Geetanjali Mukherjee

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Self-Reinforcing Loop of Success

When I was a student in school, I mostly got good grades, sometimes even winning prizes. And yet, partly due to difficult circumstances at home and my subsequent low self-esteem, and partly due to discouraging teachers, I was never confident of my ability to study for and pass an exam. I studied yes, but always with a feeling of imminent fear, that the exam would require abilities I didn’t possess. And this was barely fifth or sixth grade, where we weren’t exactly attempting very difficult topics.

In ninth grade, I found myself in a similar, but far worse predicament. I started to get near-failing grades in certain subjects. I remember vividly, taking a physics exam, where I didn’t even understand most of the questions, let alone have any clue about the answers, and I remember frantically putting down anything at all that I remembered from the textbook, hoping I would get one mark for trying. My exam sheets were basically large chunks of empty space, that I left hoping inspiration would strike at the last minute (which of course it didn’t. It was one of those subjects where you either knew what you were doing or didn’t, you couldn’t exactly make stuff up!)
I hated that feeling - of not knowing what I was doing. But it was an inevitable consequence of not taking the time to master the material.
I did eventually do that, and the next year, I scored the highest in my year at the end-of-year board exams, India’s equivalent of the O-levels. That included scoring the highest in science as well.
I'm not saying it was easy, it wasn’t. I had to take a few lessons in Physics from a tutor, and maths lessons, and the rest of the time, study my tail off. But that experience - going from almost failing, to getting top scores - changed me. Experiencing that level of success gave me confidence in my ability to tackle subjects that I initially found hard. I started thinking of myself as someone who was intelligent, and could handle advanced schoolwork. (Yes, before that I didn’t think of myself as particularly intelligent, for whatever reason.)
My academic success didn’t only change how I saw myself. My parents suddenly had different hopes for me - even thinking I should study abroad - something that had never before been discussed. My teachers in school, some of whom didn’t even acknowledge my presence before, started to notice me much more, and as a result sent me to various competitions to represent the school. Even the ‘cool kids’ were more inclined to include me in conversations, and I received invitations to their ‘coveted’ parties.
The repercussions didn’t stop there. When I was applying to colleges, I didn’t have my final board exam results. My 10th grade results however, were enough to get me conditional offers from top UK universities.
Why am I telling this story? Because although we know this subconsciously, success often creates a self-reinforcing loop, leading to more opportunities, more belief in yourself, and surprise, surprise, even more success.
I was reminded of this recently. The past few years I have been trying to turn my writing into a career, and part of was that thinking of myself as a writer, complete more projects, and improve my skills. Initially, overwhelmed by the distance I thought I still had to go, and how little I had actually accomplished, I was unable to actually tell anyone that I was a writer, or that I even wrote. And sometimes to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t even writing all that much.
Sure, I thought about my writing, and made lists of what I would and should write, and read tons of books on writing. But the piles of half-written stuff didn’t magically transform into completed manuscripts. Mainly because every time I sat down to write I had a hundred doubts - about my ability to complete that manuscript, and my ability in general to write. I didn’t think I was good enough.
Then late last year I discovered self-publishing - i.e. the recent revolution in the self-pub world. I had self-published a book a few years ago - one which I had written in my late teens, and shopped around to publishers in India. The book was rejected, (well summarily ignored is closer to the truth), but one publisher commissioned me to write something else that they published. I thought self-publishing was better than leaving it to languish in my hard drive, but not only did I not sell a single copy, the whole process made me even more depressed about my career as a writer.

Enter 2013 and my discovery of Smashwords. I decided I had nothing to lose by publishing my book with them - and managed, just barely, to navigate the technical landmines, and upload my book. I also came across a few blogs about self-publishing - and discovered the world of indies (authors who publish independently) out there, who were doing amazing stuff. I started to feel slightly excited about writing again, and thought that maybe I could realistically publish a few more books. Even if no one ended up buying them, I would have gotten further than where I was now.
Then I discovered Amazon KDP (yes I have been living under a rock so far). And I actually managed to not only sell a few books with zero marketing, my book hit the top 10 in its genre in a few countries (UK, Canada, Japan). This already exceeded my expectations, and I was over the moon.
This encouraged me to polish up an old manuscript and publish that too. More than that, it gave me the push I needed to start writing my projects, instead of making half-hearted excuses. I still find it difficult to tell people I write, but it’s getting easier, especially when I actually write regularly.
In this case, the success of finding a platform for publishing my work and making a few sales, set off a self-reinforcing effect of writing more, which will hopefully lead to more published work.
You might be thinking - that’s all very well, but you need an initial success to spark the self-reinforcing loop. Well, yes that’s true. But ‘success’ can be defined loosely. In the first example, the success was more mainstream - doing well in an exam. But in the second case, success is defined simply by my finding a platform to showcase my work. You can define success for yourself - sometimes even the smallest positive strides can make all the difference.

If you make videos, you can upload them on Youtube. If you create apps, you can make a prototype and sell it on the Apple store. If you take photographs, you could join a site like Shutterstock to sell your images. The point is there are many more options now than before to showcase our work - and sometimes just a little positive encouragement can be the spark that sets your creativity alight.
So ask yourself this question: how can you set off this self-reinforcing loop for yourself?  
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