The wonky relationship between hard work and success

by Suw on December 13, 2023

A little bit of housekeeping before we get cracking on this week’s post: I’m taking a break over Christmas, so my next newsletter will arrive in your inbox on 10 January. 

If you find yourself at a loose end over Christmas, why not take a look at some of my fiction or essays over at Word Count? You can read my short story, The Lacemaker, or my novella The Gates of Balawat, which are both available in full and for free. And my first self-published novella, Argleton, is currently about halfway through, although there are free ebook downloads for all three if you prefer!

I hope that whatever your plans are, you have a restful and enjoyable festive period! 

You have to define your own relationship with hard work and success if you want to be a happy writer.

Hard work leads to success.

I’ve seen this myth doing the rounds in recent weeks and I wanted to examine it in a bit more detail, because there isn’t a direct correlation between the two and it can be incredibly demotivating if you feel that you’re working really very hard, but not seeing the kind of success you were hoping for.

But before I get into the meat of this post, it might be helpful to spend a moment asking what we mean by ‘hard work’ and ‘success’. Perhaps ‘hard work’ is easier to define, particularly if we are thinking in ‘sweat of the brow’ terms. Hard work is spending time, energy and potentially money on doing something to the best of one’s ability and actively working to improve one skills through study, training and practice.

Defining ‘success’ is tricker because it’s much more personal. Success for writers is most often thought of in objective terms, such as the ability to earn a living, getting traditionally published, winning an award or becoming a best-seller. For many people, I suspect that success is most of those things – at the very least, we want to get published (or self-publish) and earn a nice, comfortable living from our writing. In my opinion, that level of ambition is healthy.

Other people define success more subjectively, focusing more on how they feel about their work and how other people relate to it. Maybe they are writing to make themselves happy and don’t care about money or other people’s opinions. Or maybe they are writing for a small audience that they aren’t interested in growing, or their writing is an exercise is self-reflection and self-knowledge, or even a form of therapy, and success is based on how their feelings about themselves evolve.

But in both the British and American traditions, and no doubt others with which I am less familiar, we have a very long-standing folk tale that says hard work leads to success. Put the hours in and you’ll be (objectively) successful. It sounds sensible. For some, it’s incontrovertible. But it’s a truthy lie. Life has never been this simple and there isn’t a linear relationship between ‘hard work’ and ‘success’.

We can point to many examples of people who worked hard and ended up successful, but when we do, we’re suffering from survivorship bias: we’re ignoring the vast number cases where people either work hard and fail or don’t work hard but end up successful anyway. We only focus on the positive case studies because those are the ones that confirm our expectations and make us feel better about our chances.

However, there are factors that affect success, both positive and negative, which are largely outside of our control. Some things make success easier, though before anyone gets on their high horse in the comments, I’m not saying that people who’ve enjoyed these things never work hard, just that when they do, their hard work is more likely to lead to objective success. These things can include:

  • Family capital. There’s evidence that girls born into families with one or more parent in STEM are more likely to go into STEM themselves, despite it being male-dominated. The same is true with publishing. Those born into families where one or more family members are already published authors have the advantage of seeing how the sausage is made from an early age, learning its ins and outs, and being able to lean on parental networks.
  • Wealth. Those born into, who marry into, or who work their way into wealth have the financial security and resources to invest in their writing career.
  • Fame. If you secure fame in another field, then publishers will fall over themselves to publish your work because familiar names sell well regardless of the quality of the writing.
  • Established expertise. If you’re an authority on something and want to write a book about it, that’s going to be an easier sell to both audience and publishers than if you’re coming at it cold.

Some things that make success harder:

  • Structural prejudice. Sad to say, but sexism, racism, homophobia and other prejudices still exist in the world and affect not just people’s chances of finding an agent and getting published, but their ability to actually write in the first place. Women, for example, still do the vast majority of caring work, whether for children or elders, which affects their ability to find time to write. People of colour have to work twice as hard to prove themselves due to structural racism. And so on.
  • Disability and chronic illness. People with disabilities or chronic illness don’t necessarily have the same levels of energy that people without disabilities have, and managing their conditions can involve devoting a lot of time to treatment and medical appointments that would otherwise be open for writing.
  • Socioeconomic challenges. If you’re working two or three jobs to make ends meet, how are you going to find time to write? Financial instability especially makes it hard to write, not just because of the time taken up by low-paying jobs but because precarity focuses the mind on survival, not on stories.

