Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I am one year old today (as a published author)

My first book Search Inside Yourself was published exactly one year ago on Tuesday, 24 April 2012.  It has been an amazing ride.

In 2010, as the Search Inside Yourself program in Google started becoming increasingly successful, I felt the need to write down the things I teach in class to help with training of new instructors.  As I was writing down the notes, it occurred to me that I was actually writing a book.  So I asked Google for 13 weeks of unpaid leave to write the book.  My manager Karen May asked me whether it was realistic to expect that I could write an entire book in 13 weeks, and I said to her, "I don't know, but I know one way to find out."  It turns out Karen was right, I was not able to write the book in 13 weeks.  It took me 14 weeks.

After I wrote the book, I asked my seriously talented friend Colin Goh, an award-winning cartoonist, filmmaker and former lawyer (yeah, I know, some ridiculously high percentage of my friends are world-class over-achievers) if he was willing to do cartoons for my book.  This is a serious, important book about wisdom, and I cannot imagine writing a serious, important book about wisdom without cartoons.  Duh.  In a moment of weakness, Colin said yes.  He would later tell his friends that this project re-ignited his passion for comics, which later led him and Yen Yen to create Dim Sum Warriors.  So if and when Dim Sum Warriors becomes a huge hit, I hereby lay claim to be its equivalent of John the Baptist.

And a book was born.  Well, almost.  We had a complete script with toons, all it had to do was to go through the publishing process, which I naively thought would take maybe 3-6 months, max.  I later learned that from the time a completed script reaches the publisher to the time your book hits bookstore shelves is 12 to 18 months.  Ouch.


Anyway, looking back on the journey, here are the biggest highlights:

- The #1 highlight for me was the simultaneously humbling and awe-inspiring experience of witnessing the sheer number of my heroes who stepped up in support of my work.  Danny Goleman and Jon Kabat-Zinn BOTH agreed to write forewords.  The Dalai Lama, President Carter, President Nathan and Eric Schmidt endorsed the book (I later learned that even the Dalai Lama actually read the book himself!).  I had a glimpse of how rare it is for a former President to endorse a book when I had a debate with my publisher on whether the job title of "President of the United States" should be written with a capital 'p'.  My publisher had to dig really hard to find a precedence for the presidents.  Verdict: Proper English dictates the use of the small 'p', and proper English won that round.   Proper English sucks.

- I set such ridiculously stringent hiring critiera for my literary agent that I expected not to hire anyone because I didn't even think that such a person existed.  I found her, Stephanie Tade, in 2 weeks.  She even took the Bodhisattva Vows.  How many successful literary agents in the world do you know took Bodhisattva Vows?  Probably one, and I found her in 2 weeks.  I have a dream editor, Gideon Weil.  He is ultrasmart, has an impeccable track record (edited for Deepak Chopra and Thich Nhat Hanh etc), he is passionate about the book, and we had not had a single problem working together.  I feel literally lucky, but not in a literal sense.

- I met with the good folks from HarperOne on a Wednesday.  They gave me a "preemptive offer" on Thursday.  We came to a verbal agreement on Friday.  Done.  Stephanie told me it is very rare for an unknown first-time author to land a compelling preemptive book deal in 3 days.  I told her I had no idea.

-Foreign publishing rights were sold to publishers in 13 languages even before the English edition was published.  Gideon told me it is almost unheard of for an unknown first-time author.  I like to think my good looks transcend cultural boundaries.

Search Inside Yourself was a New York Times bestseller the first week it was published.  It also landed on bestsellers lists in Singapore, South Korea and Portugal.  I lost count of the number of media interviews I did (like 50?).  I was invited to speak at the White House.  President Carter had me speak at an event he was hosting and gave my family hugs.  Wow.

The whole thing blows my mind.


Looking back on my first year as an author, here my biggest surprises:

1. The numbers in the publishing industry are small.

Having grown up in Google where we think of everything in units of 1 million or 1 billion, I had naively expected to sell maybe 1 million copies of my book (because that is the smallest unit I'm used to thinking in) and I thought that at a million copies, it would be considered merely a moderate success.   I was in for a shock.  The first hint of my naivete was when Search Inside Yourself was featured on the FRONT PAGE of the Sunday Business section of the New York Times, and my editor Gideon got all excited because he expected that coverage to sell maybe one or two thousand more copies.  I was like, really?  Two thousand?  For front page coverage on the New York Times?  Really?  He was right.  I also learned that selling a few thousand copies in a week is enough to get your book on the New York Times Bestsellers List.

