I try to steer clear of posting a lot of personal theories here, but bear with me, because if I put together evidence from a variety of sources and make a leap of faith or two, I find myself faced with a pretty solid-looking explanation of how people succeed at making self-employment pay the bills, get new businesses to succeed, sell novels, and otherwise find ways to connect their passions with their paychecks.
It’s three fairly simple steps–though unfortunately, this is one of those cases where simple and easy don’t mean exactly the same thing. Are the steps readily understandable? Yes. Is there an excellent chance you and I can do them? Also yes. Would the process be quick and convenient? Hell no.
Step 1. Practice and get feedback
A huge body of solid research has been done on people who are exceptionally good at all kinds of things, from sports to music to business to law enforcement and beyond, and one of the conclusions that appears to be inescapable is this: people who get in tons of deliberate practice–that is, focused effort to improve with careful attention to results (see “Practice vs. Deliberate Practice” and “Do you have enough talent to become great at it?“) get very good, and people who don’t get in deliberate practice don’t. To keep this post short, I’ll let you investigate (or not) as you’re inclined to, but in case you haven’t already come across the information, I’d like to urge you to glance at the above articles and consider the books they point to if you are interested in being great at anything. Inborn talent is a misleading explanation we’ve come up with for a process that really isn’t that mysterious.
Feedback is even harder than practice, because while you can simply decide to practice something, you can’t force other people to carefully consider your work and give you their honest opinion of it. Too, most of the people who like you enough to do that are too biased to be able to provide an impartial opinion. However, feedback is essential in order to be sure you’re practicing the right things and to tell you how far you’re getting. It also makes the process of practicing much more compelling and fun (see “Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated” and “Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow“).
It’s tempting to want to skip step 1. After all, it takes years to get really excellent at something. Fortunately, skipping is sometimes possible if your business or job doesn’t require any special skills for the entry level. If you want to excel in retail sales or to work your way up the ladder in a business that always needs new people, you may not need to practice anything before you start: you can learn on the job.
However, if you want to live by writing novels or making robots or coordinating a fleet of moped couriers, you probably have some real study ahead of you–or if you’ve been practicing for years, already behind you.
Step 2. Choose something you love
If you’re doing something for its own sake, then there will be rewards regardless of whether or not you’re financially successful any time soon. You’ll have reasons to keep with it through the hard times, you’ll think about it more often (and therefore come up with better and deeper ideas about it), and you’ll enjoy yourself even when no one is paying you. Since very often becoming successful enough to get paid at something means doing it for nothing or next-to-nothing for a quite a while first, this is a major advantage.
For one practical example of this idea (though applied to fitness rather than income), see “Finding Exercise You Love: The Taekwondo Example.”
Step 3. Be willing to work at it for a long time
This may be the hardest part: say you’ve become really terrific at something and have found a way to combine a passion with an income opportunity. Many times, at this point, the money does not flow at the beginning. Sometimes it doesn’t flow for years. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected a dozen times before Bloomsbury bought it. (See accounts of other multiply-rejected successful authors at this link.) Founders of new businesses, unless they already have control over a lot of money, often have to work for a long time with no income to get to the point of viability, to say nothing of profitability. Artists, like musicians and novelists, often have even longer to wait.
In 1983, actor Jim Carey reportedly wrote a check to himself for ten million dollars–and postdated it ten years in the future. This is the kind of commitment and long-term thinking that tends to foster a certain amount of success. Doing a very good James T. Kirk impression also doesn’t hurt.
Yes those who don’t persist hardly ever triumph. Business is difficult. Writing a good novel is difficult. Convincing people that you should be their massage therapist is difficult. Those who don’t continue to believe in themselves and what they’re doing, persisting because they love their work and knowing they have something worthwhile because they’ve gotten feedback on their practice efforts, can stay in the game long enough to actually make it work.
It’s true, of course, that some people get discovered in Hollywood the week after they roll into town; some novelists get big deals from publishers as soon as they finish their first books; and some businesses start making real money right out of the gate. Sometimes time isn’t necessary. However, those are the exceptions: the Steve Jobs and Stephen Kings of the world didn’t find instant success, and we’re not likely to either. But if we’re doing something well, something we love, then we can afford to wait.
Photo by eszter