This morning, someone DMed me on Twitter and let me know that my book is still on the bestseller list in his country. It was an instant bestseller when it came out 23 weeks ago, and to hear that it’s still going strong is thrilling. My U.S. publisher also told me this week that I’ll be receiving an earn-out bonus from the American edition sales. And also as of this week, I’m officially an executive producer of the series adaptation of my book.
It’s a real “dreams do come true” moment for me. If you were to tell me ten years ago that this is where I would be in 2023, I would have said, “Wow! But I have no clue how to get there!” In 2013, I was an assistant at a New York publisher. The word “abusive” comes to mind when I think of that workplace. I made sub-living wages while harassed, discriminated, and gaslighted by my supervisors. I think the only kind of bullying they didn’t do was physical violence. Even outside of my job, living conditions were bleak. I had been living on $10 a day for food for years by this point. Don’t forget about the vermin of New York—they are not cute like in Disney’s Cinderella!
When I quit my job in early 2014, almost exactly nine years ago, I didn’t have another job lined up. I’d had only two interviews and had gotten zero offers. My horrible bosses weren’t going to be good references, so I leaped off the cliff into unemployment without any idea of how to get my next position. It was interesting to see how quickly my former colleagues, people I considered close friends, shunned me as if I’d fallen off the race forever.
Between then and now, I’ve learned a lot about creating your success. I use the term loosely—for example, I feel successful according to my own terms. How we define “success” varies so much, and my success could be someone else’s meh scenario and vice versa! I’m not rich according to many others’ standards. Most of my wardrobe is several+ years old, I don’t own things like a car or air conditioner, and I walk or bike everywhere. But if we can agree generally that success means autonomy, competence, and some degree of material wellness, here are the best tips I learned.
Best success tips for a rewarding career and financial stability
Use every opportunity to create another opportunity.
I learned this several years ago at a workshop for emerging writers, and it’s one of the most useful tricks. When someone gives you an opportunity, use it to do two or three things. For example, if someone hires you to do a job in X, see if you can do another thing Y while you’re there. When I’m offered a free trip to do a book tour or a festival appearance, you better believe that I’m going to be transporting a rescue pup and having meetings for other projects while I’m there.
This can also mean working on another project for someone who rejected your first pitch. The first No can become a Yes if circumstances change.
We’ve all heard of how grit is one of the major predictors of success. But contrary studies also exist, arguing that higher levels of grit only raise chances of success marginally. Keep in mind that these “grit doesn’t matter” studies tend to use academic performance as a measure of success, and that’s a fairly narrow metric. For the world outside of academia, GPA, and test scores, I think grit matters a lot.
Grit is composed of two things: perseverance and consistency of interest. Staying committed and staying interested in face of numerous hurdles is crucial to success. But follow-through means more than just grit: it’s also about doing what you say you’ll do. Believe me, I too hate staying up late to answer random emails because I said that I would, but such follow-through is important. Each time you say you will do X and fail to deliver, you lose credibility. And credibility is extraordinary power. When you become known as someone who can always be trusted, you become one in a million.
It’s not who you know. It’s who you are
About a decade ago, a University of Chicago study was published declaring that the most important indicator of success is having an open network. A closed network looks like staying in your town, hanging out with your same group of friends from high school, and networking with people only in your field and/or location. An open network means diversity of interactions and influences.
I think anyone with common sense might say there are many other more important factors such as education, socioeconomic status of parents, grit, intelligence, even agreeableness—just to name a few. Also, this study was written by network scientists, and to a hammer, everything is a nail!
In my early- to mid-twenties, I also subscribed to the idea (so pervasive in New York) that it’s who you know. I saw my peers who came from wealthy families get plum jobs right out of school. Pushing myself to go to networking parties, I awkwardly chatted up many people who glanced over my shoulder the whole time, looking for someone more successful to talk to. It still hurts my feelings in recollecting. (And you know what, some version of this still happens to me at fancy parties with people who think very highly of themselves. So ridiculous.) This was not a spiritually fulfilling experience—nor did it help my career by even 1%.
I would say that it’s not who you know, and it’s not even what you know that ultimately matters. What’s most important is who you are. I spent time defining who I was as a person and as a professional. This wasn’t as easy: I remember the intense anxiety I felt before introducing myself as a “writer” for the first time. Because people always then follow up with, “what do you write?” or “anything I might have read?” And I didn’t feel like I was a legit writer until I was a published author of books or whatever. But let me tell you, you have to claim your space before the space is given to you.
After I claimed who I am, I spent time finding my purpose—why and how I do my work. It’s one of the smartest things I’ve ever done in my life. Once you can state your purpose, you can get almost anything done. And very few people have this defined and up their sleeve. You will be surprised how much knowing who you are makes you stand out.
Every success hides 10 failures
I am still failing upward, every day. I just don’t advertise my failures and rejections publicly! The less shame you feel over these wounds, the more time and energy you have to pour toward the next thing that can turn into success. Did you know Stephen King put up all the rejection letters he’s gotten using a spike, because a nail just wasn’t strong enough for the weight? I have to respect that kind of resilience and defiance. Don’t be so afraid to fail, because without it you can’t succeed. (Literally, you just can’t.)
Don’t do it for the money
So many people I know are trying to do it for the money, even artists. I’ve noticed that those people typically don’t make their best work or become as popular or materially successful as they wanted. On the other hand, if you do things to fulfill your purpose and vision, the money will follow.
Never work with people who don’t respect you
This is my professional rule #1. Don’t sacrifice your life blood for people who don’t respect you (like my horrible ex-bosses), because they will never pull you up no matter how good you are. Make sure you use your time and energy for your own benefit or with others in mutual respect. Of course, this also means you must respect others the way you want to be treated.
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Photo: Fab Lentz via Unsplash