Two different podcasts. Two different authors. One common theme.
Just as this post concludes, it also began (albeit on a much smaller scale): with a compulsion to write.
I’d heard Paulo Coelho talk with Krista Tippett for On Being a couple months ago and the passage quoted below jumped out. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it.
Yesterday, I heard Salman Rushdie talk with Alison Beard for Harvard Business Review’s Ideacast. A minor echo in theme compelled me to write this up.
The myth of the overnight success is very well established. And while some successes work out that way, most are the result of consistency, hard work, and/or compulsion.
Two tales on the theme in the authors’ own words …
Lose The Short Game, Win The Long Game
To say that Salman Rushdie‘s first novel, Grimus, was very poorly received is an understatement.
“His first novel, Grimus (1975), a ramshackle surreal saga based on a 12th-century Sufi poem and copiously encrusted with mythic and literary allusion, nosedived into oblivion amid almost universal critical derision.” – Peter Kemp
Rushdie talked through this with Alison Beard …
“Well, I think that anybody who claims that they don’t care is probably lying. And it was very upsetting– it was very shocking to me when my first book came out and was received unkindly.
“And very pleasing to me, by the way, that that book is still in print, and doing quite well, and that people seem to like it.
“You know, you lose the short game, but you win the long game sometimes.”
Short game: “nosedived into oblivion”
Long game: “still in print … doing quite well … people seem to like it”
Nine more novels, several essays, a couple children’s books, and many other pieces of writing by Rushdie have since been published.
The 15 Year Overnight Success
150 million copies sold worldwide. Printed in 80 languages. New York Times bestseller list for 300 weeks. One of the most widely read books of all time.
Paulo Coelho‘s The Alchemist is clearly a success. And one that’s sometimes thought to be more of an overnight success.
Coelho described the timeline with Krista Tippett (whose surprise you can hear in the episode) …
“So we took three years to sell the first, well, 10,000 copies.
“And then one day I was in Portugal and I saw Bill Clinton with the book. And I said, ‘My god, the President of the United States of America has my book in his hand.’ And then, I said, ‘Now the book is going to happen.’
“No. Nothing happened.
“And then I saw Madonna in Vanity Fair saying, ‘Oh, you should read The Alchemist.’ And I said, ‘Ah! Now it’s my moment in America.’
“Zero, nothing. You know?
“And then, of course, the support of many people. But I could not understand why so many people were talking about The Alchemist, and nothing was happening, until the day, out of the blue, I saw the book for the first week in the New York Times bestselling list. But it took, uh, 15 years…”
I couldn’t track down any year by year sales numbers for The Alchemist, so all we can say is that approximately 149,990,000 copies were sold in the subsequent dozen years. I’d expect that the curve was ramping and steep – with many of those copies sold more recently.
Compulsion and Success
At BombBomb, a software company with which I’ve worked for 6 years, we’re often thought to be an overnight success – especially as we enter into new industries.
Yes, we’ve doubled revenue each year for the past four years, but we sold little to nothing for the first several years after founding. Our co-founders and others close to us toiled relentlessly to build a saleable service.
Now, years later and with immeasurable perseverance, a ramping curve.
Whether artist or entrepreneur, doing what you know you have to do, despite setbacks or criticism, is the foundation for much success.
In Rushdie’s words (again to Beard) …
“Well, I look back at that young fellow (himself after “almost universal critical derision”), and I’m quite impressed that he kept at it. And I think one of the things that makes a writer a writer is that it’s something he really needs to do.
“You know, it’s not just a choice of a job or a career. It really is in the old fashioned sense of a calling – it’s a vocation. And writing speaks to something very deep inside the person doing it.
“And it’s necessary – it’s necessary to the writer. And I’ve always thought that the only books worth writing are books of that sort. Books that are necessary to the writer.”
I want results today. Most of us do. Attention spans are often short and patience often thin. But success comes through years, through heeding your call, through patience.
When Coelho sensed “nothing,” momentum was building. People were sharing. Success was building.
“If we take care of the moments, the years will take care of themselves.” – Maria Edgeworth
Do what you need to do. Keep at it. Focus on the next right thing.
I write this for myself as much as for you.
HBR Ideacast: Salman Rushdie on Creativity and Criticism
On Being: The Alchemy of Pilgrimage
Photo: Bronze Carving – Tools, Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Santa Fe, NM