Don't give up
I mean, what do we have to lose by trying? And what could we gain by succeeding? Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
I file stories away sometimes—OK, a lot of the time—not knowing when or whether they'll fit in the newsletter. But I have an idea today.
It starts with this: A little over 20 years ago, a Jamaican writer named Marlon James sent his novel to 78 agents and publishers, and got 78 rejections.
He was frustrated. He gave up on his dream. In a fit of anger, he ripped up every physical copy of his manuscript and he deleted the files on his computer
And he was never heard from again.
No, I’m kidding. Time passed. James felt pangs of regret. Eventually, he dug deep to find a reserve of courage—and a last-ditch chance.
He booted up an old computer he hadn’t used in ages, where he found one final copy of the novel, gathering electronic dust as an attachment to a message in the “sent” folder of his email program.
He gave it another try, sending the novel off for another round of cold email pitches.
This time it worked! His book was published in 2005. It led to a teaching job at Macalester College in Minnesota, which gave him confidence and more time to write.
Eventually, he wrote a book called A Brief History of Seven Killings, about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, and won the Man Booker Prize in 2015.
He told this whole story while being interviewed for having won the prize.
There’s a saying: “We’re most likely to give up when we’re on the verge of success.”
I’ve seen it attributed to everyone from Confucius to H. Ross Perot, but regardless, it strikes a chord. Because of course, James is just one person in a long, long list of people who were repeatedly told by the universe that they should give up—only to persevere and find great success.
J.K. Rowling was turned down by "loads" of agents before finally publishing the first Harry Potter book. One agent even refused to return the folder in which she'd sent her manuscript. ("I really minded about the folder,” she recalled, “because I had almost no money and had to buy another one.")
Same thing with Stephen King, Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind)—well, not the folder exactly, but they had to pitch their first stories relentlessly before finally finding success.
Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen got turned down 140 times before they finally published Chicken Soup for the Soul. Tim Ferriss went 0-for-24 before he found a publisher for The Four Hour Work Week.
And, it’s not just the literary world, of course—although we writers do learn how to live with rejection.
Bill Gates's first company, Traf-O-Data, failed. Vincent Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime. The founders of Airbnb shared the rejections messages they originally received when they first tried to raise moneyback in 2009.
One of them wrote this about a company that is now worth about $75 billion—and that’s after a massive largely downturn due to Covid:
“The potential market opportunity did not seem large enough for our required model.”
What are some of the other ones … oh, everybody knows that Michael Jordan was cut from his freshman basketball team in high school, right? And of course Steve Jobs was fired as CEO of Apple?
Like I say, I keep a running file of these stories. They’re good fodder for writing and for my own emotional use when needed. I’m sure you can think of a lot of others on your own.
Maybe you even have your own experiences to share (oh! do that; share them in the comments … link below!).
But these stories feel a bit extra-poignant to me today, and it has to do with the idea I mentioned at the start.
A lot of people right now are tempted to “rip up every copy and delete the files,” so to speak, when it comes to our country or our shared society.
We’re at each others’ throats, schools are getting shot up, and comity and understanding seem like things of the past.
So I guess my message today—fitting, a day after Memorial Day—is basically: Can we all agree to try not to give up? Maybe, to stretch the metaphor, can we all agree to look into that old email “sent” folder or wherever we find inspiration, and give it another try?
And another and another and another?
I don’t mean to be Pollyannish. For every Marlon James there are probably a dozen others who never come close to realizing their dreams.
But what do we have to lose by trying? And what could we gain by succeeding?
Then we’ll all have a good story to tell afterward.
Work for Understandably!
Thanks to all those so far who've applied to work with me here at Understandably. I'll keep the post up a bit longer (link here) in case readers are interested or know someone who might be. Please share it around!
7 other things worth knowing today
It’s been a week since the attack on Robb Elementary School that resulted in the deaths of 19 children and two teachers. Since then, there have been at least 14 more mass shootings in the United States (“four or more people are shot or killed, not including the shooter”), resulting in 10 and 61 wounded. In the same time period, at least three people have been arrested in unrelated incidents for threatening to shoot up their schools. (WCVB, US News, NY Post)
Two countries separated by a common border (some readers will say, “too bad;” others will say, “Thank God!”): Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government introduced legislation Monday that would put a freeze on importing, buying or selling handguns. The government will also require rifle magazines to be permanently altered so they can never hold more than five rounds. (AP)
Memorial Day weekend was the unofficial start of summer, but for a lot of folks it was a weekend of travel woes, as U.S. airlines canceled more than 7,000 flights. (CBS News)
Many Americans hoped this would be the first normal summer after two years of Covid-19 disruptions. If it's not, here's the reason why: a chronic labor shortage. City pools won't open in Phoenix, beach trolleys in Maine won't run, and "[a]cross the country, restaurants in tourist destinations are operating on limited hours because they don’t have enough staff." (WSJ)
Probably related: Meet the typical Gen Z worker, “who is quitting their job for a better one but probably regretting it later.” (Business Insider)
Here's some welcome news for shoppers getting squeezed by inflation: promotions on televisions, furniture, clothing, sporting goods and other big-ticket purchases are ramping up. Reason: "top retailers have said in recent weeks that they are sitting on too much inventory." (CNN)
A 36-year-old man has been arrested and placed in psychiatric care after he smeared a glass screen encasing the Mona Lisa with cake, prosecutors said Monday, in a purported protest against artists not focusing enough on “the planet.” The painting was unharmed. (Yahoo News)