The Big Kill/Big Hit Misconception

I know an investor who’s always looking for that one stock that will make him at least a millionaire. It’s never happened, at least not so far as I’ve been able to tell, and he’s lost plenty seeking out those kinds of stocks. People shake their heads when they hear stories like that, but what they so often fail to realize is that our entire society is infected with that same disease, just in varying forms.

All too many people praise and admire those who “hit it big,” whether it’s a chart-topping song, the most home runs in a baseball season, or what team wins the national collegiate football championship or the Super Bowl.

But one of the problems with the big hit is that very few of them last. In writing, there are literally a handful of what the trade calls “evergreens.” According to Ranker, there are a hundred books that have sold more than ten million copies, and that’s over several centuries, although the majority of those have been sold in the last 150 years. Put in other terms, on average less than one book a year sells that way. And last year in the United States alone, over a million separate book titles were published, although two-thirds of those were either self-published or print-on-demand titles. So, if you want to be successful as an author, the odds favor those who can produce good or excellent books consistently over those who strive for the one “big” book, especially authors who labor for years over a single book. For every J.K. Rowling or J.R.R. Tolkien, there are tens of thousands of authors who make at best a few thousand dollars a year, and usually a lot less.

Who’s a better voice professor – the one who teaches one opera star/Metropolitan Opera winner in his/her career and few others, or the one who turns scores of talented but overlooked students into solid professional teachers and performers but never has a big name performer?

Who’s the better CEO – the one with the headlines who’s gone in five years or the one whom no one has ever heard of who leads a firm successfully for a decade or more?

I know a lobbyist/consultant who’s accomplished quite a great deal for his clients over the past thirty plus years and who managed to get enacted a clause in legislation that radically changed environmental and other regulatory processes in favor of his clients. His name isn’t a household word, unlike scores of other lobbyists and consultants who’ve made the headlines and flamed out or gone to jail, but he’s lived well for a long time on moderate and consistent success.

Now, I’d be the first to admit that there a number of professionals in many fields that have had “big hits,” but they did so on the basis of consistency, not one-shot efforts. Babe Ruth held the major league record for most home runs for years, but he also, even today, has the third most home runs ever, as well as a career batting average of .342 over 22 years. The two who have more home runs than Ruth both played at a high level for 22-23 years as well. The man who took the record from him, Roger Maris, never had another season close to that season and left baseball after 11 years with a .260 batting average.

Yet all too often people think about the “big year” or the big record, rather than the consistency that’s often [but not always] behind it.

The Delegation Myth

There’s a general myth about delegation to the effect that successful people can delegate and those less successful can’t. Like all myths, it has a small grain of truth behind it, but I’ve discovered over the years that the myth serves as a justification for those with resources and power and all too often belittles those with insufficient resources and power.

Once upon a time, I was a legislative director for a Congressman. I worked ten to twelve hour days and took work home on weekends. Why? Because I had a wife and four children and needed that job… and because, at that time, no one else was hiring someone with my skills. I couldn’t delegate the work because everyone else in the office was working nearly as hard… and because Congressional staff budgets are fixed, there was no money to hire anyone else. So we were among the first on the Hill to develop “computerized” correspondence answering systems using electronic typewriters with limited memories [remember, this was 45 years ago]. Getting seemingly personalized responses, however, just encouraged more constituents to write the Congressman. Likewise, other innovations just had a similar result. So, in the end, we all ended up working the same long hours, except we were accomplishing more [and, believe me, all politicians want more].

I could list a range of occupations and professionals in other fields whom I know and who were or are relatively successful, but never made it truly big-time, and frankly, the reason was that they chose not to delegate. Were they wrong? It all depends on viewpoint. Two of them were homebuilding contractors, and they chose not to delegate that much because they weren’t satisfied with what delegation did to the quality of their building. I also knew an attorney who kept his firm small for the same reasons.

In some fields, delegation is a chancy proposition, especially with non-profit or volunteer organizations with limited resources. That’s because because doing anything right and on time takes effort, expertise, and dedication, and if the person doing the delegating doesn’t have a certain degree of control over those to whom work is delegated, the odds are something won’t get done… or done right.

And when the person in charge is the one held responsible, the question is often a choice between spending long hours doing it themselves so that they’re sure it’s done right, or spending less time knowing that the results won’t be as good. Sometimes, it doesn’t make a difference, but when the would-be delegator is publicly and financially responsible for the project, and there aren’t resources to delegate properly, sometimes they just can’t risk delegating… and they’re called “workaholics” or control freaks. Most of the time they’re neither. They’re just exercising self-preservation… and sooner or later, a good many of them will leave that position, and their superiors will wonder why… or come up with the rationalization that the person who left “just couldn’t delegate.”

Who Got You There?

The other day, I was reading an author’s afterword to a book, the kind where the author thanks editors and readers, and family, acquaintances, all of whom made the book possible in the author’s eyes, and something struck me. Rather what hit me was who was NOT thanked, and who seldom is. What about the teacher or the person who turned the author on to reading or writing… or the professor who really helped with developing the author’s ability with words, the early encouragers and mentors?

