“Great men are not born great, they grow great . . .” ― Mario Puzo
I’ve spent my past 18 years in advertising. Working my way from the very bottom, starting at the boring and tedious stuff — and I was good at it. I was given more and more responsibility throughout the years, I learnt quickly, and I was happy to teach others — and I was good at it. without bragging about it, whatever I did during my career, I was just really good at it. First I was a very good subordinate, I became an even better leader, I have always been the favourite go-to person of my clients, and my colleagues.
And there came a point when I realised it was enough.
And just like this, I left it all behind, the glamour and fame of advertising, the exciting projects, the brilliant colleagues, the promise of an international move, the whole world I have been carefully building for nearly two decades — a world where I was loved and appreciated. A world that paid quite well.
I left it, and I chose a different path: I jumped into freelancing. Jumped is the right word here because I had no safety net, I had no savings, I had nothing but my wish to be away from it all — even though it was a path I have chosen. Even though I was successful. Even though I was very good at it.
I still am.
But just because you are good at something, it doesn’t mean that you have to do it.
See, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10.000 hours rule, you can get good at anything. If you put approximately 10 years into it, even without a real shining talent you will be considered good at it. In his book, he is explaining the reason behind practice and commitment.
Because getting good at something takes that: practice and commitment.
Don’t do it until you get it right. Do it until you can’t get it wrong.
We can all get there. We still have 10 years to learn to play the piano, to become a lawyer, to learn to salsa… whatever.
I left advertising behind because no matter how good I was it had nothing to do with my core beliefs and my real passion. It fed the overachiever in me with just the right amount of validation and gratification to keep me going and aim for more. It pushed me forward every time I wanted to quit — and I wanted to quit so many times. I was a professional, very good at her job, and I even liked it. But it wasn’t where I wanted to be great.
Becoming great needs more than becoming good. You can get good at almost anything. Time, practice, grit. You don’t need real talent. You need hours.
But becoming great is different. For that, you need to be already inherently good at what you do.
Think about it like this:
Can you sign your name with both hands? We usually do. And one will be effortless and easy and the other will be clumsy, difficult and frustrating. You could get to writing effortlessly with the other hand — with enough practice and time. But if you wanted to learn to do calligraphy, which hand would you start it with? I would definitely use my dominant hand, because with that one I am already good at writing. There is a reason I started to write with my dominant hand in the first place, when I first grabbed a pencil.
Becoming great is like using your dominant hand. You need to build on something you already have. And us humans are inherently drawn to things that give us reinforcement. If you continuously have success with a certain skill, you will be more motivated than if you bump into obstacles.
What would you like to become great at?
Becoming great at something needs to excite you a lot more than just becoming good. See, I am a very good driver. I am a good enough cook. I can play the piano — sort of. I could get a lot better, but none of these thrills me enough to excel at it.
If you are good at something, it’s not enough. Greatness requires something else: it is about your calling, your drive, your devotion. It’s not about something you can master if you practice enough with a sufficient amount of commitment. It is about doing something that you do with passion and dedication — and for that, you give it enough time to master it with practice and commitment.
It is about doing what makes your heart sing and your soul roar. It is about something you want to do because you enjoy the practice so much that you don’t need to force the commitment.
It’s about loving the journey more than the destination.
It’s when after a couple of years you are not telling yourself that you shouldn’t quit now that you put so much effort into it, but you don’t even consider quitting — because it is your life.
Is writing your calling?
Writing is my calling. It is about practice and commitment. But it is also about dedication and long-term goals. It is something I want to get better at, for the sake of getting better at it — not for the sake of anything else, like a promotion or a more splendid career path. Making money off it is nice too, but that’s a side-effect. It is something I can imagine doing in 5 or 10 or 25 years. Hopefully better than now — as I am willing to put my 10k or 25k hours into it over the years.
Commitment needs a strategy
If you are in it for the long run, then you will have your strategy, whether you know about them or not. Not having a spelt out strategy doesn’t mean that you are not following a certain pattern that you recognised to be working for you.
The advantage of having a spelt-out strategy has one main purpose: to define your track and keep you on it. Whenever you are feeling down or you feel like giving up, your strategy is there to remind you why you started in the first place. It is showing you a bigger picture, and a much-needed distance — to help you focus on the desired outcome rather than the current difficulties. It is guiding you towards your objective and enables you to see it from a higher perspective.
The best strategy starts with knowing why you are doing it. And I am not talking about just your vocation as a writer. I am talking about why are you writing here and now? Why this platform? Why this area? Why this topic? What is it that you want to accomplish with it?
Why is that important?
You need to be very honest about it — to yourself. You don’t need to admit it to anyone else if you believe that the answer is not pretty enough or fitting your image enough, but you need to be honest about it at least to yourself.
- If you are doing it for self-expression — then you shouldn’t worry about the money or the follower base.
- If you want to push your own limits and write about something you never did before — you shouldn’t be surprised if you gather some controversial opinions.
- If you are doing it for the money — you should be aiming for topics that are gathering enough followers and coverage, to accomplish your goals, even if it means that you are not writing within your comfort zone or you are losing your authenticity, or you are just good at it, not great.
None of this is good or bad — it can all be justified. It’s your life, your passion, your choice. But more than anything, you need to admit your own reasons, to yourself.
Good versus great
Whatever you do long enough, you will be good at it. It’s beyond question — provided you have the basic skills or you are willing to work for getting them.
If you are a skilled writer or even just someone with enough grit — you can basically write about anything. I mean it. Anything. The right amount of research and editing, and time and practice will get you there.
If you are a poet at heart can you still write leadership articles? Sure, you can!
If you are a tech author at heart, should you try poetry? Of course, you should!
Does being good at something give you a credible voice in everything? That’s not so sure.
The amazing thing I noticed is that if you are good enough you can manage to write in all topics, with incredible detail, perfect editing, perfect structure even.
But to be really great — you need to find what is it that you are really passionate about.
Being just good at something is overrated. Getting great at something is underrated.
I would trade being good at everything in a heartbeat for being great at the very thing I am passionate about. I found that all the writers I am following have their special voices and they are good at most topics that they write about — but more importantly they are brilliant at some of them, where their passion shines through so prominently that you cannot not notice it.
Great and credible and authentic — that creates real value in the eyes of your readers.
Great and true to yourself and passionate about what you do — that is when you know that you could be here for a really long while, even for life.