Work and Effort versus Luck and Talent

Of all the topics that Dean Wesley Smith has been hitting at his blog, this post (click here to read!) might be his most controversial yet. Like the fictional Obi Wan Kenobi, in Dean’s experience, there’s no such thing as luck. Dean also doesn’t think much of the notion that people have “fixed” inborn talent that is either there, or not there, and that we can’t do much about it either way.

Rather than fill Dean’s comments with a huge post of my own, I thought I’d spin a bit on this subject, here at my own blog.

On luck…

Certain things have happened to me in my life which make me believe that, sometimes, it really is just a matter of being in the right place at the right moment. What I’d add to the conversation is that ‘good luck’ very often seems to be a dividend of constantly and consistently putting yourself in the right “places,” over and over, so that when the right “time(s)” arrive, you are there to take advantage of them.

Consider fishing. If all you ever do when you fish is walk to the lake’s edge, cast your lure once, reel it back in without a bite, shrug, and walk away, you could conclude you just have no luck with the sport. Well, anyone who has fished successfully for any length of time knows that’s nonsense. You have to cast tens or hundreds or thousands of times, until the fish bite! And you have to try different spots on the lake, or different lakes, or different streams versus lakes, or maybe go out in a boat, or try pop gear or different kinds or lures or bait… get the idea? Casting once, coming up empty, and saying, “bad luck,” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Likewise, casting once, landing a fish, and declaring, “good luck,” doesn’t mean anything either. The successful sport fisher learns through experience that “luck” is a matter of knowing the lakes and rivers, knowing the lures and baits, knowing the seasons, and casting over and over and over and over, until the fish come in.

Consider, also, dating and marriage. Tons of people endlessly complain that they can’t find the right person, or that people who have found the right person are lucky.

Again, I think much of it comes down to “casting” in the right “lakes” and knowing the lures, bait, and perhaps most importantly, which fish to keep and which fish to throw back!! You don’t reel in a ten-pound carp and call it a perfect match. Carp are trash fish. A carp will eat anything you stick in front of it. They are the ugly cousins of koi, and if you settle for being with a carp as opposed to a koi, when you’d probably be happier with a beautiful rainbow trout, well… Don’t blame luck. Blame the fact that you “fished” with the wrong lure or bait, and in the wrong place, and when you caught the carp, you didn’t throw it right back.

My meeting my wife Annie — a ‘total package’ woman if there ever was one — is something I often describe as lucky. But when I think about it, half the ‘luck’ was in me being involved in a creative project that she was also involved in. We each intersected while doing something we enjoyed a great deal anyway — as creative individuals — and this forum allowed us to display parts of ourselves and our personalities that we’d have never seen at a singles bar or a church or party or some of the other, perhaps more traditional places where men and women meet. Which is why — for my hard-luck friends who never find the right person — I always lobby hard for them to get out of the house and go get involved in some sport or creative thing that they love anyway, and then start paying attention to the men and women around them. Ergo, put your line in the right kind of “pond” where the “fish” are likely to be your kind of catch, and chances are much better than they’d otherwise be that you’ll find someone you’ll be happy with, and vice versa.

Applied to the writing world, my own limited experience is that getting published is 100% analogous to fishing.

Your story is your lure or bait, the markets are the ponds, streams, rivers, or even ocean, and contracts (aka: sales) are the fish.

At first, you won’t catch anything at all because you’re brand new and your lures and bait aren’t the kind of thing that make the sport fish — trout, not carp! — bite. Also, your casting technique is raw. Has anyone reading this blog ever tried to fly fish? Fly fishing, especially with a traditional creek or stream kit, is a highly practiced skill that takes a ton of patience and work to even begin to get good at. So chances are slim that you will land the gorgeous brook or rainbow trout on the very first cast, the very first time you put your line in the water. You are probably using a poor lure or poor bait, are fishing in the wrong spot — trout aren’t found in every place in every lake or stream — and your casting is as likely to dredge up moss or a stick — or break the line on a snag — as it is to land you a fish.

