A reader recently sent me a video of a keynote speech, delivered in 2020 by the popular fantasy novelist Brandon Sanderson. The title of the presentation was “The Common Lies Writers Tell You,” but its real message was more general.
Sanderson starts (perhaps channeling a young Cal Newport) by pushing back on our common instinct to tell kids “you can do anything you want to” or “follow your dreams.” He argues that these aphorisms inflict a disservice on impressionable minds as they obfuscate the complexity, and frustration, and nuance involved in actually pursuing remarkable goals.
He retorts that the following claim is much more realistic:
“I can do hard things. Doing hard things has intrinsic value, and they will make me a better person, even if I end up failing.”
Sanderson then proceeds to details three tips, drawn from his experience as a successful novelist, to help structure any attempt to tackle hard things. I found his advice both interesting and refreshingly blunt, so I thought it might be useful to summarize his three tips here, annotated with some of my own thoughts…
Tip #1: Make Better Goals
After winning a story writing contest in high school, Sanderson decided to pursue the goal of becoming a professional novelist. He ended up writing thirteen novels in a row before he sold one. Looking back, he describes this as a bad goal as it was something he could not directly impact through his actions. A better focus would have been on completing a certain number of novels, each one better than the last, regardless of whether or not they sold or made him famous.
“Make goals that you have control over,” he explains.
Readers of Deep Work might recognize a similar theme in my discussion of the 4DX methodology, and its emphasis, in particular, on tracking lead instead of lag indicators. Your goal, for example, shouldn’t be to get your next academic paper accepted into a better journal, as it doesn’t specify a concrete action you can schedule and execute. A better approach might be to focus on banking 15 hours of deep work on your paper per week: this you can control, and it’s likely to influence your overall objective.
Tip #2: Learn How You Work
Sanderson notes that he dislikes the common narrative that claims “real writers have an overwhelming compulsion to write,” and that if you find yourself procrastinating, then you’re not a writer. He thinks this is nonsense.
“I love writing,” he says, “but [even] I have a hard time sitting down and writing.”
Sanderson argues you should instead experiment to figure out what combination of motivation, and circumstances, and accountability work best for your particular personality. He responds well to tracking a daily word count in a spreadsheet. Others, he notes, thrive under the social pressures of a writing group, while others lean on deadlines to induce work. The key is recognizing that the urge to avoid hard things is human, and should be expected. It’s part of the process.
A big idea from Digital Minimalism, which complements this tip well, is that significantly reducing the role of screens in your life will significantly reduce the friction you experience toward doing hard things. If you’ve trained your mind that at the slightest hint of boredom it will receive a shiny, dopamine-flavored treat in the form of a rapid cycle of swiping and scrolling through Twitter and TikTok, then good luck convincing yourself to sit down and tackle something meaningful but difficult.
Tip #3: Break It Down
Sanderson’s final piece of advice is to break large goals down into manageable pieces. He notes, for example, that the novel he’s currently writing is longer than the entire Hunger Games series combined. This is “a really big book,” he exclaims, before saying he can only tackle an endeavor of this size “word by word.”
He goes on to reveal that he wishes that he had been given a more detailed roadmap when he first set out to be a writer. The experienced novelists that he asked for advice would just tell him to “write.” Better advice, he noted, would have been to setup a practice regime, centered on writing a certain number of complete manuscripts, each of expanding size and ambition, all aimed at developing his chops to the point that he’d be ready to produce something sellable.
A related idea I talk about a lot on my podcast is the importance of creating accurate roadmaps toward these types of goals. Talk to people who have succeed before and have them walk you step-by-step through their story, allowing you to learn what really matters and what doesn’t. One of the biggest mistakes you can make when setting out to do something impressive is creating a story around what activities you want to be important, instead of what actually makes a difference.
8 thoughts on “Brandon Sanderson’s Advice for Doing Hard Things”
Great summary. I’ll have to listen to the full keynote.
This advice translates to writing much shorter content as well. I love writing, but even creating short articles is a form of exercise: a little painful in the moment, but ultimately gratifying. I don’t think it’s possible to will your way into a consistent writing practice. Without deadlines, processes, and clear goals, it’s easy to fall for any excuse not to write.
Thanks Carl for Correlating it with your books…helps for the reader who have gone through the material
I never leave comments nor subscribe to email lists but I’m doing both because this is a refreshingly simple summary with interesting elaboration on the subject. Great article. Sanderson is probably one of my favorite writers of all time so I’ll have to listen to this later.
“Others, he notes, thrive under the social pressures of a writing group, while others lean on deadlines to induce work.”
I’ve been diving lately into the idea regarding best work being often done under pressure or deadlines–the limits and pitfalls involved.
The keyword above is ‘thrive,’ which I find ultimately illusory in the matter, because the cycle kind of goes like this: work at high pressure, then drop back to work at low pressure, which then equates to low effectiveness, which then eventually necessitates the need for more high pressure. Lather, rinse, and repeat.
This ‘works,’ but is it really a sustainable way to apply oneself to their craft?
U Michigan professor Erin Cech explores another problem with “follow your passion” advice in her book, “The trouble with passion: how searching for fulfillment at work fosters inequality.” She summarizes many of the points in her book in the following article: https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/careersandeducation/the-danger-of-really-loving-your-job/ar-AAQCPoZ
Some of the issues Sanderson mentions also may be more prevalent in writing fiction. I started writing when I was eight. When I became an adult, I wanted to write full-time. Family both encouraged and discouraged me. In hindsight, they thought it was a fantasy, that once I got into the “real” world of work, I’d stop writing. I was also told no one makes money writing fiction (a pervasive myth) and that I would have to do it as a labor of love (a myth within my family about any side hustle).
No one talked to me about learning how to work or setting goals, or–and this is a big one–that I should seek out writers above my level so I could learn from them (and these days, this is actively discouraged by the very people who need the help). I had to stumble into that on my own, over many years.
For learning how you work, you need a huge bag of tricks because sometimes one will stop working. Or you may find that a commonly recommended one, like tracking word count on a spreadsheet, doesn’t work at all. This is me. Tracking word count is a fast way for me to shut down the writing entirely. Sprints and challenges can be an option, but this is going to vary from person to person.
Tim Urban (of the amazing Wait But Why) has his assistant sit with him everyday from 9-12 and make sure that he doesn’t do anything other than write during those hours. He’s hilarious and totally echos Brandon’s words that he loves writing, but his monkey brain will do it’s best to avoid writing if he doesn’t have a system in place to hold himself to it.
Interesting timing of the post, Brandon released an announcement on the 3rd of March that he has written 5 extra books on top of usual writing over the past 2 years, a testament to the value of deep work.