Wednesday, April 24, 2013
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.
at 4:31 PM