Now, you could cast once, bring up a stick, throw your rod down and stomp off, declaring, “Bad luck!” You could even do this for an entire day — nothing but moss and sticks, ergo, rejection slips — and declare the project hopeless. You just can’t get lucky so why try? But again, the real fishers know: you can’t just throw out one cast, or fish in one lake, or spend a single day. You have to keep trying new lakes and streams — markets — and you have to keep trying different lures and bait — stories — before you get the bites and land the fish — contracts and publication.

If you’re not willing to put in the time or the effort, the “luck” is not liable to be there for you.

Now, on talent combined with luck…

Many, many years ago I remember going with my father to a little pond out in the sticks of central Utah, and when we got there the pond had numerous men fishing from its limited shoreline. Too many people fishing in the same spot is a bad sign — small ponds especially can get fished out fast — but we sat down anyway and my father helped me go to work. Fairly quickly, I was yanking them in. And not trash fish either — no carp or catfish, but rainbows. Healthy sized too! Soon we had a stringer of lovely fish, while many of the other men on the pond were catching nothing.

Was it because I had some sort of talent, as a child, for fishing? I seriously doubt it. I loved to fish when I was young — it was my favorite of all possible pass times — but I don’t think I had much talent. I think on that day, the only thing in my favor was that Dad and I had fished that pond many times before — we knew what the fish in that pond usually went for — so we rigged me up with what we knew tended to work, and as you might expect, the fish were mine for the taking. Had we fished a different pond or lake, or stream, the same bait or lures probably would not have worked. We might have gone home skunked. But we knew that particular pond and we had experience with that particular pond’s fish population, and we had better results than some of the other people who hadn’t been there as often as we had, thus they kept casting and reeling in with nothing on the hook.

I think markets are a lot like that. If you’re not familiar at all with a market, your stories — the lure or bait — might not work for that market. And you could “cast” a hundred times — submit stories — and never get a bite. Bad luck? No talent? Wrong. Chances are probably that you’re just not familiar with that market, and your stories — suited fine for a different market — won’t ever hit for the one you’re submitting to.

When I sold to Stan Schmidt at Analog Science Fiction & Fact, was it just pure luck, or was I the most talented guy in the slush pile? I doubt it. Probably there were many younger, more naturally able writers in that slush. But many — most? — sent in work that was either not a good fit for Analog, or was not of the quality that Stan needs — the people “fishing” in Stan’s “pond” weren’t using lures and bait sufficient to stir Stan’s interest, either because the writers were too raw, hadn’t practiced enough, were doing worn-out tropes that Stan has seen too much of, etc.

But I’d read Analog for years. Not every issue, no, but enough issues here and there to have a fairly good idea of what Stan likes to buy. I’d also had a ton of practice — many stories written, over many years — and I’d thrown my line into Stan’s “pond” and gotten enough rejections — a few of them personalized — to have a fairly decent grasp on what Stan might want. So when I had my non-winning Finalist novelette back from Writers of the Future, I looked at Analog and thought of Stan and said, you know what, I bet this story would be a good fit. Probably a better fit than at practically any of the other magazines. And my hunch was right.

Again, I am not sure talent had much of a factor in that success, beyond me just having a natural affinity for science fiction. Everything else depended on me having done a lot of homework — reading the market, writing many previous stories — and keeping my line in the water. I’d had dozens of rejections from Stan, prior to that win. It just happened that on that “cast” the story was right, and the “fish” did indeed bite. Which could not have happened if I’d concluded that only lucky writers sell to Analog, or that I’d never have the talent to sell there either.

The same me who was submitting stories to Stan in 2000 — and getting soundly rejected — was not the same me who sold in 2010. Did I magically become more talented? Luckier? Probably, no. I probably had the same exact aptitude in 2000 as I do now. What’s happened since 2000 is that I have written many hundreds of thousands of words of new fiction — practice and work! — and I’ve learned to make that practice and work learning-centered. I’ve not tried to tell the same stories a hundred different ways. I’ve told different stories and experimented with different ways of telling them — examining what seems to be getting promising results versus flat rejection, and reading a lot of other peoples’ fiction to boot, trying to figure out what worked for them.