I later learned from Colin and others that fewer than 20% of all books sell more than 5000 copies in their entire lifetimes, and most sell fewer than 3000 copies.  Wow, numbers so tiny they are almost cute.

2. The numbers are also imprecise.

Again, having grown up in Google, I expected to be able to easily find out exactly how many books I sold at which location to the minute.  Ha!  In reality, I get a statement once every 6 months with an estimate of sales.  It's an estimate because the publisher only knows how many books they shipped to the booksellers, and they guesstimate how many will eventually get returned.

So all I know is I sold roughly 35,000 copies in the US in the first year, and maybe a comparable number outside the US (15,000 copies in South Korea alone, I love the Koreans).  Search Inside Yourself was the #1 bestseller in Singapore and I don't even know how many copies were sold there (I asked, but received conflicting numbers).

3. Being a bestselling author changes your life.

I had no idea my life would change.   I may be the only person in the world surprised by this.  When I became a bestselling author, I expected people to start ignoring me.  Why?  Because they can now access what I teach by reading my book, so they have no more need to talk to me, right?  I know you are all laughing at me right now, I'll pretend you're laughing with me.

At first, I didn't really understand why I was getting so much more attention.  And my wife wisely explained to me, "Because you are now famous and people want to talk to famous people.  You of all people should understand that."  Touche.

4. There is such a thing as a success crisis

It takes a very long time to become an overnight success.  But when you do become an overnight success, it is easy to suffer from something called a success crisis.  Two symptoms of a success crisis are: constantly feeling overwhelmed, and constantly feeling inadequate.

When you succeed in a publicly visible way, people ask for your attention all the time.  Dear old friends want to reconnect.  You make new friends left and right.  People want to tell you that you changed their lives.  People send you their resumes, ask you to endorse their books, speak at their events, appear on their shows, be interviewed by their newspapers.  They want to show you the new new thing they are inventing that will change the world, they need advice about life from you, they hope to drink tea with you, they ask you to please talk to their adult children suffering from some major life issues. 

Very soon, your inbox constantly contains hundreds of unread emails, your next open lunch spot is weeks away, and your old friends have to come to your public talks just to get a minute of face time with you.  It gets a little overwhelming.  Of course, when I say a little, I mean a lot.

The dominant feeling that arises from that is feeling inadequate all the time.  At any one time, there are always 10 important things you need to attend to, so any one thing you choose to attend to means 9 important things you are choosing not to attend to at the time.  Whoever you choose to serve, there are many others you have to choose to disappoint.  Sometimes, really important things get dropped.  You forget to file your purchasing order before the closing deadline, you forget to schedule a teacher for the class you need to be substituted for until the day before class, etc etc.  And because the number of people or things not getting the attention they deserve at any one time always far exceeds those that do, you feel inadequate all the time.

The sense of failure becomes a constant companion, and that constant companion smells like he hasn't showered since the 1970s.

Happily, I'm supposed to be an expert on Search Inside Yourself (Marc Lesser says it is almost as if I wrote the book on the topic), so I have been equipped with all the tools to handle challenges like these.  I know how to calm my mind on demand, I know the cognitive strategies for letting go, and all.  So these challenges haven't affected the calmness and happiness at the core of my being.  Still, it is fascinating for me to witness how they arise in my mind.

I am one today.  I am happy.

I want to close this reflection with a word of gratitude.  You might think that becoming a successful author is a solitary achievement.  Noooooooo....  Like everything else, the success of an author is the result of the hard work of very many people:  the illustrator, the agent, the editors, the sales and marketing folks, the people who designed the cover and layout, the lady who operates the printing machine, the guy who drives the delivery truck, etc etc.  Nobody succeeds on his own.  Everybody who succeeds does so on the effort of other people.  Thank you, my friends.  Thank all of you for all that you do, and for being my friends.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Proust Questionnaire: Chade-Meng Tan

My answer to the Proust Questionnaire.

What is your present state of mind?
I am happy.  I am at peace.  I am overwhelmed by my to-do list.

What is your idea of happiness?
A deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind.  An optimal state of being built upon a profoundly peaceful mind and loving heart.  And chocolate.

What is your greatest fear?
Death.  My own, especially.

Which living person do you most admire?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  He gives me hugs.

What is your greatest extravagance?
Permitting myself to be a glutton.  Fortunately, while gluttony is my favorite sin, vanity is my second favorite sin, and they cancel each other out.  My next greatest extravagance is permitting myself to be lazy, but happily, laziness is not a sin.  Oh, it is?  D’oh!

What words or phrases do you most overuse?

