“What do you want?”
Four simple words, loaded with possibility. A simple query? A threat from a shady character who doesn’t want your eyes on his business? A challenge?
What I’ve learned is that how you answer is critical to your chances of success.
If you’ve read about my writing journey, you’ll know this is my second attempt to be a writer. I’m a long way from that objective but I’m feeling more confident than the first time round. The crucial difference is in how I understand what I’m trying to achieve.
When I first set out to have a creative career (a long time ago in a land far, far away), I was focussed on the final outcome. My creative partner and I invested a lot of energy in our vision of ourselves as successful filmmakers. We whiled away hours naming our production company, designing a logo and choosing a typeface, deciding where our offices would be if we ever earned some money. We picked a name for our imagined assistant (Sebastian. He was to be gay or at least effeminate so he could help style us for events until we hit the big time). We discussed our Oscar acceptance speech. What can I say, we were young.
What we lacked was a clear any plan on how to get there.
We had a great deal of success very early – before we’d even consciously decided what we wanted to do. I was studying film and media, she was studying fine arts. She wanted to piss off one of her lecturers: I hit on the idea of making a film around the themes of her work (it escapes me exactly why we thought this would annoy the teacher!). Somewhere along the way I learned that the government gave grants to filmmakers. I wrote a script, she did some sketches for the submission and before we knew it we had a grant. Suddenly, we were filmmakers.
The film was pretty crap, really, although we did have some original, if sophomoric, ideas. But it opened the door to the industry for us. We were invited to events and supported by the local film funding agency as emerging talents. We co-wrote more scripts and looked for others to produce. Before long we had another, bigger grant to fund production on a script we’d optioned and I received funding to work with a script editor on the second draft of my feature screenplay. Then we started to encounter hurdles. The art director on the short spent the art budget on drugs. The funding body ordered us to sack the director. My screenplay was rejected by the companies I sent it to. The other scripts I was writing weren’t getting funding. I lost confidence in my talent.
Carol Dweck might say we were too focussed on performance goals. The reason I’m doing better this time is although I’ve set performance goals for myself, my focus is on my learning goals.
Let me explain: Dweck is a social psychologist whose work on motivation is influential in education, demonstrating amongst other things that people who believe intelligence something you can improve focus more on hard work and effort than people who believe it’s a fixed attribute. Students who believe intelligence is fixed tend to focus on performance: they ‘strive to gain favourable judgements of their competence’. When they fail, they take it as a sign they are too stupid or lack talent. Students who focus on learning ‘strive to increase competence or understand something new’. When they fail, they take it as a sign they need to re-think their learning strategy.
This is powerful stuff. Many of us grow up thinking you’re either smart or stupid but there’s actually plenty of evidence this is not the case. Obviously there are some gifted individuals in all fields but as Gladwell argues in Outliers, effort and persistence are critical to success.
My story is typical of what can happen when you think it’s all about innate ability: I did well at school, with very little real effort. I spent swot vac (study break) sunbathing and playing cards (and making plans to a) join Wham b) marry John Taylor from Duran Duran). I admired my friend Catherine who studied hard but thought she was crazy. I’ve always been more of a grasshopper than an ant.
When I encountered failure out in the real world, I could only decide I just wasn’t good enough to succeed. Better to quit and do something where people praise me and success comes easily.
But the itch to write never really left me. Always, in quiet moments, I would be thinking about writing and dreaming of being a writer. Luckily for me, I would read article by writers about writing and eventually the idea started to form: I can learn how to do this. That was the breakthrough.
I get such joy from writing daily. I’m constantly battling the bitch in my head who wants an easy life and tries to talk me out of taking risks and pushing myself, but now I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do. And now that I’ve started learning, I see endless years of learning ahead of me and it thrills me. No matter how ‘successful’ I become, when I’m 85 I will still be learning new things about writing. I can switch forms. I can play with genre. I can try new technologies and platforms. I can write alone or collaboratively. The reward for hard work is knowing I am succeeding, because I am learning. What a gift!
So, if being a writer is your dream, think carefully about what you want to achieve. Dweck’s work suggests you do need performance goals, to help you focus (more about that soon!) but by focussing on your craft, striving to refine your skills, you’ll have the attitude to carry you through.