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How I went from a dumb skinny kid in Hawaii to a writer in Europe – and fulfilled my dreams without noticing
If there is one thing I have learned about life, it is this: What we think about constantly over many years, we become.
If someone asked me for some advice to give to a young man or woman seeking to achieve something in life, to do something great or original with they time they will be given – one of the few things I could say that I know is true is Rule 119:
What you think about constantly over many years, you will become.
This I can say is true, because I have experienced it myself.
Night driving to Don’t Stop Believin' in Hawaii
A few years ago, for no particular reason, I was thinking back to a time when I was in my early twenties, and a scene popped into my mind, full-blown:
I was driving the family car late at night down a long country road, radio blaring some big, melodramatic 80’s rock ballad like Don’t Stop Believin’, and I didn’t know whether I wanted to scream or cry.
I was studying at BYU Hawaii in Laie, on the North Shore, and I was driving back home on the H2.
Highway 2 cuts straight through Oahu, starting from the North Shore to Mililani in the middle, where my parents had been living for a few years. I was staying with them because I couldn't afford the dormitories on campus.
The H2 cuts through pineapple fields – endless pineapple fields. Pineapples grow in Hawaii’s red dirt. Full of iron oxide, it’s a fine red powder that the wind blows everywhere – in the windows, in your clothes, in your pockets, down the back of your neck. It's like a red dye. You have to wash it off at night.
And as the music thundered away, I was tormented by desperate doubts about my future, and a horrific feeling of dread overcame me and I knew it was never going to happen: I was never going to become a writer.
Like a kick in the teeth every week
I’d been trying to become a writer since I was maybe 13.
Every other week or so, I would send off a short story to some magazine somewhere – I even finished a novel – and maybe six months later I’d get a rejection letter. It was just a form letter, no personal note at all. They hadn’t even bothered to read more than the first page, I’m sure. They must have taken one look and knew I was just some kid.
But every afternoon I would run out to the mailbox hoping to find that acceptance letter, and if I found anything art all, it was a rejection letter. It was like a kick in the teeth every time.
It had been going on like that for years and I was beginning to see that it would never end. I would never reach my goal: To become a successful writer living in Europe. That's what I wanted to do.
And that night on the H2, torn between screaming and crying, I remember, as I neared Mililani, swearing to myself, stubbornly: I don't care if I don't succeed, I'm gonna keep doing it until I die.
Some 40 years later, for no apparent reason, that the scene that came to mind. And this time – for the first time – I realized I had become everything I was so afraid I would not become.
We live in one or two worlds – among many
It’s strange how in life, patterns develop – and the older you get, the more you see the points in time that are connected, like matching pairs, one point early in life connected to another point later on, like anchors in a timeline. I think everyone has those connected anchors that form a kind of line through your life, connecting the beginning and the end of a story.
But as I was progressing from the one anchor to the next, I didn't see what was happening – that I was becoming what I wanted to be. Each step I took, I didn't see it was taking me closer to my vision of being a writer in Europe, because the steps weren’t what I had imagined.
My vision of being a writer in Europe was very specific:
I write a great novel, as an unknown – it makes a huge slash, it’s a big bestseller, everyone loves it, it’s in all the bookstores, I’m invited to talk shows, I’m the toast of the glitzy literary parties in New York – people applaud when I walk into Elaine’s.
And there was Europe too – all the great writers go to Europe, I thought. I would sit on the bank of the Seine smoking cigarettes and drinking Absinthe and talk philosophy with the great thinkers and cool film directors of our time and flirt with beautiful starlets enamored by us intellectuals.
That was going to be me.
It didn't come that way at all.
How I achieved my dream
At Kailua High School, there was no creative writing class. I was on my own.
Then my father said: Sign up for the school newspaper.
I said, I don't want to write for a newspaper, I’m a novelist. That’s a whole different thing.
But he pushed me. If you want to write, you have to learn to write, he said.
So I grudgingly joined the school newspaper, then the college newspaper, and that not only what taught me how to write, it’s how I eventually became a novelist:
When I finally made it to Germany and got my Master’s degree in Munich, I realized I was not cut out for academia. I couldn’t stand the hours in a warm, dusty library all day meticulously comparing editions of medieval German or Latin texts for slight variations in spelling.
