A writer had a rough go of getting a book published. Even after he’d written plenty of short stories for magazine publications, he started his hand at writing books. But nothing hit.
His fourth attempt at a novel really gave him some fits. He finally finished a manuscript for it, but he still didn’t like it. The story didn’t move him, he was writing about people he didn’t know very well, and he didn’t like the characters. He threw it away in the trash.
Dean Simonton is a Professor of Psychology at UC-Davis. The guy has studied what makes people creative and smart his whole career with over 300 publications and more than ten books.
In 1977, Dean explored how time affects greatness. By studying composers, do we see if they peak and get worse as they get older?
Afterall, isn’t that what we expect? Don’t we expect to see that graph of a U upside down?
But, that’s not what Dean found. Instead Dean found the percentage of stuff composers did that was “great” compared to their “minor” things was constant over time.
Quality doesn’t change over time. Quantity does. If you see someone peak, it’s because their productivity changed.
In other words, the most creative amongst us have mastered beating the odds. Not because they have drastically better chances. But because they play the game more.
Dean’s conclusion also carries with it the observation: time doesn’t seem to make us much wiser in determining what’s good or bad about our work. If it did, we’d see the percentage of our “major” works improve.
Or as Dean has written: “Beethoven’s own favorites among his symphonies, sonatas, and quartets are not those most frequently performed.”
That lack of wisdom also then causes a lot of things to get thrown out that may have been good. Or as Dean calls it “backtracking”.
Adam Grant, who highlights more of Dean’s work in his book Originals, points out, “In Beethoven’s most celebrated work, the Fifth Symphony, he scrapped the conclusion of the first movement because it felt too short, only to come back to it later. Had Beethoven been able to distinguish an extraordinary from an ordinary work, he would have accepted his composition immediately as a hit.”
When the writer above came home one night from his teaching job, a job that barely paid enough money to keep a roof over his family’s head, he found his wife had dug the book out of the trash.
She wanted him to finish it. She was confident he had a worthwhile story. It took a bit of her help to get the characters figured out. But he polished the story and started sending the manuscript to publishers.
He didn’t hope for much. He moved onto other things. But one thing he definitely didn’t do was give up writing.
“I pretty much forgot about it and moved on with my life, which at that time consisted of teaching school, raising kids, loving my wife, getting drunk on Friday afternoons, and writing stories.”
But soon, he got a call that Doubleday wanted to publish his book in hardcover. It wasn’t for much. A $2500 advance. But soon after that, he also got a paperback deal and a $400,000 advance.
Stephen King’s Carrie sold over a million copies in its first year alone and became a multitude of movies, sequels and even Broadway performances.
That’s why you see me attempting things like a daily vlog or publishing a couple articles a week. I see the evidence that I’m terrible at determining what’s good or bad about my work. The things I think will get a ton of traffic, likes, shares, etc. do just the opposite. And vice versa. So I just keep publishing.
Today Stephen King, needs little introduction. But it might still surprise you that as I write this, he has no fewer than 5 adaptations of his work coming out to TV and film. That’s crazy. John Grisham’s work has turned into a lot of movies. But not 5 new productions simultaneously.
Stephen King is a genius. But if you playback his story, you see exactly why his genius is also so popular today. He’s never stopped writing. He’s written over 90 books, hundreds of short stories. He has 238 IMDB credits.
He’s prolific. He keeps moving on with new ideas. When Carrie was stuck, he’d already moved onto the next thing.
Stephen King has enjoyed a great amount of success since Carrie. It clearly wasn’t a peak. His work is still exploding into new projects now. But Stephen King just played the odds. He’d keep writing until he won.
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