Posted on January 21, 2009 - by MG
I am still wallowing in the sparky, philosophical writings of Nassim Nicholas Taleb (NNT).
The best gift that a writer can bestow is the triggering of insight in another mind. That, surely, is one of the main reasons for reading? NNT’s book ‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” has had me thinking hard all week.
Today I was struck by the relevance on the section about the “silent, invisible cemetery” of casualties in any field, the ones you don’t hear about, the ones who make ‘Black Swans’ (i.e. random, highly unpredictable events) seem all the more remarkable.
NNT points out how routinely we ignore the failed entrepeneurs (who also displayed exactly the same character attributes as those who succeeded big time), the failed authors (who attended the same creative writing workshops, read the same books or writing, wrote as many words as those who succeeded), the failed gamblers (who didn’t start out lucky so gave up and therefore never figured in the apparently true statistic that gamblers have beginners luck).
There IS a silent cemetery of failed endeavour. But our mind edits it out. We prefer nice patterns where one thing preditably leads to anther. Where the game of life has rules.
As a scientist, I am part of the cemetery. Many enter the game of scientific research and many leave before they even get counted as jobbing scientists who you’ll never hear of (as opposed to the very successful ones you HAVE heard of.)
This whole subject particularly interests me because I know full well that ‘The Joshua Files’ is a Black Swan event. Yes; I can thread a nice narrative through the factors which led up to its writing and publication, and you might believe that it was always going to happen.
In fact, just as significant were a series of TOTAL coincidences that could not have been predicted.
1. I broke my leg, thus interfering with my work schedule.
2. In my resultant isolation, I was finally able to think deeply enough about writing and to practice it, to get better pretty fast.
3. I found an agent who under normal circumstances would have ignored my submission, because he usually doesn’t bother with the slushpile. But because of a coincidental and tenuous link between me and his most successful client (we both studied biochemistry at Oxford), I was able to grab his attention.
4. This agent saw that my manuscript was promising but flawed. Unlike another agent who was initially very interested, this agent believed that I could write a publishable version.
And yet…he told me himself that he’d met with many authors at a similar stage and had a similar discussion. Failure…at that stage, was still the most likely outcome. My agent knew all about the cemetery – he’d seen authors wind up there. I didn’t.
Had I known that I would probably not have submitted a manuscript to him. Even though this is normal…most slushpile material does not succeed big-time, whoever the agent!
But since we mainly ignore the fallen in the invisible cemetery, I didn’t think of that…
5. This agent told me something about writing that was as astonishing to me as some rare fact about the life of an inhabitant of Mars. No I’m not going to tell you what that was! If you want to have the benefit of this guy’s advice, join Litopia! That piece of information enabled me to totally shift the focus of my writing.
6. I happened at that exact time to be devouring the works of Haruki Murakami. That single fact helped me to see immediately that my agent was right. Otherwise I might have doubted. But perhaps more importantly, I rapidly had a template for how to achieve what the agent wanted.
7. By sheer chance, no-one was sending in thrillers-for-children based around the Mayan 2012 thing. Not that year. US literary agent Nathan Bransford complained last year that Maya/2012 manuscripts were tediously common. But in 2006 thankfully, in the UK, they weren’t. So at the time, the Joshua Files concept was deemed highly original. (That year it was all magic schools and faeries, I was told.)
Friends and others have told me that it was hard work, perserverance and preparation that got me a great book deal. Oh yes and my self belief. Hmmmm. The evidence would suggest otherwise.
‘Self-belief’? Not really. I was equally convinced that my efforts would lead to failure.
As a scientist you need to believe simultaneously in the positive result that will vindicate months of work, and the negative result that will mean it was good for nothing better than red-herring-avoidance for other researchers.
Maybe I would have got something published eventually, maybe. But not ‘The Joshua Files’.
Let’s face it, it’s a ‘Black Swan’ event. Had any one of the coincidences above not happened, it would not exist.
To me, it’s all the sweeter for its unpredictableness and rarity. Like being in the middle of a storm of good fortune.