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Beware of Potential

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I’ve known a lot of artists, writers, and musicians. Without fail, they all had some degree of talent and skill. There is no shortage of talent in the world. But I’ve noticed that something happens along the way with a lot of these talented people.

With a few notable exceptions, most of them give up on their goals at some point.

As a fellow creative, this really troubles me. Why do talented people stop working on what other people say they are good at?

I don’t have all the answers about this. In fact, it’s something that I’m intensely curious about, and I might take it up as a longer project later.

But for now… I think I know part of the answer. What many talented people lack is the ability to keep going when external rewards are minimal or non-existent.

At the early stages of working on something, hearing that “you have potential” can feel rewarding. But it’s a slippery slope, because the world expects more than just potential. At a certain point, you have to raise the bar and start delivering.

I’ve quoted Paulo Coelho before: “When you want something, the entire universe conspires to make it happen.” This is completely true. But I think it’s also true that when the universe bestows talent on you, you need to start working with all you’ve got to make something lasting of it.

140 Rejection Letters

We often hear stories of how some of the most successful artists encounter a series of great rejections prior to finally becoming an “overnight” success. Here are a few of my favorites:

• Jack Kerouac carried his novels with him for seven years before they were published. Seven years!

• Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was rejected 25 times.

The Diary of Anne Frank was sent back with this note: “The girl doesn’t have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”

But here’s the grandmaster: Jack Canfield, the guy who started the whole Chicken Soup series. Yes, I know that the business beyond these books has gone far beyond any reasonable branding – see Chicken Soup for the Single Christian Woman or the Teenage Soul series, for example.

The first soup book, before things got crazy, was rejected a total of 140 times. Yes, 140 “no thank you” notes for Chicken Soup for the Soul, which has gone on to sell 40 million copies in at least 20 languages. That guy had more than just potential. He had unbelievable persistence.

Every writer gets rejected, sometimes over and over. But the ones who only have potential stop submitting (or just stop writing) somewhere along the way. They get discouraged and feel beat down.

And then, before you know it, they’ve become someone who used to be a writer. Or someone who wanted to be a writer.

I’m picking on writers because writing is the art form I’ve chosen, but the lesson extends to any art form. The forced accountability of this project is good for me, because if I were to stop posting one week, you’d know that I’ve slacked off. Then you could say I had potential—the verbal death blow that strikes so many creative types.

But hopefully I’ll have more than just potential, and you will too. You’ll adopt tenacity in place of mere talent, recognizing that talent is helpful but will only take you so far.

In the end, you’re in a room with a notebook, an easel, a computer, or whatever your medium is. You’re probably alone, because that’s what it takes. Are you willing to go beyond the potential that others see?

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32 Comments

  • Eric Deeter says:

    I would recommend a great little book called “The War of Art”, by Stephen Pressfield. He examines this battle between creativity and resistance and offers a depth of insight that helped me understand the way to win and be a true pro.

  • Pace says:

    Yes! It’s like Seth Godin says in The Dip: Most people will not be willing to push through the dip. They will give up when they are pushing harder and harder but receiving fewer and fewer external rewards. But those who manage to push through the dip, who don’t give up, are the truly successful ones.

    If you ever start feeling like you’re in a dip, Chris, please post about it, and we’ll see what kind of external rewards we can rustle up for you to keep you going!

  • You’re absolutely right. I think sometimes I lose sight of the bigger picture. I know that my dreams aren’t going to come to fruition overnight, but if I want something to happen, I need to pro actively ensure that I am doing everything possible to acheive those goals.

  • Chris says:

    Hey everyone…

    @Eric,

    I love that book! It’s one of my favorites. Here’s a link.

    I’ve just spent my first day in Cairo — it’s nice over here, but also about 96 degrees. I’ll check in later and respond to more comments.

  • Harlie says:

    Hi Chris, good post! It reminds me to be persistent. A month ago I took up a jazz piano class and I am now preparing for my first recital. It is tough! I’ve had thoughts of choosing an easier piece… now I’m gonna be persistent and stick with it.

    Haven’t been commenting on your site, but this doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading! Keep it up 🙂

  • Michael says:

    I would recommend The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron to revive the dying artist that lies in all of us.

  • Metroknow says:

    Chris, I think this post is really going to resonate with a lot of people. I know it does with me. I feel like I’m on the upswing of my own dip, but it is really, really tough to maintain the momentum. You start to question your decisions, your methods, and even your long range objectives.