I was listening to a story with my daughter the other morning — not sure if it’s apocryphal or not — about baseball player Marty Marion. According to the story, Marion had zero baseball talent while his best friend Johnny had loads of talent. Both of them played for a little Atlanta company team (pre-WWII) and when Johnny got called to the minors, he insisted Marty go with him. Eventually — and over the objections of many who thought Marty couldn’t last — Johnny convinced the St. Louis Cardinals to sign Marty and he both to one of the Cardinals’ minor-league farm teams.

According to the story, Marty Marion eventually went to the majors and was a big star for the Cardinals during several World Series runs, while his friend Johnny never got out of the minors. Even though Johnny was, by all accounts, the far superior, far more talented player.

So what happened? Again, according to story, Marty had more determination that Johnny. He was so determined in fact that he willed his way to baseball excellence. Talent wasn’t a factor. He improved his game from poor to passing to good to great, all through sheer determination. Now his legacy is written in baseball history. Johnny? Talented, but didn’t want it the way Marty wanted it. So Johnny didn’t last.

Basketball hall-of-fame inductee Jerry Sloan is another good sports example. And not just because he’s coached my favorite professional ball team longer than many of that team’s fans have been alive.

Jerry Sloan comes from hardscrabble country in Illinois. Raised on a lean diet of hard, hard work, he took what little natural aptitude he had for the game of basketball, and turned it into both a successful career as a professional player, and one of the longest-running and most-successful coaching stints in the history of the game.

Not surprisingly, Jerry Sloan takes a dim view of talent for its own sake. Show Jerry a hundred young, talented players, and he’ll look for the one guy in the bunch who knows how to work hard. Because that’s how Jerry did it. Never the fastest runner or most natural shooter, Jerry came up through the game as a hard-nosed defender who took a piece out of any team or player he went up against. Jerry’s entire basketball ethic revolves around work — in the gym, on the court — and he would sooner bench a very-talented player than see that same player lollygag his way through practice, or a game.

Two of Jerry Sloan’s most famous players — Karl Malone and John Stockton, also hall-of-fame inductees — were of a similar mindset. Malone especially, who couldn’t do much more when he went into the NBA than run and dunk. But Malone, and Stockton, were slavish with their work ethic, expecting more from themselves than anyone they played with. Relentless drive, a refusal to quit, and maniacal determination to improve and play better, were the hallmarks of both Stockton and Malone, much as these are the hallmarks of Sloan himself.

It’s probable that Jerry — and John and Karl — would never have been able to play in the NBA unless they’d been so willing to work. To improve. To get better. To compete at ever-higher levels.

Meanwhile, during all this time, players — often amazing — came and went. Why?

Talent — that raw aptitude for a thing — was never as important as work.

Because writing is lumped in with the arts, nobody ever talks much about work. Talent, as a word, gets flung about nine thousand different ways, and any time someone has a successful book, suddenly that writer’s talent becomes a hot topic, either for praise or derision. Ergo, “Writer Joe is so amazingly talented, I could never write like that!” or, “Writer Joe is such a talentless hack, how can he sell a million copies of that awful book?” Chances are better than excellent that “Writer Joe” has already spent years and hundreds of thousands or even millions of words, practicing and developing his craft and determining for himself that he’s going to get better. He’s also probably been sending that big-time successful book around to all the markets, refusing to let the rejections get him down. Because no mega-selling book makes it without a substantial rejection history first. That’s been proven endlessly, by every mega-selling author who is working. They’ve all been rejected — and get rejected — and they simply refuse to quit.

Which brings up another point of Dean’s: is it illegal to encourage someone to quit? I’ve seen at least a couple of writers who — if their stories are to be believed — have worked for decades to get published, and never get anywhere. How to explain these people who work and put in the hours and send out all the time, but never see any success?

