Sunday, 23 August 2009

Guest Post: Believe In Yourself, But Believe In The Evidence As Well

This post is part of my very occasional series about logic and research: my thanks to Dan Holloway for writing it. In a very clever twist of scheduling (nothing to do with me, honest), his excellent follow-up piece to this appeared on his own blog a couple of days ago. Dan's book, Songs From The Other Side Of The Wall, is available from the Year Zero Writers' website.

“If you work hard enough at it, you’ll succeed.” It’s the mantra of motivational coaches everywhere. Mr(s) Motivator will follow up with numerous citations of people who made conquering the unconquerable their life’s work. The actor who auditioned for a thousand parts before landing their first call back. The inventor who patented a thousand useless ideas before hitting the one that netted her fortune. The writer who received a hundred rejections before someone spotted the bestseller.... It’s one of the most frequent quotes of the day. And it’s one of the most toxic examples of false logic there is.

It sounds so reasonable. But if I put the exact same argument in the following terms, you’d say I was nuts. “All humans are under ten feet tall. Mabel is under ten feet tall. Therefore Mabel is human.” Which of course, she isn’t. She’s the cow who lives in the field next door to me.

So how are these the same? Well, it IS true that if you are human you will be under ten feet tall. Likewise, barring a minority that is infinitely smaller than the tabloid cynics would have you believe, those who break through have worked hard to get there. But just as it’s true that being under ten feet tall doesn’t make you human, so it’s true that working hard doesn’t mean you’ll succeed. In logic it’s called the law of symmetry. Two properties are symmetrical if having either of them means you always have the other (a implies b, and b implies a). Take “three-sided shape” and “internal angles add up to 180 degrees”. These properties are symmetrical because all three-sided shapes have internal angles that add up to 180 degrees and vice versa. “Under ten feet tall” and “human” aren’t symmetrical. Nor are “successful” and “hard-working”. To put it at the most basic level, in both cases there’s many more of one than t’other.

So why does the “try hard” mantra sound so plausible? Because we want to believe it. If it were simply about hard work, we could all achieve our goal – because we’re all capable of hard work. What the guru’s doing is little more than preying on your dreams. It sounds plausible because you SO want it to be true. But it ain’t! And have you noticed how often “Just a little bit harder” is followed by “And I can help with that extra mile for just £...”?

That’s not the only thing that’s so unsavoury about this bad logic. Think for a minute what it implies. It’s amazing how few people realise the implication. But it’s there as plain as the slathering of ketchup on my fry-up. “I you work hard you will succeed” implies. “If you haven’t succeeded, it’s because you haven’t worked hard enough.” That’s not bad logic, by the way. In other words, if you haven’t made it, it’s somehow your fault. Well, sometimes maybe it is. But sometimes maybe it isn’t! I will never, repeat never, be an England rugby player. And if I’d started playing age two and trained every day since then with the best coaches and the best nutritionists and the best I don’t know what, I would still never make it beyond the local Sunday afternooners.

Which leads me to the last point I want to make. It is so important to learn when to draw a line. If you have one thousand rejections, it may well be that the one thousand and first will be successful. But it’s much more likely, as Sir Alan tends to say to the candidates in the boardroom for the seventh time, that “someone up there’s trying to tell you something.” Which doesn’t mean you should give up the writing you love. But it probably DOES mean don’t give up the day job.

I’m NOT saying you shouldn’t work hard. That would be bad logic on my part, because with these asymmetrical relations, the opposite of the false statement IS true. By which I mean, whilst it’s false to say “if you’re under ten feet tall you’re human” it’s true to say “if you’re over ten feet tall you’re not human”; and whilst “if you work hard you’ll succeed” is false “if you don’t work hard you won’t succeed” is true. Unless you’re the one in a million exception; but whilst I’ve read enough of “The Black Swan” to know never to rule that out, I don’t really think a “how to” book on being the exception is of much beyond curiosity value.

