It’s how we define success that differs.
You might define it as being able to support yourself financially through your writing. You might define it as hitting the bestseller list (either NYT or Amazon). You might define it as helping people. You might define it as having a small, loyal following. You might define it as something else entirely.
This is part of why even non-sports fans love the Olympics so much. We’re inspired by the athletic prowess and dedication of the Olympians, and we dream about what it would be like to be that good at something.
The excitement of the summer Olympics might be over for another four years, but we can take away three lessons about how to be successful in our writing.
Practice for 10 Years Before Expecting Success
Olympic athletes don’t start training to go to the Olympics the year before or even four years before.
Eleven-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte learned to swim at age five, started taking his swimming seriously in 1998, and it wasn’t until 2004 that he qualified for his first Olympics. He worked for six years to reach the Olympics and waited another two years before winning an individual gold medal at an international event.
Michael Phelps started swimming at age seven and joined the U.S. Olympic swim team at age 15, but didn’t medal at all in his first Olympics. With more practice, he’d go on to win 22 Olympic medals.
In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hours we need to become an elite performer like Olympic athletes.
If you calculate the 20 hours per week Ryan Lochte says he spends swimming and the 15 hours per week he trains on land, you get…5.5 years to reach 10,000 hours. Almost exactly the amount of time between when Lochte began to take swimming seriously and when he qualified for the Olympics.
For people who can only devote 20 hours per week, the time to reach 10,000 hours is 10 years.
I know I’m risking stepping on some toes here, but this is why most writers shouldn’t even attempt to publish the first book they complete. That book is the practice. It shouldn’t be treated like the Olympics. Writers, like athletes, need to learn by doing. Theory alone isn’t enough. And few people have put in their 10,000 hours by the time they finish their first book.
When it comes to practice, there’s also one more thing we need to keep in mind—Olympic athletes don’t train in isolation. They seek out the company of other swimmers who can push them to get better and trainers who can teach them proper form and give them specific, targeted feedback.
As writers, if we work in isolation without seeking out feedback from peers and experts, we’ll be doomed to repeat our mistakes without realizing we’re making them or knowing how to fix them.
While all this might sound depressing at first, I think we should actually take it as encouragement. Excellence takes time. If our writing isn’t excellent right now, that’s okay. We just need more practice.
Balance Your Fuel Intake with Your Calorie Output
In 2008, news stories everywhere reported on Michael Phelps 12,000 calorie per day diet. The average male needs 2,500-3,000 calories/day, but Phelps’ caloric intake was normal for Olympic athletes.
He could eat so much because his training burned a huge number of calories. An imbalance either way would have destroyed his chances for success.
If Phelps stopped training but continued to eat 12,000 calories per day, he’d turn fat and unhealthy. (The average human gains one pound for every 3,000 calories they eat above what their body needs.)
If Phelps continued training but dropped his caloric intake, he wouldn’t have enough energy to perform.
How does this apply to writers? In the same way that Phelps and other Olympic athletes need to balance their caloric intake with their energy needs, we also need to balance our input and output.
Our fuel for excellent writing is well-written books, teaching on craft (whether that be books, classes, or critiques by pros), information on genre conventions, and research into the specifics of our book, whether that’s the police procedures or setting of a novel or the latest research on the subject of your non-fiction book.
Our training is the actual writing we do.
If we keep taking in fuel but stop training, we’re wannabes. Flabby with theory.
If we train without the proper knowledge fuel, our progress will fizzle out.
Choose a Specialty
Did you ever notice how each Olympic athlete has their area of expertise. It’s the event where they have the best chance of success.
Ryan Lochte’s specialty is the swims around 200-meters. The gymnast who excels at the horizontal bar usually isn’t the same one who wins gold on the beam.
More than this though, you won’t see Ryan Lochte or Michael Phelps running track, competing in gymnastics, or even diving.
As writers, we often hate the idea of limiting ourselves to one genre, and further down to a sub-genre, but think of it this way—would you rather be the Stephen King or Nora Roberts of your genre or an author who dabbles in many genres but never builds a name for themselves in any?
That’s a personal choice, but many of us have one genre we love above all others and that just feels like home. For me, that’s fantasy. And I don’t feel like it limits me because I can incorporate the things I love about other genres if I want.
You don’t choose your specialty when you’re starting out. You try things out and see where your natural ability lies.
Once you discover your niche, though, why would you wander from what you love and what you’re most successful at?
What other lessons did you learn from the Olympics, writing or otherwise?
I owe the inspiration for this post to Vince Robisch’s “What Ryan Lochte Can Teach You About Blogging.” I enjoyed this post so much that I just had to write a version targeted to writers.
Image Credit: Neil Gould (obtained from Stock.xchng)