I was never going to be a professor of anything, and there I stood, without a marketable skill.
Except one: I knew how to write a good feature article.
So I sent off as many articles about Munich I could think up to as many newspapers I could find and I became a freelance journalist.
That’s how my first books ended up being nonfiction – I was an established journalist, so publishers trusted me to write non-fiction. And I was in Germany, so the books were in German, and so were the novels when I made the transition into fiction.
The little kid from Hawaii really had become everything he dreamed of being – I just didn’t see it, because it hadn’t happened the way I had envisioned. I was a professional writer – but not the star of literary parties in New York. I was living in Europe – but not in Paris.
In fact, for the longest time, right up the moment I recalled that night drive down the H2, I felt my life was a little bit of a failure.
But when I remembered that night, I knew why I had become what I wanted to be: Because I had thought about it constantly, day for day, year for year, over many years.
The power of positive (and negative) thinking
There’s a strain of thought in America that rises in popularity every once in a while, a strain of philosophy from the early 19th century sometimes called New Thought, but better known as the Power of Positive Thinking, after the famous book by Norman Vincent Peale. The idea has inspired many bestsellers over time – Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, for example, or, more recently, The Secret by Rhonda Byrne.
These books, and others, propagate that you can manipulate the universe into giving you what you want, just by thinking about it.
It has a good number of critics (though not as many critics as paying customers). The theory, the detractors say, is snake oil and magical thinking and its proponents are promising readers that they can get something for nothing, while in fact all they want to do is sell books.
There is probably an element of truth to that.
And yet, the general principle, I believe, is true.
It’s not because the universe somehow listens to our thoughts and will alter reality to conform to them. It’s because if you constantly think about one thing – or a small handful of things – you change how you perceive the world.
If you are constantly thinking about finding a brilliant new idea that no one has had before and turning it into a great business opportunity, and one day you get an invitation to a dinner party where you will sit next to a successful local entrepreneur, and on the same night you are asked to attend a lecture by a novelist about how he became a writer in Europe, you will probably go to the dinner party and not even think about that lecture. If you direct all your thoughts toward a single goal, you will naturally become aware of events, people, lessons and opportunities related to that goal; and you won’t notice so much all the great opportunities that come your way to learn about something else.
In my life, I’m sure I was often presented with opportunities for good business ideas or for contacts to potential mentors in fields like medicine or law or politics – I just didn’t see them.
Our father would take the family to the newest James Bond movie, and while my brothers and sisters were fascinated by the stunts, the special effects, the gadgets, the martinis and tuxedos, the personal style of manhood that James Bond presented – I would sit there wondering, How does this story work? What makes James Bond so attractive as a hero? Why is this scene here and not fifteen minutes earlier or later? We all know James Bond is going to win in the end – why are we still glued to the screen?
Kailua High School offered a number of languages, including Japanese and German. But my goal was to go Europe, preferably Paris, so I ignored the opportunity to learn Japanese and latched onto the opportunity to learn German instead, a language I had no attraction to whatsoever, but at least it was spoken in a European country. That led, via many twists and turns, to me writing books in German.
It’s as if the world is divided into many smaller worlds – worlds of law, medicine, politics, writing, etc., countless little worlds that have their own laws and customs, and you choose, without doing it consciously, which world you're going to live in. Once you make that choice, you become more and more of that world all around you until soon you are living in it.
It must work the other way around, too.
If you’re constantly thinking negative thoughts – about what a loser you are, or what a victim, how life hates you, how you never get an even break, how the world is divided into oppressors and the oppressed – you will start seeing proof of your beliefs everywhere, and you will drift slowly but surely into that world until you truly are a victim, because you have trained yourself to understand that world and to ignore the other worlds around you.
I truly believe this principle is true. So much so, that I included it in my rules – one of the few rules of my own that are in my book, The George Washington Rulebook of Achievement.
It is Rule Number 119:
Know this: What you think about constantly, over many years, you will become.