    One thing that is helping this time (unlike previous attempts at world domination) is the experience of running longer distances. My runs start out great, but after a couple of miles my body starts to do all kinds of odd little painful things – suddenly my foot hurts in a weird, random spot, or my left calf starts to tighten. What I’ve found is that this is my first “dip” on my run – essentially my body trying to “trick” me into stopping. If I just push through, the pain goes away, since there truly is no injury. It’s a really funny physiological experience, and I think it applies to artistic pursuits as well. You start out feeling great, and being reinforced by a world of people cheering you on who don’t have the circumstances or the drive to make the leap themselves, but wish they could. Then the work begins, and suddenly there’s pain in some form, and the head games start. That’s where I’m at right now. But because I know this about myself with running, I am holding out for the emergence at the top of the curve – I just have to push through the tough spots.

    Thanks as always for your inspiration – I’m really enjoying it. And please share as much as you can about Cairo!

  • If you are an artist the first thing you have to do is get very real with both the upsides and the downsides of being one. The tools , the creative way, the approach to life, is not out there somewhere, it’s inside. When the rejections come, when the awards come.. they are only a passing thing. The artistry, the endlesss exploration, well, that stays with you day after day. And it has to suit you right down to the bones.

    The Art Spirit is a classic too, by Robert Henri.

  • Dan says:

    Nice article. Thanks for posting it. This topic, leads me to a question I have asked myself recently. Is it really helpful to pump the “if at first you don’t succeed try, try again” attitude unconditionally?

    Sure, there are many wonderful success stories where the plot is comprised of persistence in the face of failure – then success. But I would argue that there are many more stories where persistence in the face of failure results in continued failure and a wasted use of energy and resources that could have been better spent elsewhere.

    I’m not trying to be negative for the sake of being negative, but this really is something I have thought about for awhile. My daughter watches Hannah Montana and Disney is always interjecting these little ads where they are basically telling their audience that they too can be a rock star if they put their mind to it. Obviously, this is not true . But does it have a detrimental affect?

    What of the writer who spends his/her life trying to get a series of novels published, but it turns out that the books really are horrible and realistically have no chance of ever being succesful. Don’t you think there are “100 times” more scenarios where this is actually the case?

    So how do you go about life such that you aren’t so much of a “realist” that it prevents you from ever being great? Do you ignore real adversity and shortcomings and throw it all on the line? Or do you approach life using reason and logic, yet be prepared to pull the trigger at the opportune moment?

    I just think there’s a bit more to it than being persistent. Sure, if you knew that your book could be a best seller, then by all means be persistent. But you don’t know that – and whats to say you aren’t crazy and overvaluing your own literature (or whatever it may be) and that it realistically has no chance of success. You may end up leading a life of disappointment, when you could have been pursuing some of th other things you care about an ended up being great at one of those things. How do you determine when to say when?

  • Meg says:

    Thank you so much for writing this.

  • Chris says:

    @Pace,

    I haven’t read that particular Seth Godin book, but of course I’ve enjoyed the other ones I’ve read. I’ll put it on my list. Thanks for the tip!

    @Michael and @Janice,

    More book recommendations – thanks.

    @Metroknow,

    You always write such great comments. I hope people are clicking over to your blog – AlmostFit.com. Yes, I’ll write about Cairo soon.

    @Wayfaring and @Harlie,

    Nice to meet you both!

    @Dan,

    Good question. I’ll share my $0.02, but maybe someone else wants to go first? Let’s see.

    @Meg,

    You’re welcome.

  • Noah says:

    @Dan: Interesting question. A few thoughts:

    1. “What if your material really is crap?” Speaking from personal experience, a lot of what I produce is sub-par. But not all of it, and after a lot of hard work I’m able to identify kernels of excellence inside bland jello. Here’s a more interesting question: If you have a book you think is really top-notch, are you done writing it? Or is every day another opportunity to revise and refine it? I’ve never met a writer who thought their work was “perfect”; there is always something to improve. If you’re walking around with your masterpiece that will never be touched again, than I’d say your vision is cloudy(and you will probably keep being rejected).

    2. “A life of disappointment”. It’s a fear I suppose, but do you think this happens that often? Is your entire self-worth dependent on being published, or playing in the Olympics, or whatever? You don’t have to be a CEO to be loved by your family, to be active in your community, etc. There are a lot of ways to not have this disappointing life, even if your highest dream never comes to fruition. Now living a life of regret because you didn’t take a shot, those you hear about.

    So Dan I hear two issues from your post. One is defining “greatness” in a very narrow way(the heights of success in a field). The other is saying that trying and failing is worse than never trying at all. It depends how long you try and how badly you fail I suppose, but most people think taking a shot is worth some(or more) risk of failure. And even failure can be pretty darn valuable too.

