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the keys to the kingdom

If self -help books really worked wouldn’t every half concerned parent be forcing their kid to read them?

If self-help books really worked wouldn’t the authors be doing other stuff HIGHLY SUCCESSFULLY rather than writing endless new self-help books?

Apart from Benjamin Franklin, and the extraordinary Clement Stone, who made a $100 million selling insurance before he wrote a self help book, I can’t think of one self-help writer whose ‘success’ isn’t the rather incestuous kind of writing highly successful self-help books.

ie. selling hope sells really well.

The problem, if I may be so bold, with books like Stephen Covey’s 7 habits of highly effective people is that they don’t work.

Yep. Big claim I know but here's why I make it:

I’ve been reading self-help books all my life. I love ‘em. But they don’t do what they say on the tin. They aren’t a manual for achieving what you want to achieve.

They are good for many other lesser things though. Not negligible things either.

Self- help books can give you a real boost, a pick me up that can last several days.

They can give you a framework for making sense of an enterprise.

They can introduce you to the helpful idea of not blaming others for your current situation.

They can provide very useful tips when you are stuck.

In other words self help books bear much the same relationship to ‘life success’ as how-to-write books do to successful writing.

Writing I know about. To succeed at it you need to have a book or books in mind that you really like and want to copy or emulate. You need two, or preferably three, hours of completely uninterrupted writing time five days a week. You need something you care about to write about. And that’s it bro’.

Not much of a how-to book is it?

The nub of the matter is actually doing the activity not thinking about it, talking about it or reading about it.

Here’s what I did.

I loved the idea of long distance walking as a kid. Yet every long distance walk I did I gave up on, except one of fifty miles I did with the scouts aged 14 where I had the support of my fellow hikers. Fifty miles – not far eh? But it was enough, a slim shard to hang my next attempt on.

Scroll forward ten years. I had tried to write books and not finished one. I had made two short films and then failed to finish a third. Another year threatened to slip by and I didn’t want to be sitting up on new year’s eve thinking, “yep another dud year with nothing achieved.”

So I thought, “Forget what I WANT to do and focus on what I CAN do and what would make me proud and happy too.”

Walking. I can walk. So I set out and walked a combination of the High Route, the GR 10 and the GR11 from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic along the ridge of the Pyrennees. It took me 42 days to do about 700km and I loved it. It wasn’t all easy. At a couple of points I almost gave up, but that thought of yet another thing given up spurred me on. In the last 24 hours of the walk I covered 60 miles over hilly terrain and slept for two hours - I was that pumped up about finishing.

Then I wrote, in cafes mainly, a book about this walk. It wasn’t a good book. It was rambling and dull but it was 60,000 words long. On the last day I wrote 8000 words in about ten hours to finish it. It was kind of like the last dash at the end of the walk. And writing each day was like doing my three or fours walk before lunch and then three or fours hours afterwards.

I’d cracked writing by applying the ‘success method’ I used in walking.

Then I did a year long martial arts course which involved four to five hours training five days a week for a year.

I knew I could keep going because I had kept going during the walk. So the notions of persistence I had ‘grown’ doing the walk I was able to transfer to the course.

Then I wrote a book about spending a year doing martial arts. The method of writing- mainly in the mornings, four to five hours a day was a direct copy of the timetable of the course.

This and subsequent books all succeeded.

But still I didn’t know what was going on. I had a hazy idea. But though I had ‘cracked’ walking, learning a physical art and writing I thought other areas, such as business or even everyday life were a bit beyond me. As such I stumbled along admiring those who seemed far more efficient and organised than I.

I have a friend, a TV producer who is probably one of the most efficient people I know. She once said to me, “Nothing makes me happier than that feeling I get when I tick things off on my ‘to do’ list.”

Weird or what? I thought. For a long time.

Then I applied a little translation, the kind of translation I had done when I converted my success at walking to success at writing. I realised there was NO DIFFERENCE between what she had said, and what I sometimes think when I have done 3000 words in a good session, printed it off, and written the tally on my daily word count sheet. No difference.

And then I thought about all those people I have met who complain about how hard writing is. When I question them I realise they are MAKING it hard by putting loads of obstacles in their way. For example: not setting out sacred amounts of time – instead they write ‘when they have free moment’- get out of here!; or they don’t have a quiet place to write- instead writing in room where there kids can come in and annoy them- impossible.

I realised I was doing the same thing in everyday life. I wasn’t giving it enough respect, time or obstacle free-ness if I can use such a term.

When I applied the same rules as I did to writing: uninterrupted time, deadlines and goals, celebrate and record progress- it was all plain sailing.

So the keys to the kingdom are simple.

Find something you can finish. Maybe it’s restoring an old car. Maybe it’s getting a grade in a language exam- but outside school if you are still a student- so you have to be a bit self motivated. Maybe it’s like me- doing a long walk. Or climbing a mountain. It can be anything as long as you finish it.

Then you transfer the ‘oomph’ that you have acquired, the skills of setting aside time and energy for a real attempt, the focus and determination, to whatever you want to do next.

It’s that simple.


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