I think the key there is, all the work in the world doesn’t do you any good unless it’s the sort of focused — Dean’s word — work that actually yields visible improvement. Again, as I noted before, when I did my writing between 2000 and 2010, it wasn’t just me telling the same story or the same kind of story, over and over and over. It tried new directions, new kinds of characters — I switched from third-person to first person, and wow was that a huge shift for me as a writer! — and I kept looking at each of my stories as a stepping stone towards something better. I wanted each new story to be better than the last, so with each story I tried something new — a technique or an action or adding new descriptive or whatever felt like it might be a bit beyond the usual.

Writers who get stuck — I suspect — halt their progress on the learning curve because they cease focused work. They relax into a mindset of thinking they’ve arrived — I know I’ve done this many times, and I expect I will do it many more — and that’s where learning stops. They might be producing a great many words, but those words don’t account for much because they’re not “growth” words.

Consider tree rings. Cut down a large tree, and the tree has tens or hundreds or even thousands of rings. Each year, the tree grows just a little more. Or a lot, depending on species and conditions. The rings mark the tree’s overall progress. If ever there is no growth — for any reason — the tree is liable to be in danger of dying. Or at the very least, the tree isn’t keeping up with the trees around it, and might get overshadowed in the forest by trees better able to make the most of their growth, getting taller and stronger as time passes.

Kids are a great object lesson in the value of work and determination, versus luck or talent. This past weekend, my daughter begged to go for a bike ride. She’ll be 7 years old this October, and she’s had the same little bicycle since she was 5 years old. We’d not ever taken the training wheels off, so when I told my daughter Olivia I’d take her out and let her ride, I told her this time she’d do it sans the training wheels.

Olivia was scared to death of course, and really didn’t want me to do it, but I knew from my own experience as a boy that if I — and my Dad before me — didn’t take the training wheels off at some point, Olivia — me — would not get any better. She’d never know the joy and speed and heady confidence of riding around on just the bike’s two wheels alone. So much to her chagrin we went next door to the church parking lot, and we began the slow and painful process of teaching her how to ride without the training wheels.

Olivia had some spills, yes. Nothing major. And she’s nowhere close to being proficient yet. But even in the 90 minutes we spent toiling our way back and forth across that parking lot, her skill improved a great deal. On several occasions, she was able to ride unassisted — meaning, I was not holding or touching the bike in any way, just running alongside — for many seconds. And the look of sheer surprise and joy on her face during those moments is one of those things I don’t think any mother or father would trade for all the gold and silver in the world!

The point for me was, Livie started out with no ability to ride unassisted whatsoever. None. But in 90 short minutes, of me making her go through the motions of pedaling, using the handlebars to steer, practicing balance, practicing getting off to a good start without tipping over, etc, she got better. She’s got a long way to go, but she got better. And I think now both she and I are excited for the next sunny day — it’s raining right now like the Salt Lake area has been transported to the Olympic Peninsula — when we can go back to the parking lot, and she can get better still.

Enough times like that — probably two or three I am betting — Livie won’t need my help anymore at all. She’ll be riding proficiently and autonomously, and it won’t have been a function of either luck or talent. It’ll merely have been a function of work and practice — the focused sort that turns on the neurons and forges the new brain pathways that allow Livie to mentally and physically “remember” what she’s doing, and enhance and develop her technique almost at an unconscious level. She won’t even realize she’s getting better.

I am betting by the end of the summer she’ll never remember having needed training wheels, and I doubt she’ll recall how terrified she was to go without them, though I could be wrong.

In a few days I am going to be at CONduit XX, the 20th iteration of the Salt Lake City based science fiction and fantasy convention. I’m on two writer panels for Friday, both focused on topics pertinent to new writers. I’m glad Dean brought up the talent “myth” because I believe largely as he does, and I want to pass that on to the people attending those panels: that talent or luck aren’t just things that happen. Nor are they things that will rescue you from poor work ethic. I know this from experience, because I had abysmal work ethic. Just horrible. It’s taken me so long even to break into publishing because my work ethic has sucked and I’ve not put in the focused work or the hours like I should have before now. Not because I don’t have enough luck or talent.