So what’s the secret of success?

Easy question, isn’t it? And everyone’s seeking an easy answer.

So of course some people will try to sell you an easy answer. But avoid this snake oil. It brings no clarity or happiness, it only brings disappointment and a reinforcement of the idea that your world is the way it is and there’s nothing you can do to change it.

Avoid the bite-sized advice that tries to simplify the human experience down to a set of easy-to-remember rules (wake up at 5am, drink plenty of water, always exercise before working… all that stuff). Humans are not robots, duplicated precisely from the same blueprint. The are 7.7 billion people out there, and not one of them has the exact list of bite sized wisdom to instantly make your life better.

We spend most of our teens and twenties trying to fit in, to be like everyone else. But all of the great things that happen are when people stop following the script and find their own way to do things differently. All we know of the world when we start out is that we are not the same thing as all the other people; there is you, the person inside, and there are that lot, the people outside. And yet most of us fall into the trap of thinking that success is entirely emulation. So you want to be a great writer? You have to be like all of those great writers out there. They know, you see. They know how to be a great writer. Except, of course, they don’t. They know how they’re a great writer.  

I get asked this a lot at The Wayfinder — writers wanting to know secrets of success for how to become a top tier novelist. They secretly want a list of 10 things that will magically turn them into prose machines. But that’s not how creativity works. Your creativity is a unique part of a unique person, and it requires a unique solution to bring the best out of it.

You need to get to know your mind. And to do that you need to do nothing. Actually do nothing. Not watching TV or playing video games or listening to podcasts. Do nothing. By all means take a walk, but leave the headphones at home.

Why? Because when you do nothing, your brain actually has time to think.

Honestly, when was the last time you spent even half an hour doing nothing? It’s strange and perverse that we all have to schedule in time to do nothing otherwise we’ll never do it. Or, rather, never not do it. The grammar is tricky.

Humans normally do anything to avoid thinking. They’ll distract themselves with entertainment, buy self help books they’ll never read, spend more and more time with busywork… it’s all self-justification for not thinking. But thinking happens entirely naturally and effortlessly when you stop doing things. Take a bath, have a walk, sit in the garden; your brain will step up.

Let your mind wander. Don’t keep pulling your thoughts back to something you think you need to solve. What we call procrastination is often our brains following trains of thought to distant lands: frustrating if we’re racing against a deadline, but a vital part of the creative and problem-solving process. 

Give yourself permission to do nothing for a while and you’ll get to know how your brain solves problems. Give yourself permission every day and you’ll gain confidence that it can solve problems. And you’ll know how to act on it.

Trust yourself. Your answers aren’t out there, they’re waiting to be developed like a photographic print in the darkroom of your head. And you know what? The rest of us can’t wait to see the ways you find to make yourself great.

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