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Million Word Theory

Posted by on January 31, 2019

In the 2000 movie Boiler Room, a recruiter, Ben Affleck, gives a roomful of prospective employees this pitch: 
“If you become an employee of this firm you will make your first million within three years.  Okay?  I’m gonna repeat that: you will make a million dollars within three years of your first day of employment at J.T. Marlin.  There is no question you will become a millionaire working here.  The only question is how many times over.”

I don’t doubt this is true of certain professions, like working for shady pump-and-dump microcap stock fraud brokerage houses.  But there’s gotta be a catch, right, or everybody would do it. 

The catch is that barely anybody will make it three years.  Three quarters flunk out after the first month.  Of those remaining, most fail within six months, and even more by the end of the first year.  Of every thousand people who start working for “J.T. Marlin,” maybe one will still be there after three years.  That’s how it can be simultaneously true that everyone will become a millionaire and that the firm produces very few millionaires.  

“There’s a theory that you have to write a million words before you write something publishable.”

I don’t know where this theory came from—it always seems to be couched that way, i.e., “there’s a theory.”  It’s just, like, out there somewhere.  I guess some dummy invented it because a million is a big round number, but now there’s a lot of people who believe it.  I’m one of them.  I don’t doubt it in the abstract, anyway.  People who have written a million words probably are producing something “publishable.”  The problem is in the question of why do people make it to a million words.  What causes one person to reach the million word milestone while another drops out after 100 or 200 or 500 thousand words?  

If you work at J.T. Marlin, it’s not the case that if you can just hold on for three years while sucking at your job you’ll be a millionaire, because if you suck at your job you get fired.  They won’t let you work there anymore if you’re bad at it.  But the way Ben Affleck phrases it implies that working for J.T. Marlin for three years guarantees success, i.e., success is contingent upon length of employment, when really it’s the other way around: length of employment is contingent upon success.  The same is true of people who believe the million word theory—they reverse the causation.  At J.T. Marlin, an employee doesn’t succeed (i.e., become a millionaire) because he worked there three years; he worked there three years because he succeeded.  Likewise, a writer doesn’t succeed because he wrote a million words; he wrote a million words because he succeeded.  It may well be the case that he won’t start producing “publishable” words until #1,000,001; it’s just that many of his unpublishable words were published.  

Now unlike being a penny stock salesman, being a writer isn’t something you can be fired from, but there are other, less direct ways of pushing people out.  Usually those ways suffice long before one has reached a million words.  And it is not the case that if only they had somehow reached a million words despite the discouragement they would become successful.  They would still be equally unsuccessful, only they’d be counted as exceptions to the million word rule rather than as evidence for it.  

This theory is really no different from saying, “If you can run 26.2 miles in less than 2 hours 10 minutes you can win an Olympic gold medal.”  It’s so simple!  Well, yeah, but few people can do that.  And those who can are able to because of a long series of conditioning.  And they received that conditioning because of the results it produced.  To say that being an Olympic-level marathoner is solely contingent on running 26.2 miles in less than 2:10 is ridiculous because so much other stuff goes into being able to do that.  It seems simple because the group of those trying to win marathons is already so intensely self-selected to include only those with realistic hopes of doing so.  Others–i.e., octogenarians, the obese, quadriplegics, etc.–are excluded long before the starter pistol is fired.  Yet if they were just able to run 26.2 miles in 2:10 they too could be Olympic marathoners–see how fair the playing field is?  Likewise, the million word theory seems convincing because it excludes those who are, writer-wise, obese, quadriplegic, octogenarians.  Since it excludes most everyone who receives a lot of discouragement regarding his writing–i.e., those who gave up before reaching a million words–the set of those who have written a million words is necessarily going to include a lot of successful writers.  It sounds convincing as a theory precisely because of its uselessness.  But it doesn’t offer any prescription for how you too can become a successful writer, any more than telling an old fatso that if he would just run 12 mph for 2 straight hours he could win a marathon would help him win one.  Ah, he might say, that I cannot run so fast for so long is precisely my problem.

If you can write a million words you can write something publishable.  Well, yeah, but most can’t write a million words because of the discouragement they receive along the way.  Only those who either receive considerable encouragement, or are considerably stupid, will reach a million words.  They don’t succeed because of the million words, but because of the conditions that caused the million words, i.e., the encouragement of money and social support received along the way.

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