What is your most marked characteristic?
I am paradoxical.  Examples:  I strive hard to be lazy.  I am a famous unknown.  I’m so rich I’m working for food.  I desire to not want.  Often, I am not here, where I am.  I am an engineer who wrote a bestseller on emotional intelligence.  I’m a deep meditator who plays Grand Theft Auto.

What is the trait you most dislike in others?

What natural gift would you most like to possess?
Natural perfection in wisdom and compassion.  Either that or stunning good looks.

How would you like to die?
Very young, and very very late.

Where would you like to live?
In a paradise with great Chinese food.  Sadly, Santa Barbara only satisfies one of the two criteria.  No, seriously, I love living in the Bay Area.  I can live here for the rest of my (very long) life.

If you died and came back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
Either a saint, or a playboy, or a saintly playboy.

What is your favorite journey?
The inner journey towards oneness with everything.  Much easier than going on a long road trip with young children.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Maybe someday I will be considered a historical figure, and if that happens, the historical figure I most identify with will be me.

Who are your heroes in real life?
Every person of great wisdom and compassion who uses those qualities for the benefit of all sentient beings is a hero of mine.  There are many of them amongst us.  I see great people.  Walking around like regular people.  They don’t know they’re great.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction or history?
Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha.  Buddhas kick ass, but not usually in a literal sense.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I learned to calm my mind, to love people, and to be happy.  Every other achievement in my life is merely a bonus.  And, oh, I was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006.

What is your motto?
Life is too important to be taken seriously.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

An easy case of the hardcover

Usually, about a year after a book is published in hardcover, the paperback edition is released.  My book Search Inside Yourself has been out almost a year, and still there is no word of an upcoming paperback edition.  Why?  Is there a global conspiracy preventing its release?

No, there isn't.  Well, there is probably a global conspiracy somewhere (hey, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you), but that's not why the paperback is delayed.  Instead, the reason for the delay is continued strong sales.  My publishers tell me the book is still selling so well that they decided to keep it in hardcover a little longer.  The new release date for the paperback is 5 Nov 2013.  They assure me that very few books continue to sell so well that they'd still be published in hardcover after a year, so it's all good. 

Besides, hardcover books make better paperweights and table legs.

Jokes aside, the only reason the book is still selling so well is because of you, my readers.  As usual, I could never have done this without you.  Thank you!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Don't promote Buddhism, instead, serve all people

The Venerable Pomnyun Sunim
(Image from:
During my trip to Korea in March 2013, I was invited to a private audience with the Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, whom I was told is the most famous and respected Zen monk in Korea and a globally-noted humanitarian leader.  I really enjoyed meeting him.  He radiates an abundance of wisdom, compassion, and joy.  I hear many people say they greatly admire him, and it is easy for me to see why.

The most memorable part of our conversation was when Venerable Pomnyun, knowing I'm a practicing Buddhist, wisely reminds me not to promote Buddhism, but instead serve the welfare of all people.  He puts it this way, "Becoming a Buddhist doesn't necessarily make you a better person, for example, domestic violence and divorce rates are no lower for Buddhists than the general public."  I pointed to him and said, "True, but the divorce rate for celibate Buddhist monks is zero."

I think it is pretty remarkable for a highly prominent Buddhist monk to tell a well-known lay Buddhist, in private, not to promote Buddhism, but instead focus on serving everyone.  My non-Buddhist friends were stunned when they heard this, but this attitude is not new in Buddhism.  In fact, the example was set by the Buddha himself.  This is the story of how Upali became a disciple of the Buddha:

Upali was one of the chief followers of the Jain master, Mahavira. Because of his intelligence, Upali often appeared in public debates on behalf of the Jains.

There was one incident where Upali had a debate with the Buddha. At the end of the debate, Upali was so impressed with the Buddha's teachings that he asked to be the Enlightened One's follower. "Venerable Sir, please allow me to be your follower".

To that, the Buddha answered, "Upali, you are at the height of your emotions. Go home and reconsider it carefully before you ask me again."

Upali was extremely impressed.  He said, "If it was any other guru, he would parade a banner saying, 'Mahavira's chief lay-disciple has become my follower.'  But you, Venerable Sir, you asked me to go home and reconsider. Now, I want to be your follower even more. I will not stand up until you accept me."

Finally, the Buddha agreed to accept Upali, under one condition, "Upali, as a Jain, you have always given alms to Jain monks. After you become my follower, you will CONTINUE to give alms to Jain monks. This is my condition."

Upali agreed to this condition. He became a disciple of the Buddha.

Two grinning Buddhists, obviously up to no good.

Friday, April 5, 2013