I’m not going for exhaustive lists here, but rather I’m trying to illustrate that there are many things that can affect how much time and effort any given person can realistically devote to the ‘hard work’ that is assumed to lead to success. People facing systemic barriers have to work much much harder to reach the same level of success.

You’ll see missing from those lists any notion of ‘talent’, because talent alone won’t make you successful and nor will a lack of talent prevent success. We all know talented writers who haven’t made it, and we’ve all read successful books the quality of which points towards a total lack of talent. Talent’s not a predictor of success, just as hard work isn’t. Sure it helps, but it’s not a guarantee.

Love the process and work towards your own goals

With objective success impossible to guarantee, perhaps we should focus on subjective success. How can we come to a point of feeling satisfied with our progress?

Love the process.

I personally believe that the only surefire route to subjective success is to love what you do. Love writing. Love rewriting. Love editing. Love sending your stuff out to agents or self-publishing or putting your book away in a drawer unread by other eyes. Whatever you choose to do with your writing is a legitimate choice, and if you are doing what you want to do, then you’re successful on your own terms.

And your own terms are what counts. We are on this Earth for a short time and we should spend as much time as possible doing things that bring us joy. If writing brings you joy, if you’d write regardless, then you’re on your way to subjective success.

Find ways to support your writing habit.

Writing hardly ever pays well, with the vast majority of writers who reply to surveys in the US and UK earning a pittance, and certainly not enough to retire on. We all hope we’ll be the exception that proves the rule, that we’ll win the writing lottery, but all we can do is hope. We cannot rely on that dream coming true. So structure your life so that you can write and write happily.

Understand your own goals. 

Knowing what you really want, and how you can work towards it, is crucial. If you accept that objective success is a lottery, then that frees you up to think about what makes you happy and you can focus on that instead. If the publishing contract or self-publishing success and some money comes along, then great, but what would make that irrelevant to your wellbeing?

Accept reality.

All this involves making peace with unpredictability and with the idea that the kind of objective success you want may not ever arrive. This is, in my opinion and experience, the hardest thing to do. It’s so very easy to visualise the kind of writing life that we want, that we are striving towards. But if we pin our hopes on that happening, then we are borrowing trouble.

This doesn’t mean we stop trying or abandon ambition, but that we situate our effort and ambition in a realistic context and don’t make our happiness or self-worth contingent on things that are outside of our control. Do not make yourself a hostage to fortune.

Forgive yourself.

All of the above is difficult, and made more so by people who have tied their self-worth to superstitious ideas about hard work and success and who want to impose that view point on others in order to support their own self-image. And it’s certainly made no easier by companies whose entire raison d’être is to sell you the creative dream of financial independence and 1,000 True Fans. Substack, Ko-fi, Patreon, Kickstarter, Indiegogo and the rest. None of these platforms can guarantee any form of success, although their marketing wants you to believe otherwise.

Give yourself some leeway, cut yourself some slack, and forgive yourself if things don’t work out the way you want them to.

It’s the journey, not the destination

I write because I have to. I’m driven to. I’m a happier person when I’m writing. I will write whether I’m objectively successful or not, because simply finishing a piece of writing brings me joy. Bonus points if someone reads it and likes it. But if I don’t get these ideas and stories out of my head, if I don’t write, I feel attenuated, like I’m only half the person I ought to be.

To be my full, real self, I have to write.

Accepting that objective success is outside of my control is extremely hard and to be honest it has taken me years, but doing so (or at least, moving towards that goal) has allowed me to think about how I fit writing into my life and what I need to do to to continue. That plan is still a work in progress, but I feel like letting go of the desperate yearning for financial success through writing alone means I’m more likely to earn a living via other kinds of work that will allow me to write more consistently.

Perhaps one day I will win the writing lottery and earn a comfortable living from it, but I’m not putting all my eggs in that basket. Instead, I’m focused on crafting a life that both earns me the money I need to live and gives me the time and headspace I need to write. It’s not easy, but I’m getting there.

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