RLL 17: Both/And--4 Things I Learned Writing My First Book

Real Life Leading #17

Both/And: 4 Lessons Learned from Writing my First Book

Last week I announced the big news: I have completed the first draft of my first book! This is huge! Over a decade ago, I started my first book-writing project, and then I started a second...and then a third. None of them have been completed yet, and the book that is now complete is very different than the one I originally intended to write. However, I am thrilled to have finished the draft, and along the way I have learned four valuable lessons that are applicable not just to book-writing but also to leadership and life.

1) Writing a book is both easy and hard.

According to my brother-in-law, when I started a second career as a public speaker and author it surprised exactly no one. I’m a high school history teacher, and it turns out that I love to talk. So public speaking and writing was a natural fit for some of my skill sets. But I also knew I’d been trying to write a book for years without any real success. Writing this book was an absolute joy in some ways: I was able to tell stories, to share memories, to help people see life differently and rethink leadership. Writing this book was easy.

Writing the book was also massively hard work. It was many hours of researching, planning, outlining, revising, typing, and retyping. And that was just to finish the first draft! I spent a considerable amount of my school breaks (Thanksgiving, Christmas, and snow days--we’ve had an inordinate amount of those already this winter) sitting at the computer and typing, rather than what I usually do: read for leisure or nap in my recliner while ‘watching’ a soccer game.

This is one of my favorite ways to spend time during breaks from school

This is one of my favorite ways to spend time during breaks from school

As I thought about this process, I realized that this “easy and hard” dichotomy is true in many areas of life. Marriage: both easy and hard. Being a parent: same. Being a teacher and coach: it’s a dream come true...and it can be seriously frustrating. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the dual nature of the process, and yet I was. Now I know, and I am excited about moving from the draft stage of the book to the finished and published product. In your life, I would imagine it's much the same: things you enjoy are both easy in some ways and very difficult in others.

2) Feedback and criticism is both crucial and unpleasant.

When JRR Tolkien first shared some of his writings that would become ‘The Lord of the Rings’ with his friends the Inklings, the character nicknamed ‘Strider’ was originally to have been called ‘Trotter.’ If you’re not familiar with the books, Strider is later revealed to be Aragorn, long-lost heir of kings, and one of the single coolest characters ever written. Had his nickname been Trotter instead of Strider for much of the first book, it’s hard to imagine people taking him quite so seriously. If Tolkien had to revise and change some crucial elements of his book, I most definitely will have to do the same.

I was reminded of this when I sent my draft to some friends for helpful criticism and feedback. I’m not sure what I expected; perhaps they’d all reply with, “It’s perfect! A masterpiece! Don’t change a thing!” Yeah, no, that’s not how it happened. Instead, hardly a paragraph went by without a note or an edit from a couple different trusted friends. The more I re-read through the draft, the more I realized they were correct in their suggestions and tips as well. It’s often this way with our leadership, if we have the humility to both ask for and graciously receive feedback. Not one of us is perfect, which means we all have room to improve. One of the best ways to know what we need to work on is to ask someone we trust, someone who can see us more objectively than we see ourselves. In a silly way, I often tell people that if they want to see their flaws clearly, just go be a teacher for a few days: students LOVE to point out every mistake a teacher makes. I certainly did as a student. As leaders, we need to be willing to ask others for feedback, and then we need to be humble enough to listen when they answer, rather than getting defensive or dismissive of things we might not like to hear. If we don’t listen, we just enhance the problem by ignoring it in favor of hearing what is comfortable, rather than what will help us grow. This habit can be fatal to a leader, so let us be humble in our listening.

3) ‘Done with a draft’ is a far cry from ‘done with a book.’

I was extremely excited and thrilled to announce to the world that I finished my draft! I still get excited when I think about it, especially when I remember the other writing projects that never got beyond the ‘partial research/outline’ stage. It’s been amazing to check my email and see feedback from trusted sources who have now read a book that I wrote! It’s also a reminder that there is still very much work to be done.

Just like in business, in sports, and in life, there is always more work to be done either on this project or in beginning a new one. I have had to be careful not to let myself get too carried away with thinking, “Ok, I’m finished, so now all I have to do is publish it and hope for the best.” The reality is that there are many steps still left to be completed: revising, marketing, editing, cover design, more marketing, launching, even more marketing. You get the idea. To be done with a draft is great; to be done with a book is an accomplishment that I have not yet realized.

It is much the same with my classes, my soccer program, and my children. At the end of each semester, it is fun to let myself be excited about how much we achieved together. But then I’m also quickly reminded that a new set of students will be coming in shortly, and it all begins again. Soccer season is similar to that as well: no matter how well we do one season, the next season is right around the corner, with its own challenges and hurdles. As to my children, well, I know that one day they’ll grow up and leave the house, but I don’t think I’ll be done working with them this side of eternity, though I do recognize that my role with change as they get older.

This is what my desk looks like when I work. Notice the mini-cassette recorder: this is how I 'wrote' much of my first draft while making my forty-five minute drive to and from school each day.

This is what my desk looks like when I work. Notice the mini-cassette recorder: this is how I 'wrote' much of my first draft while making my forty-five minute drive to and from school each day.

Let’s embrace the process of whatever work we’re involved in, knowing that even when we’re finished there will be another project, task, or assignment just around the bend.

4) I needed help--and so do most people.

This isn’t necessarily going to be an ‘acknowledgements’ section, like you’d find in a book, but I do want to point out something that I often say in my leadership presentations: rarely does anyone accomplish a task of lasting significance without help. This book is no exception. I’ve had the help of the people around me, my wife and kids especially, as well as the help of relatives and friends farther away who have asked about my progress and encouraged me as I wrote.

In addition to what I call real-life help, I’ve also had what I call the virtual-help of various other people, mostly accomplished authors and business people who have served as inspirations and who have, mostly without knowing it, provided guidance and help in the writing process. What I realized in writing this book is that I knew very little about actually writing a book. Writing? Sure, I can do that. Writing a book that will be meaningful and impact people’s lives, that will help them rethink their world and their role in it...that’s a bit more complicated.

When I realized this, I began to seek the help and knowledge of various people. This includes Bob Burg (www.burg.com), co-author of ‘The Go-Giver’ series, who was kind enough to read some of my blog posts and who was very encouraging about my writing. It also includes Chandler Bolt (www.selfpublishingschool.com) and Rob Kosburg (www.bestsellerpublishing.com), both of whom have, through their own blogs and podcast interviews and online programs, taught me most of what I now know about the book writing process as well as the complexities of publication and book marketing. This list also includes the amazing Neen James (www.neenjames.com) who has taught me about the importance of focusing my attention on the task at hand. And finally, Jon Acuff (www.acuff.me), author of ‘Do Over’ and ‘Finish’, whose work has inspired me that I also can complete my book, rather than just letting it become yet another unfinished project.

Every one of the people mentioned in that paragraph is what I aspire to be: a best-selling author and speaker whose work is changing lives and impacting people in a positive way. The lesson here is simple: seek out those who are what you want to be, who have accomplished what you want to accomplish, and then learn from them. None of us is an expert in everything, so instead let us learn from those who already have the expertise we seek, whether that is in writing, in leadership, in our families, or in our businesses.

Thanks for reading this week’s update. I’m excited that my speaking is about to get very busy for the next few weeks, and then soccer season will (forgive the pun) kickoff as well!

Action Step:

This week, ask yourself what task you’ve been unsuccessfully working on, and then examine your circle to see who you might look to for help, guidance, and inspiration. Then email me and let me know what you decided and how it turned out. See you next week!