Success is never so interesting as struggle.

— Willa Cather

This quote reminds me of a story that I came across a while ago:

A man found a cocoon of a butterfly. One day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to squeeze its body through the tiny hole. Then it stopped, as if it couldn’t go further.

So the man decided to help the butterfly. He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bits of cocoon. The butterfly emerged easily but it had a swollen body and shriveled wings. 

The man continued to watch it, expecting that any minute the wings would enlarge and expand enough to support the body. Neither happened. In fact the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around. It was never able to fly.

What the man in his kindness and haste did not understand: the restricting cocoon and the struggle required by the butterfly to get through the opening was a way of forcing the fluid from the body into the wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.

Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our lives.

Ira Glass on storytelling

I love Ira Glass (I’m an avid listener of This American Life) and I love his advice to new creatives. This is from him talking about storytelling:

Nobody tells people who are beginners, and I really wish someone had told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.

A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like to say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste, and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. It didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have. Everybody goes through that; it’s totally normal.

The most important possible thing you could do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline, so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It’s only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

I took longer to figure out how to do this than anybody I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile and you just have to fight your way through that.

And here the video (part 3 of 4):

Live a Richer Life – Ramit Sethi on CreativeLive

Ramit Sethi, the author of I Will Teach You To Be Rich, was on CreativeLive yesterday for a session called Live a Richer Life. Over the three hours, he shared loads of useful tips and advice. Here are just a few:

Passion alone is not enough. You become passionate when you are winning. Get really good at something first and as a result you will become passionate about it.

You don’t need a novel idea. It’s not about finding a unique idea, but a profitable idea. If your idea exists already, you can still make it your own by positioning yourself differently. So where do you start? To come up with a list of potential ideas, think about skills you’ve developed, knowledge you’ve acquired and challenges you’ve overcome. To determine which ones are profitable, figure out if those customers have the ability and the willingness to pay.

Front-load the work. Do the research upfront instead of just throwing it out there and seeing what happens. He suggests talking to at least 20 people who are potential customers and finding out the answers to these questions:

  • What are their hopes, fears and dreams?
  • What are their obstacles?
  • What have they already tried? Why didn’t it work?
  • Are they men? Women? Young? Old?
  • Any other interesting stories?

As a UX designer, these are the types of questions we ask when doing user interviews and trying to put together personas. A lot of people still have a tendency to skip this step. Ramit and his guest Vanessa Van Edwards give another reason for why this is crucial: they will tell you the language to use and how to speak to them. Because words matter. Sometimes the slight variation in words can be very subtle, but the impact can be huge.

Ramit also talked about having the right mindset in order to be successful. He was then joined by Chase Jarvis, photographer and founder of CreativeLive. I really enjoyed their discussion on pricing as well as roleplaying what successful and unsuccessful negotiations looked like.

It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you cannot sell yourself and your work, you will not be successful.

Chase stressed that it’s not enough to be the best that you can be at your craft, but you also have to be able to communicate it. Take the time to understand what is important to your client, and then take them on a journey to get to the price. You want to be hired for your vision, so weave your experience into the narrative as authentically as you can. Ramit gives Ghurka and Five Mountains Tea as some good examples of great narratives.

You can watch this session at CreativeLive.

Success doesn’t happen overnight

overnight success takes years
There’s a natural tendency for people to look at success stories, whether they’re people or businesses, and think that they happened overnight. Because often by the time you’ve heard of them, they are already successful.

But what you don’t normally see or hear about, is how much time and effort they’ve already spent on their passion. All the sweat and tears before they “made” it.

Biz Stone, who had been creating blogging, mobile and social products for 8 years before co-founding Twitter sums this up perfectly: “Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.”

I’m sure you’ve heard of Angry Birds, it’s one of the most successful mobile games ever. But what you may not know is Angry Birds is the 52nd game that Rovio made. Eight years and a near bankruptcy later, they finally created their massive hit.

