘in my opinion, you can’t write’. And, in less polite terms: fuck ’em. Feedback should be constructive, and that wasn’t. Metaphorically kick them in the fanny and move on.
People who aren’t gatekeepers will also be shitty about your achievements. Look at the comments section of any comedy article. You’ll find ‘This isn’t funny’; ‘That’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back’; ‘I can’t believe [publication] pays for this crap.’ That’s cool: you got paid and credited and you aren’t the person wasting your life leaving negative comments. Put it down to jealousy and don’t let it bother you. The publication wouldn’t have run the article if they didn’t like it.
Realise that you have to adapt to life’s changes. The Guardian stopped running me regularly in 2010; it hurt as it was the paper I grew up reading, and I still love it. I’d write for it again in a heartbeat, but if not, other publications are available. I also really enjoy writing for the Daily Mash and writing books for Little, Brown.
Sometimes things change because of you, not your employer. I realised I wasn’t enjoying writing for television in late 2007, and made the leap to journalism after six years of telly. I used to love going into the BBC and being the youngest person in writers’ rooms, but now I go into the BBC as an occasional commentator and am sometimes the oldest person on the panel, and that’s OK too. Life changes and you have to change with it rather than be depressed by it.
Oh, and lastly: never self-deprecate! As someone wiser than me once said, ‘People accept the value you place upon yourself’. Keep telling people you’re rubbish and they’ll eventually believe you.
Thank you for coming to my TED talk.
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