Thursday, September 17, 2009

Your Optimism, My Faith

Tristan challenged me to write a short story demonstrating the difference between optimism and faith, as described by what has been called the "Stockdale Paradox", recorded by James C. Collins in Good to Great. See the wikipedia article on James Stockdale for more information.

Thanks to Tristan for pointing out the Stockdale Paradox to me: I hadn't heard of it. I gave this one a lot of thought, and I hope that this story meets the challenge.

I feel a need to note that like everything else on this blog, this is a work of fiction – even if it is written in the first person. I am not, and am not claiming to be, a bestselling author. My name's not John Percival anyway.

Your Optimism, My Faith
A young man approached me out of the airport crowd. He was about thirty years old, with black hair gelled into that messy, just out of bed style. I avoided eye contact until he said, "Excuse me."

I let my book drop a little from my face and turned to him. "Yes?" I said. "Can I help you."

"Sorry to just come up to you like this," he said, "but you are John Percival, aren't you?"

Even a bestselling author, such as myself, is really only a minor celebrity. A 'real' celebrity goes around in his own plane, chauffeured limousine and has his own bodyguards. He's mobbed by fans and paparazzi, but is equipped to deal with it. A minor celebrity like myself, is stuck in the middle. I drive my own car, take regular airline flights like everyone else, and go to the shops without a body guard. Fact is, most people don't know what author's look like, and ninety-nine percent of the time we don't look like the studio portrait on the dust jacket anyway. This time however, I was busted.

"Yes," I said. "As a matter of fact I am."

The man extended his hand, "I'm Nelson. Nelson Hogan; very pleased to meet you, John."

I shook Nelson's hand, and sat down next to me. I wasn't too surprised to be picket out of the crowd. I was in Australia launching my latest book, and it was already on the bestseller chart. I was due to appear on one of the network television breakfast shows in Sydney the next morning.

"I'm really glad to meet you," said Nelson, "because you're my role model".

I'd never heard this one before. "I love your latest book" was more common, followed by some unsolicited advice on how the plot might have been improved. All I managed to reply was, "Oh?"

"I've also written a novel myself and…"

He must have seen the fear in my eyes, because he quickly added, "Don't worry; I don't want you to read it or anything. I've started sending it to publishers. I've already had two rejection slips, but I'm really optimistic about getting it published soon."

"Really," I asked. I was intrigued, having been through the rejection slip phase myself. "What's the basis of your optimism, may I ask?"

"Of course you can ask, John," said Nelson. "You're the reason, actually, that I'm so optimistic. I read somewhere that you had fifty rejection slips from publishers and agents before your first novel was published. I just know that soon someone will say yes to me too."

I smiled, but without humour. There are few things as sincere yet totally ridiculous as unfounded optimism. It scares me. "Actually," I said, "I had fifty-two rejection notes. But tell me, why is the number of rejections that I got relevant to you?"

Nelson paused a moment, and ran his fingers through his hair. "I'm not saying my novel is in the same league as yours: I'm just saying that your optimism is my inspiration. Each time I send a letter or an extract to a publisher, I'm at home, expecting them to say yes."

"Can I give you some advice?" I said.


"Stop expecting them to say yes. Stop being that optimistic: it's insane."

Nelson's jaw dropped; literally. Some drool actually escaped down to his chin while he sat, unmoving.

I felt obliged to explain a little further. "It wasn't actually the first novel I wrote that got published," I said.

"What?" He reached with his hand and wiped away the drool.

"That's right," I said. "Once I sent that manuscript off to the first publisher, I starting writing my second novel. Then, whenever I got a rejection note, I sent the manuscript to the next publisher, or agent, and went straight back to writing."

"Why did you keep writing the second novel when the first one was getting rejected?"

"You haven't started writing your second one?"

"No," said Nelson, looking at the floor.

"Then why did you write the first one?" I asked.

"Because I like writing," he said. "I want to be a writer. I think I have a lot to say, I think I can entertain people. I like it. You must understand that."

"I do understand that, " I said. "Why then didn't you start writing your second novel?"

It didn't look like Nelson had given this much thought before. "I suppose I thought I'd better get the first one published. You know, to prove myself; show that I could do it."

"That's funny," I said. "You said you're very optimistic about getting your first novel published, but that you don't seem so optimistic about the second."

Nelson seemed to prefer to ask the question. "You were so optimistic about the publication of your first novel that you started writing your second one; is that right, John?"

"No, I wasn't optimistic at all," I said. "In the end, not being optimistic paid off. Once I finished my second novel, I thought it was a lot better than the first. So, I stopped sending the first one around, and started sending out the second one. And of course, I started on my third novel. That second novel I sent out was the first one I got published – with some major rewrites – by an editor that was willing to give me a go. My first novel stayed on the shelf, and then my third got published."

"He didn't publish your first one?"

"I never showed that editor my first novel," I said. "I wasn't optimistic – I was realistic. I faced the hard fact that fifty-three professionals in the publishing industry didn't think it would fly. Later, I picked up that manuscript again and had another read, and it was terrible! It's so bad; it's not worth rewriting."

Nelson spent a few moments contemplating. "So," he said. "You were realistic, rather than optimistic. What kept you going, then? Was it your love of writing?"

"It takes more than just a love of writing to put that much work in," I said. "What kept me going was my faith in my ability to write, and more importantly, my ability to learn to write better. I had faith that if I kept working at it, I would write something worthy of publication."

"Isn't your faith the same as my optimism?"

"No!" I said, a bit too loudly. Some of the other passengers gave us dirty looks. "No, there is a major difference. Your optimism has you at home expecting a call any moment from a publisher, begging you for the rights to publish your manuscript. My faith kept me writing, knowing that in the end I would get better, and would be published. Your optimism is going to get dashed one rejection at a time until it is completely ruined. You won't get half way to fifty-two rejections before that happens. My faith in my ability to become a better writer is completely independent of external influences. It continued through the time of the rejection letters, and it continues when fans, and even agents, try to tell me that now I'm perfect."

Nelson said nothing for a minute, but looked down at the heavily worn carpet. Then, very quietly, he said "I don't really see the difference. Faith or optimism: it's the same."

The lady speaking into the public address system announced that my flight was now boarding.

I turned to Nelson as I grabbed my bag and stood up. "Think through what I've said again; a lot. This is critical, not just to your writing career, but to your whole life. If you don't see the difference soon, you'll die of a broken heart."

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