Here are a few more examples of seemingly swift successes that in reality took a long time to achieve (read more at UX Myths):

  • Amazon: “Amazon launched in 1994, but only added book reviews in 1996; they focused on getting users first. They didn’t add CDs until 1998, and it was 2001 before they even posted a profit. It’s easy to ignore this, and look at their success from this point onwards…” – You’re just getting started
  • 37signals: “When we launched Basecamp five years ago, I think we had less than 2,000 people subscribed to our RSS feed. Add a few thousand more who were just checking the site manually and it’s probably reasonable to guess that our initial audience was below 5,000 people. By today’s standards, that’s tiny! And that audience had even taken a few years to build.” – Overnight success takes years
  • The Beatles: “The Beatles seemed to burst onto the scene with a string of #1 hits and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. But they had been playing small clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg since 1957, and while they had mass appeal early on, their first great critical success, Sgt. Peppers, was released in 1967.” – Overnight Success: It Takes Years

This is notoriously true in the music industry. A lot of artists and bands that people perceive as overnight successes spent years playing in small clubs, to small audiences before becoming household names. You may not have heard their first few albums, but by sticking it out, they significantly improved their chances of getting heard and succeeding.

Of course some people do get lucky and hit the jackpot straight away! But for every true overnight success, there are many more stories that take much longer.

I really admire people who are unshaken in the pursuit of their dreams, no matter what. I recently read an essay by the director Ang Lee, which was translated beautifully by Irene Shih on What Shih Said.

“In 1978, as I applied to study film at the University of Illinois, my father vehemently objected. He quoted me a statistic: ‘Every year, 50,000 performers compete for 200 available roles on Broadway.’ Against his advice, I boarded a flight to the U.S. This strained our relationship. In the two decades following, we exchanged less than a hundred phrases in conversation.

Some years later, when I graduated film school, I came to comprehend my father’s concern. It was nearly unheard of for a Chinese newcomer to make it in the American film industry. Beginning in 1983, I struggled through six years of agonizing, hopeless uncertainty. Much of the time, I was helping film crews with their equipment or working as editor’s assistant, among other miscellaneous duties. My most painful experience involved shopping a screenplay at more than thirty different production companies, and being met with harsh rejection each time.

That year, I turned 30. There’s an old Chinese saying: ‘At 30, one stands firm.’ Yet, I couldn’t even support myself. What could I do? Keep waiting, or give up my movie-making dream? My wife gave me invaluable support.

My wife was my college classmate. She was a biology major, and after graduation, went to work for a small pharmaceutical research lab. Her income was terribly modest. At the time, we already had our elder son, Haan, to raise. To appease my own feelings of guilt, I took on all housework – cooking, cleaning, taking care of our son – in addition to reading, reviewing films and writing scripts. Every evening after preparing dinner, I would sit on the front steps with Haan, telling him stories as we waited for his mother – the heroic huntress – to come home with our sustenance (income).

This kind of life felt rather undignified for a man. At one point, my in-laws gave their daughter (my wife) a sum of money, intended as start-up capital for me to open a Chinese restaurant – hoping that a business would help support my family. But my wife refused the money. When I found out about this exchange, I stayed up several nights and finally decided: This dream of mine is not meant to be. I must face reality.

Afterward (and with a heavy heart), I enrolled in a computer course at a nearby community college. At a time when employment trumped all other considerations, it seemed that only a knowledge of computers could quickly make me employable. For the days that followed, I descended into malaise. My wife, noticing my unusual demeanor, discovered a schedule of classes tucked in my bag. She made no comment that night.

The next morning, right before she got in her car to head off to work, my wife turned back and – standing there on our front steps – said, ‘Ang, don’t forget your dream.

And that dream of mine – drowned by demands of reality – came back to life. As my wife drove off, I took the class schedule out of my bag and slowly, deliberately tore it to pieces. And tossed it in the trash.

Sometime after, I obtained funding for my screenplay, and began to shoot my own films. And after that, a few of my films started to win international awards. Recalling earlier times, my wife confessed, ‘I’ve always believed that you only need one gift. Your gift is making films. There are so many people studying computers already, they don’t need an Ang Lee to do that. If you want that golden statue, you have to commit to the dream.’

And today, I’ve finally won that golden statue. I think my own perseverance and my wife’s immeasurable sacrifice have finally met their reward. And I am now more assured than ever before: I must continue making films.

You see, I have this never-ending dream.”