To sum up. Work hard. Work very hard (most of all, work smart, but that’s another post). But that’s no guarantee of success: you have to know when to call it quits. When I decided in January 2008 I wanted to make a living as a writer, I did my research and I did some soul-searching, and I drew up a five-year plan (not to have given up the day job by then, but to have given up one day a week, which for me is the tipping point: at the moment I have a pretty good idea that making it will follow on (again, that’s another post). I revise it at least every two months (without ever revising the end date) to make sure I’m not missing a trick, and to see what I can learn from what’s going to plan and what isn’t, so I can work smarter. I hope, once five years are up, if I haven’t hit my target I’ll take my own advice. Which isn’t to say I’ll stop writing. I’ll never stop writing – and as long as there’s an internet or whatever comes next I won’t stop sharing what I write. But I’ll owe it to my wife as much as myself to realise if I’m going to find a way out of the day job, it probably won’t be writing.


Dan Holloway said...

Jane, thank you for posting this. I hope itgenerates some interesting discussion, and will be around - cricket and Meerkat Manor permitting - to answer or elaborate, or simply sit and wallow in silence:-)

Richard Sutton said...

Dan, and Jane, of course, thanks for this post. Those of us wondering if we've made a poor decision to pursue fiction can read and re-read this masterpiece, then settle down to writing up another submission query letter anyway.

I admire your ability to set logical boundaries for the job at hand. Like most writers, I need to do so as well.

If, on the other side of the requisite years' struggle, we should both happen to find a great reward -- know that I probably won't remember to mention you in the acknowledgments and will feel I've earned my just due, all alone, through the incredible quality of my work.

(Tongue planted firmly in cheek)

Andrew Perrin said...

This has nothing to do with your argument but I'll throw it out there for your amusement (or if you knew it, for other commenters):

The internal angles of a triangle only add up to 180 degrees if the triangle lies on a plane. If it lies on some other surface, they can add up to a different number. For example, on a sphere the internal angles of a triangle add to 270 degrees. Geometry on non-planar surfaces is called non-Euclidean geometry.

Dan Holloway said...

Richard. I am very good at setting limits. Whether I am so good at sticking to them remains to be seen. I HOPE, as I sit there pleading "but the next one will be the one" I realise how much I sound like someone in need of Gamblers Anonymous.

Andrew, I love maths (my current novel, The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes, features an extropolation of a mathematical hypothesis at its core) and was aware of the strange ways shapes behave when transposed onto non-planar surfaces. The Hubble constant, for example, fascinates me, and the idea that eveything in the Universe is moving fundamentally away from everything else in every direction.

Kathryn Magendie said...

What an interesting post. Sometimes when I tell writers "never give up" I will add to that: also recognize when you have to adjust your dreams -because sometimes things do not turn out the way we want them to - sometimes dreams morph and change -sometimes what we want has to be tempered with what we can realistically accomplish - sometimes things just go in a different direction than we planned and being open to that is a good thing.

Derek said...

Good post, Dan.

Because we want to believe it.

Not only because it seems like a magic key to wish fulfillment, but also because it's so much of a cultural shibboleth. The protestant work ethic and all that. Believing in it makes one feel so moral and upright and correct.

Cyril said...

So how tall is Mabel then?

And why does the field have a door and not a gate?

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

I know nothing about math. (I'm one of those poor writers who gets nothing but words.) But this is a great post. We need to know where we are going with our plans. And have realistic ones.

Sally Zigmond said...

I agree that it is absurd to say that merely by working hard, one will succeed.Hard work in itself without progression is pointless. It's flogging a dead horse, as they say.

The 'rule' should be that hard work and an ability to listen to the right people, learn from them and improve is more likely to achieve success.

In fact, I would say it's that perspicacious ability to pick the right people to listen to and learn from that's the clincher. That way you avoid all that slog which is kin to sitting those monkeys at keyboards and waiting for them to write Hamlet.

This is why I hate those 'how many words have you written today' questions as if merely producing words is enough. Three well-judged words every so often are more likely to bring eventual success than 3,000 ill-thought out ones churned out every day.

Dan Holloway said...

Kathryn, yes, writing is, as far as I can see, unique as a passionate hobby in terms of the number of people who do it who believe they can do it professionally. I guess the differences between what someone like I can do and someone who does it for a living are much more intangible than in, say, sport.

Derek, the work ethic has a lot toanswer for in terms of the stress levels in our society.

