Best laid plans and the odd nature of ‘success’: What five months of being an author has taught me

I’m not the world’s greatest fan of the American musician and rapper Machine Gun Kelly. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you one of his songs. But, like many people, I do enjoy paying attention to success and ‘MGK’ – as the distinctively white Cleveland-born 28-year old is known – appears to have it in spades.

His recent stoush with Eminem has dominated entertainment headlines for months, catapulting Kelly to mega-stardom, listens, views, likes and all the other instruments we attribute to modern day success.

But it was in 2015, prior the rapper’s current fame, where I remember his response in an interview to the ‘up and down’ nature of his then-comparatively small success:

There’re those days where you wake up and you’re like, ‘I hate this, I don’t think it’s going to last, I’m not where I want to be’…. Other days you’re like ‘I’m the best la di da’… Some days I wake up and I’m performing in front of 20,000 people and then the next day you wake up and there’s 60 people… It’s such a crazy rollercoaster ride…. You spend three years on a project [and] by the time you put it out you don’t know if you like it anymore, you don’t know if anyone is going to listen to it. You don’t know anything. And especially since I don’t have a big celebrity friend list to, like, promote my sh**, and I don’t have a big radio presence either… [So] when [my album] came out and went number one I was like ‘woah I didn’t see that coming’…

Rapping and stardom aside, I feel there’s a great deal here that can apply to any degree of success or breakthrough. As we know, at any stage in our careers, any win – big or small – can be quite a bizarre experience.

My own humbled example has come after the release of my recent book – Winners Don’t Cheat: Advice for young Australians from a young Australian. To be a published author is certainly an accolade I’d never thought I’d achieve. But there are two factors that have arrived with such an experience. First, you’re confused by the nature of demand – one day there’s a lot of interest and the other there’s very little. And second, at times you can possess that unhelpful impulse to look at other people’s successes and think ‘how is that going so well but my efforts aren’t?’.

Again, regardless of what stage we’re at in our careers or lives, we can all take something from this. And to help weather the storm there are two further points to keep in mind. The first is being able to have some sort of plan, while the second is to constantly keep focusing on your own your efforts, talents and craft.

One of the key appreciations I’ve developed over the years is how difficult it is to keep doing good work, month on month, year on year and even decade upon decade. I’ve refined my appreciation, for example, for a musician who can keep putting out number one albums – a Jay-Z or a Madonna – or speakers who can draw hundreds of thousands of people – a Jordan Peterson or a Les Brown. In fact, we don’t even need to look at world beaters to see people doing impeccable and consistently good work.

To be fair, this was something I realised well before I wrote the book. Yet part of my own humbled experience is not just recognising the importance of sound habits, which help in the times you’re not motivated, but also having some sort of ‘plan’ to keep rigour to your efforts.

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless,” as the American General and President Dwight Eisenhower said, “but planning is indispensable.” Eisenhower, of course, knew something about best plaid plans, having coordinated one of the largest invasions in military history.

As we know plans change, speaking gigs fall through, sales spike and then drop, people don’t get back to you and, at the same time, some people reach out to you who you hadn’t even thought about. My communications plan, for example, developed with the help of a true professional, helped get me into the culture of promotional planning but not so much the exactness of it. You want to be able to strive for outcomes but flexible enough to strategically grab hold of things as they arise, which has been many times more common than anything I could’ve strategically planned for. This has helped to get me interviewed and promoted by some people who I very much look up to. Key lesson: if you are not (sensibly) telling people about your work then they simply will not know about it. Others will be made aware but simply don’t respond or reach back.

However, as important as promotion is, another key lesson is staying focused on your craft – your own efforts, working hard and refining your talents. Today online it is very easy to see others constantly doing well, which pulls you away from your own version of success or being grateful for the journey that you’re on. Part of the reason Jordan Peterson has been successful is because he has asked so many people – millions all over the world – to ‘compare yourself to who you were yesterday not to who someone else is today’. It’s great advice.

In high school and in my early 20s I believed that the only version of success was standing on podiums or being paid huge amounts. But as I write in Winners Don’t Cheat:

“Although it’s taken me some time I’ve realised that success is like what someone said of prosperity – it’s not a line drawn somewhere just above the million-dollar mark but involves choosing your own destiny and living out your potential in your own way. Success is every day, it’s personal and it can be threaded into what you’re doing right now. You don’t need to stand on a podium to experience it.”

The final point is that you not only have to keep focused on your craft but, at times, recognise some degree of fatalism in the world of worthwhile endeavours – pushing your work out there, doing the best that you can, and accepting that sometimes things connect while other times they don’t. Key lesson: your best efforts can get slim applause while your less inspiring work can be greatly received. One of the best examples of this I’ve read is from the actor and director Ben Stiller:

In terms of how people react to art or entertainment, you learn that it sometimes goes well and sometimes it doesn’t. It doesn’t mean that cause and effect are connected. In other words, you always to the best you can in the moment, and then it either connects or it doesn’t. Going forward, I was less innocent or maybe naïve about that. Then, when something was well received after that, it was always tempered by the knowledge that it didn’t mean that the project itself was better or worse. I think that was very helpful.

As Stiller adds, the most satisfying thing to him is whether something ‘connects’ with people over the long-term and not so much whether it was an instantly huge hit. It’s a great point worth keeping in mind. In addition to facing the peaks and troughs, having a plan, and constantly focusing on where you can improve or get better, it’ll inevitably help in the confusing, long run, up and down journey of success.

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