In my own instance, I know exactly who those people are, and I’ve thanked them repeatedly over the years. My mother was the one who got me interested in science fiction. The late Walter Rosenberry was my high school English teacher who both encouraged my writing and critiqued it unmercifully. Clay Hunt did the same at the college level… and both did so years before I published fiction professionally. That doesn’t mean that later editors didn’t help, because they did, but my basic style and ability to handle words and ideas was largely established long before any editors ever saw a word of my work.

On a more global level, I see the tendency of professionals in a wide range of fields to offer profuse thanks to their “last” instructor or mentor, while ignoring all the others who actually did most of the work. In professional classical singing, singers usually list some distinguished professor or noted singer as being of great help, but seldom mention earlier professors or teachers who gave them a strong basic technique and actually did most of the work in shaping their voice and getting them to a point where the “last” instructor could polish them into professionals.

To be fair, sometimes that “last” instructor does do a great deal of work, but from what I’ve observed, most “last” instructors build on what that budding professional has already learned… and they usually get all the credit.

The same tendency also exists among professional athletes, too many of whom seem to think that they did it all themselves or that a collegiate coach made them the professional they became.

In a similar vein, I’ve also noticed that professors, mentors, and teachers are often publicly recognized in direct relation to how much they praise and encourage students, rather than on how much those professors, mentors, and teachers actually improve their students.

So here’s to the teachers and mentors who have always done the bulk of the work, usually with less pay, less recognition, and fewer resources.

This Labeled World

When I first read what is now termed speculative fiction, it was known as science fiction. Then sometime in the late 1960s, with the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, fantasy emerged as a separate sub-genre and grew over the next few decades to outsell science fiction, and the field became F&SF. Now, it’s speculative fiction with so many subgenres I doubt I could name them all – hard science fiction, social/soft SF, alternate world/counterfactual SF, media tie-in SF, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, horror fantasy[as opposed to “straight” horror, which has become its own genre], and the list goes on.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I’m one of the few remaining writers who can and does publish a range of work, from “hard” SF and military SF all the way through alternate world SF to fantasy, all of which are published under my own name. From what I can tell, the majority of up-and-coming writers are either encouraged or required to use a different name when they write in a different genre. My use of the same name for whatever I write doesn’t seem to confuse my readers. Some like the fantasy, some the SF, and some like both. Some even like one fantasy series rather than another.

But the marketing types apparently are getting the upper hand. Heaven forbid that Samantha Smith, who writes urban fantasy, should publish hard SF. So she needs a totally different name. “S.C. Smith” won’t even do. Nor can Steve Smith, who wrote thrillers, publish social SF under his first name.

This sort of labeling isn’t restricted to speculative fiction, either. Labels and acronyms proliferate everywhere, and they change all the time. “Work-study experience”: is now “experiential learning.” “External diseconomies” became “negative externalities,” which is actually less accurate. But who cares about accuracy? If you need to reinvigorate an older practice, just jazz it up with a new name.

Nor do names necessary mean anything. What exactly is the “optimal learning interface?” Is there any meaningful difference between “individualized instruction” and “differentiated instruction?” In business, what exactly is “thought leadership?” How can you have leadership without thought? Or “laser focused?” That strikes me as so tightly focused that, the words of a much older maxim, you can’t see the forest for the trees. Which, to me, is the real problem with buzzwords and labeling everything.

Not that the marketing types care in the slightest. Just make them think it’s the new and improved version of whatever.

Why Is It …

That telemarketer after telemarketer can get my cellphone number, but I can’t get the cellphone numbers of acquaintances and friends who’ve dropped their landlines without physically meeting them or emailing them [which presents me with a problem in trying to reconnect with people who’ve moved out of state and who just assume that everyone knows where they’ve gone]?

That the apparently non-functioning air-conditioning system/furnace/ plumbing works as soon as the repairman arrives to fix it?

That so many people confuse “newness” with excellence?

That grown children, despite living in different states and in four different time zones, either don’t call on holidays, or those that do call all call in the same twenty minute stretch, usually just before we’re about to sit down for dinner?

That every piece of equipment or furniture that needs to be assembled always seems to have directions that omit or misdescribe one key step, thus requiring a certain amount of trial and error and/or backtracking and reassembly?

That the time-frame for planned obsolescence of software and computer equipment and peripherals gets shorter every year?

That stores always run out of the shaving cream that I use and overstock every other kind? [And ditto for several other products!]

That when shirt manufacturers have sales, they’re already out of my size in the shirts I prefer, even though very few men wear the colors of shirts that I wear for appearances?

That orange, avocado green, dull dark red, harvest orange, and deep brown periodically re-emerge as the “new” home décor colors? [Despite the fact that they’re then instantly old and dated.]

That professionals who demand solid work and excellence are so often marginalized as being old fogeys or old school dinosaurs?

That whenever my wife finds products that she really likes, half of them are discontinued within a year or two?

That so many first-published novelists are described as “genuinely new,” “an important new voice,” “astonishing first novel,” and the like?

That so many people think that a text message is an adequate substitute for either a voice conversation or sitting down and talking to someone in person?