Cyril, the truth is that currently Mabel the cow is actually a horse (the field is rented out on a weekly basis I believe) and I don't know what he's called (probably not Mabel, though).

Dan Holloway said...

Sally, funnily enough I'm writing a piece on "being a human sponge" for my blog next week - outlining the dangers of knowing to whom to listen (and the problem, when you're new, of editing by committee).

Tamara, thank you. I'm OK with numbers, but I'd swap it any day for not being tone deaf, or being able to paint.

Dan Holloway said...

Tamara, can I also offer you my sincerest apologies! I've just been to your profile and see you're invovled with the SM Blooding blog. I had a comment from that blog on my site a week or so back and couldn't tell whether it was clever spam or real so it's still sitting there (being a chicken I didn't dare click the link). Please accept my sincerest apologies, and I'll go and approve it now.

Lovely to say a belated hello :-)

Anonymous said...

A fascinating post. I so agree - success is not just a case of working harder. Equally, wanting something doesn't mean you qualify to receive it. A healthy dose of pragmatism is required, so you can know when you'd be better off giving up and pursuing a different path.

Logic has to tell us that it's simply not possible for everyone who wants to be a professional writer to actually become one. The market for 'creative writing' simply isn't big enough.

A few years ago I took a career break in order to write a novel. Three novels later I had the interest of a very good agent, but no published novel. Working harder at my writing in a technical sense wouldn't have made a difference. It was coming up with just the right plot, at the right time, that was needed. I did sell short stories and articles and won prizes in competitions, which in total earned me about £1,000 a year!

Then I was offered an interesting, challenging and well paid full-time job. I took it, and now have a very rewarding second career. I'm no longer trying to write a novel, but I don't miss the creative writing as I'm doing something else which I find equally fulfilling (and certainly far, far more financially rewarding).

Fortunately, writing is a skill you retain forever (I hope). Come retirement, I may well have another go at writing a novel. Then again, there may be something else I want to try my hand at by then.

Ali Cooper said...

A couple of years ago my sister told me I shouldn't waste any more time writing. It was a rather stupid thing to say because, seeing as I couldn't do a full time job and had time to spare I'd presumably have to 'waste' it doing something. Now I'm close to getting in print, she denies having said it, of course.

I was actually thinking the past couple of days about how many people I know who've hit the big time writing. The answer is one. And I don't really know them as such. I know another who earns a modest living as a professional, mostly commercial, writer. On the other hand, I know several people who've had substantial competition or lottery wins. Dan could probably translate all this into logic terminology!

In almost any of the arts you seem to need to work hard but also to have a large degree of luck. You can improve your chances but no amount of work will guarantee success.

However, lets not forget other factors such as practicality and pleasure. If you enjoy this hard work and it is not to the detriment of any other part of your life then surely that in itself is a good thing.

So I say, enjoy the doing. And if it brings you success in some form then that's a bonus.

Dan Holloway said...

Anon, that's a very interesting story. Do you think it was harder for you to take the job, in a way, because you were so close? I wonder if that's the very hardest time to draw the line - when you have an agent who loves your work, and you feel the break MUST be around the next corner.

I remember, now that I think of it, when I was a theologian studying the textual origins of the gospels, something called the Lachmann Fallacy, which described situations in which you find something that fits the evidence, so you stop looking for a better explanation. I wonder if that maybe applies here. Sure, we need to be single-minded in pursuing our dreams, but surely the alchemical grail is to be single-minded at the same time as being open to something new and out of the blue, so we don't let a chance pass us by we never even knew was there. It's a bit how I feel with journalism - it would never have occurerd to me to write featuers, but an online journal was looking for some copy so I sent them a pitch and they said yes. I then asked the band I was going to be writing about for a press sheet. they gave me a half-hour interview with their guitarist! The result is here:
Since then I have a semi-regular column there, and have just taken my first paid commission, writing for One in Four magazine. I still think novels are my thing, and I'm giving my fiction 100%, but I thought I'd give this a try and see what happens. And I was surprise how quickly it's spiralled

Dan Holloway said...