  • David S. says:

    I agree with Dan, to a point. You should know that your work is good before you submit it 140 times in the face of rejection. How do you know? Perhaps a trusted and credible friend or colleague(s), or coach is telling you it’s good. I have a friend who has published a couple of books, and he has been well-received, sold a decent amount of copies, gets lots of emails and feedback on his blog, and yet when he went to his publisher with his third book, they said – rather coldly – this isn’t what we’re looking for right now. In this case, he needs to know that there are other forms of validation besides the ones who control the money. He has touched people around the world, so he knows he can write! It’s just a matter of finding the right outlet for it.

  • Nathan says:

    I have found the same struggle in my life…which I can blame on a variety of things. Part of me had given in to the difficulties of swimming upstream and tried settling for normalcy, however even once I’ve made the attempts to reach for my goals yet again I find that real life seems to get in the way more often than not. My job fatigues me mentally and the family often becomes stressed from lack of time together. A combination of things really, that are growing pains of finding success.

  • Gary says:

    Chris – I couldn’t agree with you more. After traveling around the country interviewing entrepreneurs about their startup experience, (authors are definitely entrepreneurs) perseverance and determination stand out as the most common attribute.

  • Ben Young says:

    If its your dream. You need to make it happen. Persistence will pay off. Just keep trying different methods of achieving the same goal.

  • Kathleen says:

    Love this one, Chris! perfect timing, too, as i was just indulging a moment of artistic doubt…I simply ADORE your blog.

    @Dan,

    Seth Godin’s The Dip (already mentioned here) talks about a lot of the things you’ve touched on, so I won’t repeat, but here are my two cents.

    a) We can usually rely on friends & acquaintances to be honest about if we do or do not have potential/a good product on our hands.

    b) Even though I am young, I have already observed (among my college friends & wider circles) that hard work (i.e. hustling), persistence & confidence win out over talent in the long run. I personally know more than a few actors and “musicians” who have made it to TV & films or major record label deals, even though they are far less talented than some around them who haven’t. This is neither bad, nor good, but it is definitely a reminder about how relatively un-important talent is in making an artistic career for oneself. Someone who is persistent will work at getting better, and will.

    c) I am finding that reason & logic are overrated in this stuff. Art is the language of the heart, and so best to use the language of the heart when approaching it. Openheartedness, enthusiasm, openmindedness & love have been far more useful for me than logic & realism (which sometimes just depress me or lead me into closemindedness). At the end of the day, my artistic enthusiasm (the spirit of play, of connecting with a Power greater than me, etc.) seems to matter most to this journey.

    d) We’ve heard it a million times, and will continue to: It’s the journey, not the destination. The destination is just there to bring us through all kinds of new & awesome experiences. Love Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist for this reminder.

    If I may quote myself, “Find something you love & run with it! It’s just your life, have fun with it!”

  • Rod Homor says:

    Hi, this is my first time on your site, and I just wanted to say hello, and thanks for writing this article. It definitely hits home with me.

    You mentioned you might make a longer study of this topic. If so, how? What would you like to do?

    Have you read any Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s books? You might enjoy them…

  • Becky says:

    Wow. Ouch! You’re right. It is so hard to push on without the external rewards. Motivation is a killer. Excellent post. Now – to go sulk over how right you are and how much I need to get it in gear!

  • Audrey says:

    Like other people commenting, this post resonates a lot with me. I’ve enjoyed going through your website these last few weeks.

    Not that you need any awards, but I just passed on the diamond award to your site. I loved the opinion of the Egyptian taxi driver on McCain that you posted on Twitter. Safe travels.

  • Tips for the Dip:

    Be at peace with the ebb tide.

    My all time success action at such moments in the illusion of failure is to go with the calm that occurs at the turning of the tide. After the incoming fury and wrath of the incoming tide when it looks like all is spent for naught and now the tide will recede the sea goes very calm. That’s when I observe the calmness, tune in to the creative forces of the universe and set about a new onslaught. It’s only failure if you fail to persist.

    Have the Last Supper.

    You have to follow the ebb tide calm with the Last Supper, so to speak. When it appears defeat has beset me or the game is lost I literally go fix myself a special meal in my kitchen or get something I really like at a restaurant and call it the “Last Supper”. This is metphorical for meaning it appears I just lost the title but the eye of the tiger will see it through to win anew. Always at this time a bright idea or brilliant new phase plan emerges and I know something reamrkable and great is just around the corner.

  • Good post Chris and from all the comments it’s a big hit.

    @Dan

    What makes it good or not is 1) only that it be different and 2) the discipline in the application of craftsmanship.

    1) If you can say what hasn’t been said or express a new view of it like a clever metaphor it will stimulate thought in others, you can be assured. Be yourself and express what comes from your heart and that will take you the longest way.

