What’s Luck Got to Do with It?

This is a blog post that appeared on Huffington Post India earlier this week.  The original blog post is at http://www.huffingtonpost.in/radhika-swarup/whats-luck-got-to-do-with_1_b_7605686.html

When Napoleon was a young soldier, he visited a renowned palm reader to ask if he would ever become Emperor. The palm reader told him dismissively that he didn’t have a fate line.

Napoleon drew his sword and etched a deep line – and so a fate line – on his palm. He turned his bloodied hand to the palmist and asked, ‘How about now?’

His subsequent exploits are now the stuff of legend, and what is clear is that Napoleon wasn’t willing to compromise on his ambitions. I admire his attitude, even though I prefer a less gory way of making my way to my preferred destiny.

Determination and persistence pays off. I believe that with the right attitude, and with a reasonable understanding of my talents – I know I’m never going to become a singing superstar – I can succeed. This belief is what kept me going when I left my lucrative career in investment banking and turned to writing. I hadn’t studied English literature at university. I didn’t have a degree in creative writing. I hadn’t contributed to the university newspaper as a student. In short, I had to start learning my craft from scratch.

What I did have was a love for a certain style of writing. I knew my genre. I knew the themes that mattered to me and those I wanted to give voice to. I spent hours – months that turned into endless years – writing. Practising my craft. Tossing away reams of paper, starting the same story over and over again. And reading through as many books as I could get my hands on.

Slowly, I came to realise some of the flaws in my writing. My tendency to over-explain. I put it down to my being a bossy older sister, but I learnt, and still am learning to curb that instinct. My invariable bent for quiet stories. For the ordinary and the unremarkable, as I felt they mirrored real life most closely. I soon learnt these stories were unsaleable – often unreadable in those early iterations – and learnt to steer away from them. There is still a lot to learn, but any read through my cringe-worthy early writing assures me that I have since improved.

But all throughout my writing, I have always believed that any success or failure in landing a publishing contract would be mine. And that it would be talent and hard work that would take me there. Not luck, not contacts, but my blood, sweat and tears. The latter two especially; I wasn’t planning on a literal interpretation of Napoleon’s immortal gesture.

And when, on an early morning of this year, my agent emailed to tell me that she had found a publisher for my book, I felt it justified my effort. Of course I knew the publishing industry was recovering from a stultifying financial crisis, and that the upward climb of eBooks – and hence eBook retailers – had finally stabilised. The publishers were now happier to take a chance on a debut author, and so my timing was fortuitous, but I felt my unsuccessful submissions from years before had their worth. They allowed my agent to figure out the editors who were receptive to my work, and equally, they allowed me vitally useful feedback on the weaknesses in my writing.

Still, the outlook was bleak. Early in 2014, my father showed my horoscope to an astrologer and asked if I would ever be published. A natural question, given how unpromising things had been looking for so long. The astrologer pronounced that I would be published, but that the stars were inauspiciously positioned. Things would shift by September 2014, and I would then – and only then – get a contract.

I told my father I didn’t believe in astrology. That it would have to be my writing and not my stars that would get me published. September 2014 came and went. A major book fair was held in Frankfurt in October, and I half expected – despite my protests – to get a book deal. Nothing materialised, and though disappointed, I felt justified in rubbishing my father’s belief in the stars.

Then I landed my deal in January. Three short months after my inauspicious period was due to pass, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was me or my stars that had succeeded. Perhaps it was all luck after all. Perhaps it was finally meant to be.

But I have never believed in luck. Not in relying on it, in any case. That would have led to a passive attitude to my life. I wouldn’t then have kept on practising or chipping away at my flaws. I wouldn’t then have formed the links with the editors who liked my style of writing.

Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating book Outliers examines the factors that contribute to achievement. He mentions culture, environment, being in the right place at the right time – all of which point to the fate I take exception to. He then mentions his 10,000 hour rule, which represents the hours of practice a person put into their field of specialisation at an early stage. Programming computers for Bill Gates, practising the tabla for Zakir Hussain, or batting for Sachin Tendulkar.

And though I hesitate to offend any benign luck that’s looking my way, it is this, the practise – my 10,000 hours – that have helped me become a better writer. The writer who sent submissions a few years ago with her long, wordy, quiet stories wouldn’t and shouldn’t have been published. No matter how promising her stars were.

I may not have won my publishing contract this year had my stars remained inauspiciously aligned. But I do know that I have, in my way, been working towards fashioning my own fate line. With a pen, in my case, and not with Napoleon’s sword.