Friday, 17 August 2012

Driven to Distraction

The Olympics were an amazing advert for drive and determination. No-one achieved gold by trying "just hard enough" or reached the Olympic swimming finals by doing a few lengths every Saturday. Instead, these athletes had to train harder and for longer than everyone else. Usain Bolt might have made the odd flippant comment about being lazy, but nobody could doubt his focus and sheer instinct to win once he got out on the track.

The message of the last few weeks has been clear – unless you are driven, you cannot be great. Unless you sacrifice time, family, money, you cannot be great. The Olympics might be about brotherhood and the coming together of nations, but it is human perfection that will be remembered.

So where does that leave the rest of us? The ones who sat on the sofa and cheered, the ones who have to juggle work and families and all the complexities of everyday life? Are we capable of greatness? The self-help industry would like us to believe that it is simply that we haven't found our special skill yet, the one thing we were put on this Earth to do. Once we discover that (so the mantra goes), we will become enmeshed in that activity and driven to perfect it.

Sorry, but I don't buy that. Humans are singularly adaptable creatures, and while I believe that our genes give each of us inherent advantages in one area or another, nurture has as much impact as nature when it comes to skill development. And this is great, because it lets us try all sorts of activities and see which ones we like the best. Instead of picking one track and sticking to it like glue, we can adopt a pluralist approach that allows us to cultivate a range of interests. After all, most of those elite athletes will hit the end of their sporting careers at the age of 35 or earlier, and find themselves retraining into completely new careers. By splitting our attention, the rest of us are simply developing a range of parallel careers that can span our whole lives.

This is a good argument, but you could also read it as an apology for my own lack of drive as a writer. I try not to remind myself that I'm here - almost ten years after I decided to focus on writing children's books - with only three completed novels to my name and none of them published. Why couldn't I have done more and tried harder? Am I simply lazy or is writing just not my "one special skill?" Let me tell you, I have gone through many different opinions on this over the last year, in the fallout from leaving my agent. I strongly considered giving up creative writing – it seemed that the activity I was so keen to perfect was also one that caused me the most pain. In fact, I didn't write anything but this blog for five months, a layoff that proved to me that I didn't have to keep writing for children and could easily stop if I wanted to. So much for being driven to succeed.

In the end, fiction writing was something I crept back to. It still wasn't a thing I felt compelled to do, but it was something that made me feel better every time I did it. Perhaps that amounts to the same thing? Regardless, I had to finally accept that I (because of nature or nurture) was not a totally single-minded, driven kind of person. I am not the guy who will give up his job to pursue his dream of penniless artistic achievement, or of whom his wife will say in a hushed voice "Keep it down girls, can't you see that Daddy's writing?" Yes, I need to make more time for my writing, but no, I won't let it rule my life. Even if I secretly wish it could.



  1. Yup, I certainly get this post Nick. But I think we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking we can stop, in my experience it tends to creep back in, and at first we think we're in control of it, but...

  2. I'll admit I do feel the pull of packing my job in to pursue the dream of penniless artistic achievement (involving descriptions of farts). I expect it isn't as great as it seems though...