During John Steinbeck’s long career as a writer, he created some of the most beloved and acclaimed works in literature including such masterpieces as Of Mice and Men, East of Eden and The Pearl.
I’ve always been fascinated by his work so last year I set a goal to read every book published under his name – 27 in total. I wanted to see if I could glean some understanding into what made him so prolific and memorable.
Well, I finished reading every book and I feel like I gained an insight into how he approached his work. In one of his writing journals, he made a remarkable statement about his writing that I feel we could all learn from:
“…no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity.”
What makes this passage so incredible is that the book he was writing at the time, which he described as “mediocre”, was The Grapes of Wrath, often considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written.
When the book was released, it became an instant sensation, going on to sell 14 million copies. It’s the book that won him the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Yet here in this excerpt, he describes his writing in it as mediocre.
Feel the Doubt and Just Keep Going
But the big takeaway from this quote isn’t that Steinbeck experienced doubt about his work. The key phrase in this quote is that he said he was “pushing against [his lack of ability] all the time.”
No matter how much he criticized his own work, he kept pushing forward.
No matter how much doubt he had about his abilities, he kept pushing against it to keep going.
This attitude is what separates the successful from the unsuccessful. Those who do the greatest work learn to push against their own self-doubts and fears. They don’t try NOT to feel them, they just keep moving forward despite all those feelings.
It’s important to learn to push against your feelings of self-doubt and fear because, as strange as it might seem, those feelings might be signs that you’re actually more capable than you realize.
When faced with a difficult task or goal, most people downplay their strengths and abilities. In psychology, it’s called the “Dunning-Kruger effect”.
In one research study into the effect, a group of students were asked to rate their ability to understand and interpret humor, grammar and logic. Then they were asked to take a test on those subjects.
The ones who scored best consistently underestimated their abilities and expressed the biggest doubt about their chances of success. This study has been repeated on a multitude of skills and abilities with the same results – those who doubted themselves the most, often did best.
It’s a paradox. Rather than making you more confident about your skills and abilities, being good at something might actually give you more fear and doubt. This is especially true when you’re pushing into new areas you haven’t tried yet.
And often, those doubts and fears don’t go away.
Take a look at Garth Brooks.
He’s one of the most successful recording artists of the twentieth century. He’s sold more than 190 million records, more than any other solo artist (except Elvis) and consistently sells out huge concert venues.
Yet, no matter how successful or beloved he becomes, he still gets incredibly nervous and scared before every performance. Here’s what he said about it in an interview taken just over a year ago:
“I still get nervous. I hope there’s never a show where I don’t, but it’s more – the word now becomes ‘anxious’…The first night in Chicago, I looked over at [Trisha] Yearwood, and I said, ‘Are you scared?’ She said, ‘I’m scared to death.’ I said, ‘Me too.’”
He gets scared to death before every performance. Just like Steinbeck, he pushes against his doubts and fears all the time, but keeps moving forward.
These stories belie our general expectation about how things are supposed to go.
We think that more we push ourselves, the more confident we’ll get.
We think that fear and anxiety will decrease the more successful we become.
However this isn’t always true. Many of us are never going to fully overcome our feelings of self-doubt and fear. Facing those feelings every time is a part of the process.
Doing What You’re Capable of Doing
“Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” – Bruce Lee
Fortunately fear never prevents Garth Brooks from appearing on stage; and doubt didn’t stop Steinbeck from writing the Great American Novel.
They just faced up to the truth: the path to greatness doesn’t always get easier – you just get stronger.
Whenever you start to feel fear and doubt, just remember that some of the most successful people on the planet feel the exact same way.
Start using fear and doubt to push yourself to do even more.
Start seeing it as a sign that you’re more capable than you realize rather than as a sign of what you can’t do.
The minute you stop underestimating your abilities, the sooner you can start doing all those things you’re capable of doing. Then you’ll be one step closer to something Henry Ford once said:
“If we did all the things we were capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.”