    2) A casual observer may say he likes it but the artist, who knows his craft well enough from study and practice will apply his skills with the finesse that entices the involvement and imagination of the intended public, knowing fully well what rules or methodology made it likable.

    The smug pleasure from accomplishing my first screenplay was that only I did it; the screenplay itself is a far cry from acceptable. Same of the second screenplay first rendering on paper. By the ninth re-write following the advices of an excellent mentor it transformed to top notch. Now doing it right comes naturally.

    Know what you have that is unique. Study up. Take time to improve your skills. Then success will follow your persistance.

    Robert
    WhoWouldWrite.blogspot.com

  • I’m enjoying this post Chris. Here’s another thought of reaching the end of the rope.

    Take a Walk to The Top of the Mount

    When all else fails here is another metaphor. In the circumstance where it appears my work is crap after all, that I have really messed it all up, spun my wheels to go nowhere and may well be defeated and left for dead on the battlefield this calls for a walk to the top of the mount to come back with the holy tables. You have to take some time out and review where you stand and be honest with yourself. Get a new view from the highest point of the journey. This is best done by reviewing your goals and most heartfelt desires candidly and reaffirm these or adjust them as needed.

    A lost battle only means that you still have to confront the war.

    Robert
    WhoWouldWrite.blogspot.com

  • Nana Yaa says:

    Very true article about potential, Chris. I am a writer with a strong desire to do more than scribble and I find that I am struggling with the persistence bit.
    However I am persevering and doing my best to revive myself so I can choose one thing to work on and finish.
    Very helpful to read this to remind myself once again that writers simply write ( and finish most times what they start)!
    Thank you.

  • D.M. Cook says:

    What timely advice– as someone who spent most of their early life being told they were a prodigy, a genius, etc., then going to college and finding myself burnt-out at age 22, I definitely understand that POTENTIAL IS NOTHING WITHOUT PERSISTENCE. Thanks so much for that kick in the ass– now, on to finding a job in this new economy.

    I value your blog very much– first post here though. Just wanted to let you know that I appreciate what you’re doing here, and you’re inspiring all of us.

  • xenia says:

    a short answer to your above question:

    when I was a kid, I was an actor. I mean, professionally – I did commercials, films, TV shows, I was on Home and Away once. I had a small amount of fame, mostly in my hometown. I stopped when I was 18 because I am by nature, intensely shy and counld’t handle the bullying which inevitably comes with children being different from their schoolmates.

    I also won writing contests by the bucketload. I don’t do that anymore either. I hate writing, I always have; I always felt my talent was a curse because my mum pushed me to do stuff I hated!

    I think one answer to your question about “why do talented people give up” might be … when you realise what you want in life, it might not include that which you have always done, just because you have enjoyed it in the past.

    just because you are talented at something, doesn’t mean you enjoy doing it. 🙂

  • Meagan Eve says:

    Thank you so much Chris! I have recently discovered your site and I’m so excited about it!! I found out about you from my younger brother’s friend (and your younger sister), Mary. Awesome site!!

  • Andrea says:

    I am just at the stage where I need to be taking my potential to the next level – everyone says I am pretty good at what I want to be doing (photography) and I have bucket loads of passion, but taking it that one step further, where photography is my career is not that easy. It needs a lot of courage and as you say persistance. I think I have persistence, but I lack a bit on courage.

  • Sharon Eden says:

    @Eric… I love that book too… so good Chris gave a link.

    And, I think you nailed it, Chris. Talent is not enough… persistance, courage and audacity are two qualities to nurture in ourselves.

    To continue in self-belief and just keep going on going on… To have the courage to keep telling people… millions of them if you can… what you’re doing. And the audacity to promote yourself… a real opportunity with the internet and social media.

    And to give away a piece of your art on Youtube, Slideshare or whatever… so people can taste you. All the while tweeting etc like mad so the world gets to know about it…

    So juicy!

  • JB says:

    Besides the inability to keep going with none to minimal external rewards there is also the day job that saps time, energy and creativity. I’ve been tapped from juggling work, school and still trying to integrate into Spanish culture, and it’s been kicking my artistic ass. But I’m still slugging it out. Although maybe I should do something else? If anyone is willing to take a look and give me an honest, ‘keep going’ or ‘drop it,’ I’d really appreciate it. Chris? Anyone?

  • As you’ve pointed out, it’s ironic that those with the most potential seem to give up before they realize it.

    One possible explanation is that those who have a lot of talent learned things easily at the beginning. It lulled them into the sense that it would always be that way; and so when it got hard, they thought that what they were doing was the wrong thing thing and abandoned it.

    Few people realize how much work is required to make something look or sound easy.

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