A while back, I read a little book—very short, maybe 80 pages—by Seth Godin called The Dip. This is about the long, hard slog to success that comes between beginner’s luck and real success. He talks about how successful people often have to be very strategic about what they choose to pursue and what they let go.
When I started as a professional writer, my husband predicted that I would have to come up with five good, well-developed proposals before I sold one. I have no idea where he got that number. I think he made it up; he’s a businessman, and he was just giving me a basic business number—only 20% of your stuff is going to be successful. So I developed five fully fleshed out proposals, including sample chapters. I even wrote a full manuscript for one of the ideas. And guess what? I sold number five. What happened to the rest? They’re stashed somewhere on my computer. I don’t think they’re coming out of that file. I quit on them, but that’s okay. As I always tell my friends, “I’ve got a lot of ideas, and not all of them are winners.” The truth is, I didn’t want to spend a year developing each one of them, and it’s good I ditched them early. I didn’t love them enough. The only one I really loved is the one that sold, which became Sixth-Grade Glommers, Norks, and Me. There’s another that’s sort of “the one that got away.” I might try to get back together with that one, someday. When we’re both ready.
Another thing I’ve had to quit is a bunch of extra-curriculars. For example, I love volunteering. Lately, my husband has been suggesting that we should go to our daughter’s school PTO meeting. I keep telling him no way, because I know what will happen. I’ll raise my hand and volunteer to run some giant fundraiser. Seriously, I can’t help myself. Everything sounds like fun to me, and I always like helping out, so I simply can’t be trusted at a single meeting, because the time for any new projects I take on will have to come out of time that I could be writing, or with my family. I have limited time, and I like to use the surplus for Zumba.
Here is the secret: It’s okay to quit. Even Seth Godin thinks it’s okay to quit. You just have to quit the right way. You can’t quit when the going gets tough, or when you’re frustrated. You must decide IN ADVANCE and UNDER WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES YOU WILL QUIT. Don’t make the decision to quit in a moment of pain, like when you’re at page 100 of your work-in-progress and you’re starting to doubt the whole thing.
I have a friend who, at the start of a project, writes herself a letter to be opened during her Dip. The letter says, basically, “This novel is a good idea. You have the talent to write it. Keep at it; don’t give up.” It talks about all the reasons that she needs to write the story. The moment she’s hit with the desire to chuck the whole manuscript, she dives into that letter, and it helps her get back on track.
This is not the same as giving up on an idea that simply isn’t ever going to work. As I said earlier, I’ve abandoned a lot of ideas. Early and often, that’s my motto. Not everything deserves to be a book, and not everything that does deserve to be a book is something that I want to write. You must quit in order to truly commit. I had to let go of my mediocre ideas to commit to the good one. There is a difference between quitting one thing so that you can focus on another, and simply giving up on a dream.
Don’t give up on a dream. So go write yourself a letter. Tell yourself what you want to commit to. Then see what you need to quit in order to make it happen.