I am the type of person who gets excited when dreams become goals, when goals result in plans, and when plans inspire actions. So it pretty much goes without saying that the start of the New Year is by far my all-time favorite season.
At the tail end of 2018, I found myself unsure of the months to come and, as a result — and possibly as an anxiety coping mechanism I have yet to seriously examine — I decided what I really needed in a drastic attempt to gain back control of my future was to give myself a really big, really dumb challenge.
So on January 1, I sat down to write the first of what I hoped would be a total of 1 million words over the course of the next 365 days. Those words ended up in the post I published a year ago announcing this seemingly unrealistic plan.
One million words? It sounds like a lot. That’s because it is. The average novel hovers somewhere around 100,000 words, give or take 10,000 or so depending on the genre. So when you look at it through that lens, saying you want to write 1 million words over the course of a year is like saying you want to write the equivalent of 10 novels in 365 days.
But I guess I didn’t really see it that way. Not at first.
I would never dare call myself an expert in anything except writing, which just happens to be the thing I do the most and have been doing the longest among my long list of attempted hobbies over the years.
But I do know a thing or two about goal-setting since, as a writer, you’re pretty much guaranteed to start and fail to finish many drafts of many books if you aren’t somewhat experienced in the art of “figuring out where you are going and how you are going to get there.”
So I suppose this counts as the first of several key reasons I embarked on this challenge last year, and why I worked so hard to make sure I crossed the finish line in time.
Creative commitments are harder to keep than you’d think. And yet, committing to something big like a book or writing a plethora of words in a single year is one of the most important components and predictors of success.
When many people start writing, they don’t think in the long-term — and that’s not even necessarily their fault. All they know is that they want to have a successful blog, or publish a bestselling novel. They have long-term aspirations, but are only able to make short-term commitments.
It’s when the thrill of a new idea begins to wear off that most people give up on their goals. Something similar happens when you are running a long-distance race. At the beginning, your body is pumped so full of adrenaline that you can barely feel your muscles propelling you forward. Then there’s that moment where your lungs suddenly feel like they are on fire and your legs start screaming, and you think, “Oh. I mean, I could just quit right now and the pain would stop and it would all be fine, right?”
I haven’t always been the best at pushing through the burn, both in running and in writing. I’m just like a thousand other writers out there: I’ve started projects I never finished. I’ve walked away from stories. I’ve said goodbye to ideas before they had the chance to grow.
This is something I’ve always wanted to get better at. And what better way to practice not breaking a self-promise than to commit to something you truly enjoy?
There’s no time like the present to fall in love with writing again. I’ve been a writer for a very long time. At some point, I gained enough confidence in my creative experience to start a blog that’s supposed to inspire people to go off and write things.
So at the end of 2018 when I “lost” my full-time writing job — I moved to a different position within the same company that immediately removed writing from my daily task list, which ended up turning out just fine —I sort of panicked. Not writing every day, at least to the extent I had been before, sounded scary. But not for the reasons you might think.
A lot led up to that minor job change that I won’t go into here, but I can say that a lot of it brought on some feelings of frustration and doubt related to writing — of no one else’s fault but my own, to be clear. In many ways, I was relieved not to “have” to write for my day job. I had fallen out of love with it, and that bothered me. And terrified me.
I wanted to come up with a way to rediscover my passion for writing. A strategy that didn’t involve covering content related to the Kardashians or Meghan Markle (subjects I strongly struggled to connect with at the time).
So I gave myself a challenge that would trigger that rediscovery. And I’m pleased to inform you that I did fall in love with many parts of the creative process again — especially the parts that force me to tell stories that scare me.
I’m about to take a short writing hiatus of sorts to recover from all the work I did last year — it’s possible to fall in love while also needing to take a brief step back so that you can stay in that place for many years to come.
I can’t wait.
There is also always room to grow. When you’ve done a thing for a long time, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing you know all there is to know. But the most successful creators in the world are the ones who are always pursuing opportunities to improve upon their skills and learn new ones, even if those opportunities are ones they create for themselves.
I committed to this thing for an entire year. Three hundred and sixty-five days almost all in a row, not counting the occasional day off and that one week I spent with a bunch of Star Wars nerds in a convention center in Chicago … there was a surprising amount of singing … it was a nice break.
How did I do that? Because I knew I had to. Because I knew that the satisfaction I would feel after it was all over would far outweigh all the long nights, the pain in my hands, the invitations I turned down to “be social” — all of it would be worth it. At least, I hoped so. I think I was right. It’s hard to tell so soon after hitting my mark.
Commitment requires a lot of discipline and practice, trial and error, and most importantly, years’ worth of failure. Maybe not for everyone — I can, let’s be honest, only speak for myself here. But I’ve abandoned many projects over the years. I’ve turned things in late. I’ve submitted work that wasn’t my best. These were all mistakes. But they were also learning experiences.
This past year, I learned that many of us severely underestimate ourselves in almost every way. Even when we achieve great things, we have a hard time giving ourselves the pat on the back that we deserve.
It hasn’t quite sunk in that these numbers are actually real. When you spend a year entering data into a spreadsheet and mindlessly watching the counts and percentages increase gradually day after day, you become desensitized to its actual meaning. A major downside to graphs and charts and things, for sure, but I know myself, and I knew spreadsheets were the only way I was going to keep this up for as long as I did.
So here I am just staring at this number. A million. What does it mean? In many ways it feels like all I’ve done is write the same 26 letters over and over again for hours on end, month after month. Well, isn’t that what writing is in its most basic form? Same letters from the same alphabet, all arranged neatly in a series of lines that may or may not make sense when you look back at them?
Here in a post on this very platform is where it all began a year ago. It’s so fitting, then, that this is where it ends. These are some of my final words of the year, of the decade, the words that will carry me to and past my goal. The words I won’t soon forget.
This is, I suppose, a goodbye of sorts. A farewell, even, to 12 of some of the most creatively, physically, emotionally, and spiritually challenging months of my 20s (so far).
I fought hard for this. I cried many tears for this. Not because I did not want to do it, but because I knew that I could, as long as I just kept putting one metaphorical foot in front of the other. One word at a time. One positive affirmation at a time. You can do this. You have come so far already. What would you gain from turning back now?
To those who have a goal that seems — to others and to themselves — vastly out of reach, I have one phrase of advice for you to take away from the experience I have chosen to share with you here:
Do it for no reason other than you have absolutely nothing to lose.
You’re not too young or too old, you’re not too inexperienced, you’re not too unfocused or unmotivated. With anything we try, we almost always start at the bottom knowing we might fail.
But in my experience, the only way to truly “fail” is to never try at all.
The time to start is now. The time to try is a constant in your world. So the second you feel the urge to do something you have never done before, something you aren’t sure you can learn or ever “get good at,” jump. Don’t wait. Don’t give yourself time to rationalize it.
If you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed. But if you never try, you will spend the rest of your life wondering what might have happened if you had.