Hi Ali!
"So I say, enjoy the doing. And if it brings you success in some form then that's a bonus." Absolutely. I think the previous point - if you can do it without detriment to anything else, then go for it.

catdownunder said...

Cricket? What's cricket Dan? :-) Being an ancient cat I long ago learned that there were things I would never do - whatever anyone told me - it was much more important to succeed at what I could do and purr on the inside.
Jane, thankyou for putting this up.

Ali Cooper said...

A comment on Anon's post.

A book to which I return again and again for inspiration and encouragement is 'Creative Visualisation' by Shakti Gawain.

This has a section on setting goals and it emphasises a very important point. That you should acknowledge when your goals have changed. It isn't failing if you change or give up on a goal because something else has taken over in importance.

External circumstances change and present different needs and opportunities. In your case it was a job offer. In my case, the possibility of surgery putting me out of circulation for several months prompted me to trawl thru my archives (abandoned mss) in search of a book to write. It resulted in the best thing I've written to date.

You are continuing to enjoy the doing and many people are not able to say that about their work.

Good luck to you!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Dan, honest and forthright; I love it. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Some interesting points here. I shall quote Sally Zygmond next time someone asks how many words I have written, instead of my usual "Er?". See my post . I seem to recall someone once saying that any fool can put words into a book, but it takes a good writer to know which ones to take out. That's my excuse when the day's tally is minus 1473.

Seriously, I think life is a voyage of discovery, not a todo list, and we should be always looking out of the window of the serendipity train to see what approaches. If a station looks interesting, hop out and have a look. Dan's interview with the guitarist is an excellent example, and only one of millions. Even writers with no material success tread roads that would otherwise be closed to them. And who knows what wonders they may encounter there. I don't think logic comes into any of this; in fact, I don't think logic has any bearing whatever on the journeys we all take. I think it is more important to experience the journey with a wide open mind than to long for the destination. Opportunities come like a conveyor belt of goodies on an awful TV game show: take your eyes off it to look at the car and you may miss an unexpected crock of gold. Or even a whole new profitable writing direction.

Thanks for the Lachmann Fallacy, Dan. I've always believed that science is the pursuit of transient explanations, not truths, and now I can put a name to it!

Dan Holloway said...


thank you. I think I should clarify. I agree wholeheartedly that one shouldn't decide what TO do with logic (although planning and pragmatism are a wholly different matter). It is very good, though, for telling us what NOT to do, and pointing out the pitfalls in seeingly attractive options.

TOM VOWLER said...

After the fourth Test, this seemed like very false logic:

England have won the Ashes before, therefore they can win them again.

Anonymous said...

Dan, I took the job because it was a natural progression from the part-time work I was already doing whilst writing the novels. And my new career does involve writing as well as being intellectually fulfilling. So it wasn't so much a drawing of a line under the novel writing, but taking the skills I'd developed and pushing them in a different direction.

I also know a number of published novelists, and they've had very mixed fortunes. I'm well aware that getting that first novel published doesn't necessarily lead to a bed of roses, and only rarely does it produce the kind of income that compensates for a well paying job. Being a published novelist can be a very stressful enterprise, both emotionally and financially.

But both your and Ali's comments have made me wonder about acknowledging what's lying beneath our goals: their foundation, I suppose. "Getting a novel published" is a very specific aim - perhaps we should ask ourselves why we want that to happen, so we can also consider other paths that give us the same sense of achievement. I can't help but think that "being published" as an aim contains an element of receiving public approval. If it was purely about being creative, then being published wouldn't matter. So if we crave some kind of recognition by others for our ability to be creative with words, novel writing isn't the only way to achieve that.

Dan Holloway said...

True, anon. "Being published" has never really mattered to me except inasmuch as any money I can earn from writing will enable me to spend more time doing it because I can give up a portion of my day job.

The only other way in which having my work made public matters to me personally, is inasmuch as it enables me to share with readers. Blogging and writing articles does that too. But ultimately the conversations I want to have with readers are about my stories.

Those are two pieces of icing on the cake I would be very lucky to obtain, and towards which I'm currently struggling. But yes, if I am unable to achieev them by having people buy my books, I may achieve them by other means, and my ear is ever to teh ground.

Tom :-)