Tag Archives: Passion

Late Bloomers

22 Mar

The following is excerpted from Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 article “Late Bloomers.”

Ben Fountain was an associate in the real-estate practice at the Dallas offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, just a few years out of law school, when he decided he wanted to write fiction. The only thing Fountain had ever published was a law-review article. His literary training consisted of a handful of creative-writing classes in college. He had tried to write when he came home at night from work, but usually he was too tired to do much. He decided to quit his job.

“I was tremendously apprehensive,” Fountain recalls. “I felt like I’d stepped off a cliff and I didn’t know if the parachute was going to open. Nobody wants to waste their life, and I was doing well at the practice of law. I could have had a good career. And my parents were very proud of me—my dad was so proud of me. . . . It was crazy.”

He began his new life on a February morning—a Monday. He sat down at his kitchen table at 7:30 a.m. He made a plan. Every day, he would write until lunchtime. Then he would lie down on the floor for twenty minutes to rest his mind. Then he would return to work for a few more hours. He was a lawyer. He had discipline. “I figured out very early on that if I didn’t get my writing done I felt terrible. So I always got my writing done. I treated it like a job. I did not procrastinate.” His first story was about a stockbroker who uses inside information and crosses a moral line. It was sixty pages long and took him three months to write. When he finished that story, he went back to work and wrote another—and then another.

In his first year, Fountain sold two stories. He gained confidence. He wrote a novel. He decided it wasn’t very good, and he ended up putting it in a drawer. Then came what he describes as his dark period, when he adjusted his expectations and started again. He got a short story published in Harper’s. A New York literary agent saw it and signed him up. He put together a collection of short stories titled “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” and Ecco, a HarperCollins imprint, published it. The reviews were sensational. The Times Book Review called it “heartbreaking.” It won the Hemingway Foundation/pen award. It was named a No. 1 Book Sense Pick. It made major regional best-seller lists, was named one of the best books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and Kirkus Reviews, and drew comparisons to Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Stone, and John le Carré.

Ben Fountain’s rise sounds like a familiar story: the young man from the provinces suddenly takes the literary world by storm. But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief Encounters” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.

“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”  -George Eliot

Why You Don’t Need a Business Plan

13 Jan
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You might not know where you’re going, but you have to keep moving.

One of my favorite topics of conversation, much to the dismay of my dinner companions, is the tension between making plans and taking action. As the name of my blog suggests, I subscribe to the “act first” philosophy, but I certainly understand the need for detailed plans. Especially when the goal you want to achieve will take a long time and will involve lots of people.

However, most of the time we use planning as an excuse. It becomes a rationalization to keep us from acting and this is particularly true when trying to start a business. Any good expert on entrepreneurship will tell you to start with some market analysis and a strong business plan. I think they’re wrong. Here is my alternate approach: start with inspiration.

The famous screen-writing coach Robert McKee has useful definition for a “hack.” He says a hack is a writer, “who second-guesses his audience.”  Instead of using his muse to drive his work he asks himself what the market can support. He condescends. He may make some money by selling some snake oil, but at what cost to his reputation and his soul. Steven Pressfield expands,

“The hack is like the politician who consults the polls before he takes a position…it can pay off, being a hack. Given the depraved state of American culture, a slick dude can make millions being a hack. But even if you succeed, you lose, because you’ve sold out your Muse, and your Muse is you, the best part of yourself, where your finest and only true work comes from.”

“That all sounds nice in theory,” you might say, “but there are practical considerations. No one is going to hand you money without a solid business plan.” Of course. I would never argue against this point. It isn’t wrong. But it is incomplete. The entrepreneurship process doesn’t start with a business plan. It starts with your passion. It starts with a compulsion to solve a problem.

Steve Jobs was quoted saying, “…often times the customer doesn’t even know what he wants until you show it to him.” So, how far can market research take you when the markets don’t even exist yet? If you truly want to be an innovator then you need to consider that the mechanical models of business development are lacking. No one can predict the future so if you want to succeed then you’ll have to do something scary and profound…you’ll have to make decisions in a fog. Incomplete information is the playground of the leader and the entrepreneur. Learn to enjoy the gray. Learn to embrace it. All creation is born in it.