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Retrospective Re-evaluation of Success to Give the Illusion of Struggle

Posted by on April 2, 2020

“His novel sold well. “It was an okay living from the first day,” he said. But, he adds, “I was not an immediate success. I was an immediate cult hit. It was really 10 years before I was what you would call a real success. People mis-remember it. They think it happened overnight. It didn’t. Within the genre, yes I was known and became a best selling author. But it took 10 years to really make it.””

My First Thriller: Lee Child

One of the mysteries of the world to dummies is that everyone who is successful claims to have endured years of struggle and hard work to get to where they are, yet it is often difficult to discern when these years of struggle took place.  This guy Lee Child wrote one (1) book, which he sent to one (1) agent, who accepted it, who sent it to one (1) publisher, who bought it, and he made enough money to sustain a middle-class lifestyle (in Britain, a high-cost-of-living place; it’s not like he lived in some dirtbag town in New Mexico).  Literally the first thing he did was very successful right out of the gate.  But, he says, he wasn’t an immediate success.  It actually took ten years to “really make it.”  As we shall see, the secret lies in making that word “really” do a tremendous amount of work.

At the time the $50,000 or 100,000 or whatever probably seemed like success, and it was, especially compared to almost every other writer in the world.  What he achieved immediately made him more successful than all but a handful (literally a handful, as in five or fewer) of other writers.  But compared to the later tens of millions he made (current net worth, $50 million) it now seems paltry.  His $100,000 was retroactively re-defined as failure.  Making 100 thousand dollars in his first year was no longer “really” making it, which he now defines as making tens of millions of dollars.  This kind of retrospective re-evaluation is one of the chief means by which people who were immediate, overnight successes claim to have endured years of struggle.

The message that one must endure years of struggle before achieving success is a kind of propaganda that is constantly pushed on the public.  For every hundred articles that uncritically advance Mr. Child’s narrative of a decade of struggle and hard work before “really” making it, there may be… actually, I can’t remember ever reading an article that advanced the opposite narrative (i.e., in which some wunderkind admits to being an immediate success).  Like most propaganda, it’s a Potemkin village that appears sturdy from a distance but collapse upon close inspection.  It can sustain belief only among those strongly motivated to believe in it.  But what strongly motivates them?  What is the point of this propaganda?  Why not just tell aspiring writers, “Give it a year; if you haven’t succeeded by then, give up.”  What advantage do those pushing the years of struggle narrative gain from encouraging so many failures to keep trying?  Why could not the opposite narrative, of a world dominated by chance and overnight successes, be pushed?

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