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At only 19 years old, S.E. Hinton’s first novel The Outsiders was an instant success.
She began writing the story in high school. Her story was based off two rival gangs at school: the Greasers and the Socs. Hinton’s book sought to understand “the other side” by portraying life from the Greasers’ working-class perspective.
Her novel was published in 1967. At the time, she was a freshman attending university in her hometown, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Before she left her teenage years, Hinton became a household name.
Since then, the book has sold tens of millions of copies. It has become required reading in many high schools. Of all the novels that Hinton has written, The Outsiders remains the most popular.
But today is not about S.E. Hinton.
Today is about the slow growth.
Countless Poems, Stories and Essays
At age 16, Margaret Atwood knew that she wanted to become a writer. Her parents were horrified. At the time, there were no writers in Canada – at least none that made a living off of it.
Against her parents’ wishes, she chose to pursue a BA in English at the University of Toronto. Atwood submitted poems and articles to the literary journal at school. Outside of class, she wrote “compulsively, badly, hopefully”, and read her poems to the bohemian crowds in a small coffee shop.
After graduating in 1961, she moved south to attend graduate studies at Harvard. During this time, she continued writing and publishing poems. Atwood completed her masters, but dropped out before obtaining her PhD.
For the rest of the 1960s, she was consumed in her writing. At one point, she became fatigued and developed spinal neuritis, an inflammation of the spinal nerves. Still, she kept at her day job while writing in the evenings.
In 1969, she released her first novel, The Edible Woman. But it wasn’t until her sixth novel – and countless poems, short stories, and literary essays later – that she established her place as a prominent writer of the 20th century.
In 1985, Margaret Atwood released her most notable piece of work: The Handmaid’s Tale.
At the time, women were losing ground on social, economic, and political issues. The dystopian novel, centered on a woman living in a totalitarian society, shook readers to the core. The book was translated into 25 languages and stayed on the bestseller lists for 23 weeks.
The Concept of “Paying Your Dues”
The concept of “paying your dues” has been around for a long time. It denotes that you have to work diligently for a long time before there’s any semblance of success. Since this phrase feeds into the concept of fairness, we often accept it as a given.
That is, until we’re proven wrong.
Maybe you’ve been pursuing a project for years. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, someone else shoots right by and gets a lot of recognition for their work.
Imagine the turmoil that causes. Slaving away until the candle burns out, developing spinal neuritis, only for someone who just arrived to snatch it all away.
S.E. Hinton is nine years younger than Margaret Atwood. At the time Hinton’s novel The Outsiders was released, Atwood was still in the process of writing her first novel.
Hinton marked her place as a notable author when she was 19. At that age, Atwood was still writing “compulsively, badly, hopefully” and reading poems in the local coffee shop. If she compared her progress with Hinton, it would be tempting for Atwood to say “Forget it!” and toss her papers in the trash.
But if she did that, we would never have The Handmaid’s Tale. We would never have The Blind Assassin, Alias Grace, or Oryx and Cake.
The Secret to Creating Great Work
Even though we openly talk about the need to pay our dues, the truth is that people don’t want to go down that route.
We want to take the “one-shot-and-done” approach. We want to create one piece of work that’s so popular that we’ll never have to toil in obscurity again. We want to find one quick way to earn a nice living so that we’ll never have to lift a finger again.
If this is you, I don’t blame you. But in the vast majority of cases, that doesn’t happen.
The most surefire way to create something great is to create great amounts of something.
For example, the dystopian novelist George Orwell produced 647 works in his lifetime, including 556 articles, 18 poems, 6 novels, 3 non-fiction books, and numerous journalistic pieces. Yet, he is most known for the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published one year before his death at age 46.
Orwell didn’t know which of his works would have lasting significance. He simply kept creating, over and over again. And so should you.
A good question to ask yourself is, “Am I creating something valuable today?”
Instead of praying, hoping, striving for that one single piece of work to become a hit, focus on doing your best work consistently. Focus on it every day.
The end result – whether it’s prestige, money, or personal satisfaction – is not your goal. It’s only a consequence of your goal. You don’t control the effect of your work over yourself or others.
The real goal lies in the actions you take, whether it involves practicing or learning. That is the only thing you have control over.
Slow Growth is Underrated
In a world full of instant, on-demand, and at-your-fingertips, anything slow is frowned upon.
I say: Embrace it.
Slow growth is underrated. Although people praise overnight sensations, early success is not an indicator of lasting success. Sometimes, the slowest successes have the greatest impact.
So regardless of where you are and where you want to be, keep going.