When I was younger, I envisioned my life a certain way. I had a specific vision of the house I wanted, down to the color of the paint and landscaping in the backyard; the husband and children I would someday be lucky enough to have; and the career I would be successful in. And to that point, I just knew I would be a writer. There were times when I could see my future so clearly that it was almost palpable. I believed so strongly in my vision for my life that nothing could stop me from getting what I wanted.
I still dream about certain things (the fantastic house with the detached writing studio and sand volleyball court, for example), but so many of my desires have already come to be.
Two friends recently asked me to distill my path—to rationalize how I got from point A to point B—but I just couldn’t put it into words. I stumbled through a synopsis of my life, trying to make sense of how I acquired my skills and made connections, but when I was done talking, I hadn’t really provided a useful answer.
I thought about the question more afterward and realized: I can’t describe my path in a way that makes sense. My moderate success as a professional has resulted from a combination of a lot of things, but there are certain personal qualities that have certainly helped. Here are three of them:
#1 Don’t be afraid to say yes.
I’ve counseled a number of writers and editors hoping to break into either field. Often, I’ve directed work their way or connected them with people who could help them be successful. Some people blossom when others start believing and investing in them; other people wilt under the pressure, afraid they’re not good enough, aren’t talented enough, or will somehow fail.
Stop doubting yourself! Believe that you not only can accomplish greatness but you will stop at nothing to achieve your goals. That means saying yes to projects you aren’t 100 percent comfortable saying yes to.
I’d estimate that at least 60 percent of my breakthrough projects have been completely new and scary to me. One specific moment sticks out: I was asked to start a magazine from nothing, and find, hire, and manage over 30 writers, editors, and photographers. I had no management experience (other than teaching high schoolers, so I guess that sort of counts). My editorial skills were strong but my experience was limited. And I was scared out of my mind.
But, you know what? I said yes. And that was one of the most terrifyingly exciting projects I’ve ever embarked on, and it’s had an incredible impact on my career. I eventually used my first issue of that magazine to win a contract as the executive editor of the Sam’s Club publication, Healthy Living Made Simple.
I’ve said yes so many times, when inside I was terrified like a little baby. Say yes more, and then do a smashing great job. Believe that you can and will succeed at these challenging projects.
#2 Do more than “good enough.”
Your mom probably taught you to always give it your all. That was great advice when it came to the soccer field or chemistry classroom, and it still holds true today. When you work on a new project, give it your best.
Sounds simple, right? Here’s the thing: Many aspiring writers and editors believe that the quality of work is proportionate to the amount you’re getting paid. This is simply not true. It may take years before you’re billing at a level that is proportionate with your skill and output.
No matter what you’re getting paid, every piece of work you do should be better than good. It should be exceptional. Your work should wow your clients and leave them with no other option but to hire you again because you’re just that awesome.
When I was first starting out, I was getting book projects with budgets so low I was probably barely clearing $10 an hour. But I gave my clients work that was worth at least $75 an hour. I started gaining a reputation for excellence, and then I started winning important projects that paid closer to what my work was worth.
Now, I’m not going to misrepresent the process. It didn’t always feel great not making what I knew established writers and editors were making. But I kept my vision for my life front and center as I consistently delivered great work to my clients.
Every client and project deserves the same quality of care. Never do work that is just “good enough.” Treat all work like it matters, and always maintain excellence.
#3 Think ahead.
Each time you say yes to a new project, think beyond the task items and deliverables. Every single choice you make in your path to success as a writer or editor has an impact on your future career. Think of the doors a project will open, the connections you might make, or even how to effectively use the project to build up your website or portfolio. Sometimes, the “win” might be the relationships you form with a client or team, one that will last for years to come.
Working project to project can become defeating, at least for me. I need to see growth and change, to see how my hard work is paying off or how it might eventually elevate me toward the life I want. I need to see progress, and if I don’t see immediate progression, I need to know that progress is coming.
One way of doing this is to set goals. Write down your goals for yourself, your business, and your life. When I first started my business, I wrote immediate goals (three months, six months) and future goals (one year, five years). I still do this regularly, and I’m always thinking ahead to how a project or decision will impact my goals.
If you’re comfortable moving from project to project, fine. But if you want to be successful—really successful—you have to always keep the future in sight.
I still have a lot of room to grow in my career. These are just three of the things I’ve done to contribute to my success so far—qualities that can be duplicated by others who are just starting out. If you have tips to share, please do! I learn something from almost everyone I meet, from newbies to seasoned pros.