In February 2007, Ta-Nehisi Coates visited the unemployment office in Harlem.
He had just lost his third job in seven years and had come to the office to attend a seminar on, ‘work, responsibility, and the need to stay off the dole.’ He was thirty-one years old.
At that moment, he second-guessed whether he should quit his dream of becoming a writer and get a ‘stable’ job. After all, he had a young family, and, quite understandably, he felt that pursuing this dream made him an irresponsible father. The stats didn’t look great. He was a college drop-out. He was Black in America. Raised on the streets of Baltimore, he found inspiration from hip-hop. Despite that, or perhaps in spite of that, his wife convinced him to continue honing his craft.
Kenyatta and I had been together for nine years, and during that time I had never been able to consistently contribute a significant income. I was a writer and felt myself part of a tradition stretching back to a time when reading and writing were, for black people, the marks of rebellion… And so I derived great meaning from the work of writing. But I could not pay rent with “great meaning.” I could not buy groceries with “great meaning.” With “great meaning” I overdrew accounts. With “great meaning” I burned through credit cards and summoned the IRS.
It was not until May 2008, when he would finally achieve some mainstream success. His first article, ‘This Is How We Lost To The White Man’, would be published in The Atlantic. On top of that, The Atlantic was interested in having his blog regularly contribute to their site.
Although that was a milestone in his career, it still took Ta-Nehisi another 7 years until Between the World and Me would be released. When the book won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the 2016Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, Ta-Nehisi was 40 and 41 years old, respectively. From his childhood in Baltimore, in which he once commented that as a child, “a third of his mind would be occupied by his safety,” to the worldwide success of Black Panther, Ta-Nehisi understood that things always take longer than we expect, if they are to even happen at all.
For Violette Leduc, Simone de Beauvoir’s protege, it took her 57 years of anguish before her writing received commercial success. Violette was the epitome of the classic starving artist — she struggled to afford food and her rent well into her forties. It had become so bad that Simone had secretly been sending her a monthly allowance, under the guise that it had come from the publisher. But Simone, like Ta-Nehisi’s wife, believed in Violette’s writing, and urged her to continue putting pen to paper.
Do you have the fortitude to endure poverty for decades in order to master your craft? How about years of practicing it every single day with little reward or recognition? It might seem preposterous to us, but others have done so and we’re all the better for it.
When I first started law, I wanted to be the best. I was a B+ law student, but I knew that the real classroom was in the real world: building relationships with clients, negotiating settlements, sifting through case law to find the perfect decision, and being on my feet in front of an adjudicator.
Well, when I had that opportunity to attend my first hearing, guess what happened? I froze. I over prepared, having typed out line-by-line what I was going to say. Instead of lawyering, I was more like a grade five student reading her book report in front of the class.
After the hearing, I returned to my desk humbled with the realization that I was still a beginner. It was okay. I had more to learn.
But surely after another hearing I would know what I’m doing, right? Marginally. It’s been two years since then and I’m still learning! No matter how many times you perform a certain activity, there’s always new strategies to learn, problems you’ve never encountered, and unexpected things. Each matter (usually) involves a different client, adjudicator, respondent, and opposing counsel. You could hit something out of the ballpark one week, and completely be decimated the next. It’s a whole new ballgame. And each game can teach you something new, if you are receptive enough to listen.
We always want to be the overnight success. The kid who everyone underestimated and never saw coming. The hired gun who excels without effort. But rarely does that happen.
“Everything that happens to you is a form of instruction if you pay attention,” Robert Greene says. For me, these hearings nudged me towards developing my public speaking skills, growing comfortable with uncertainty, and evaluating what constitutes good advocacy.
Did I want to be an all-star right out of law school? Of course. But not only would that be arrogant of me to think that I deserve to be great without the effort, it would also make me more susceptible to mistakes. Why should I negotiate a settlement when I’m positive that I’ll win? Why should I listen to this person or that person when my gut has been right all along?
We learn more from our mistakes than success. And it’s only from adversity that you’re able to develop what truly matters: discipline, resilience, self-reliance. It's more important to adhere to the process of gradual improvement.
The difficult part is dealing with our natural impatience. And so, we must find pleasure from the pain — embrace the mistakes, as they inevitably come, and welcome each experience as a form of trial and error.
A strategy that I've adopted is to picture my life 5 years from now. How am I spending my days? What does my writing look like? How often am I exercising? Am I still living in Toronto? I then work backwards: what can I do right now that will lead me there? This empowers me to do something constructive today.
It is preposterous to think that you can, or deserve, to master anything right away. It is also ridiculous to think that achieving something in five years instead of eight or nine says something about you. The results will speak for themselves. Take the the time to do it right.
We all start as beginners. The key is to be patient enough to eventually become a master. Keep your head down. Remove the ego. Do the work.
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