In 1985, Neil Gaiman was a twenty-five-year-old writer with a smattering of fantasy stories, magazine articles, and two books to his name. They weren’t glaring successes. One book was a collection of quotes. The other, a biography of the pop group Duran Duran, a work that he later admitted he wrote solely for the money and referred to as his “dark secret.” It was against this backdrop that he came away with one of his greatest ideas.
Early in his career, he and his budding family lived across the street from a small country graveyard. It also happened to be the only safe place for his two-year-old son to ride his tricycle. “I remember looking at him one day and going ‘You look so comfortable here’… Wouldn’t it be interesting to do a story about a kid who gets lost in a graveyard and gets brought up by dead people…. It would be kind of like The Jungle Book, only it would be in a graveyard.”
Gaiman believed he had struck gold. He’d experienced one of those magical aha moments, where two seemingly disparate ideas collide to form something new and special. He rushed to his office and began writing, cranking out the first chapter of what would become known as The Graveyard Book. It would go on to sell over a million copies and give Gaiman the distinction of writing the only book to win both the Carnegie Medal and the Newbery Medal awarded to the best children’s book in the UK and the US. But Gaiman didn’t finish or publish the book in 1985, or 1986, or even 1995. The Graveyard Book came out in 2008.
When Gaiman completed the first chapter in 1985, he paused, read it, and reflected. “The idea is so much better than I am a writer. I’m going to put this off,” he recollected.
Here he was, a writer with few credentials, and he had one of those rare moments of clarity where a brilliant idea pops into his mind. An idea that could change his life and career. And yet Gaiman put it off. Not out of laziness or fear, but because he knew he wasn’t ready. He couldn’t do the work justice. Every few years, he’d return to the idea and ask if he was ready. He didn’t answer yes until nearly twenty years later, when his writing chops were up to the task.
The easy choice would have been to press forward with the brilliant idea, even if the writing wasn’t up to standard. It still would have done well, netted him a book contract, and maybe even launched his writing career. But Gaiman chose a different route. He waited. He knew that his skill didn’t yet match the demands of the task. He was able to give an honest assessment of self and situation. In writing and researching my new book, Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and The Surprising Science of Real Toughness, I found that this sort of self-assessment is a crucial element of toughness.
Research tells us that people who rise to the occasion, who come through despite pressure and expectations, see stressful situations as challenges instead of threats. Although they experience some level of nervousness, they welcome stepping up to the plate or onto the stage, and see it as an opportunity for growth. When we see stressful situations as a challenge instead of a threat, our body offers a helping hand. We have a more positive stress response, bolstered by the fast-acting biochemical adrenaline, which makes us feel excitement, instead of the lingering cortisol, which makes us feel anxiety.
Common advice is to teach people how to turn anxiety into excitement, a threat into challenge. Just change your mindset and all will be good. But there’s a missing piece of the puzzle, that isn’t as often talked about. One that Neil Gaiman had figured out. Being tough, seeing things as a challenge isn’t just some mental mindset trick, it requires honest self-assessment. Which way we go, whether towards adrenaline or cortisol, depends on a quick assessment of the demands of the task and our ability to handle it.
If we believe that the demands exceed our capabilities, we experience a threat response, no matter how much mental gymnastics we try to do to cope with it. Even if we’re able to fake our way to confidence over the short term, it backfires as soon as we encounter any sort of difficulty. At the first sign of actual difficulty, which will come, we get completely thrown off. Doubts flourish, we realize we are in way over our heads, and pretty soon we’ve spiraled towards a full blown freak out. We slow down to a walk in the marathon. We give up on our first draft of the book. We quit.
On the other hand, if we truly believe that we have the ability to handle the demands of the task, even just barely, we’ll experience a challenge response. We may enter the competition with some doubt and uncertainty, but we know what it’ll take, and what we’re capable of. We’re used to thinking of those who are the toughest amongst us as having unbridled confidence, without a single doubt in their mind. But that’s simply a fantasy. True toughness comes from honesty and humility.
An honest appraisal is all about giving your mind better data with which to make predictions. If you’re your mind knows roughly what to expect and what you can do, then you have the ability to work through adversity with calmness and clarity. You avoid the freakout that comes from your brain pulling the flight alarm, just so it can survive with its body, or more likely, ego in check.
In other words, our ability to be “tough” and handle adversity starts well before encountering any difficulty. It starts with embracing reality—of the situation and what you’re capable of. And sometimes, like with Gaiman, that means waiting until you are ready to genuinely take on the challenge, equipped with not only the right mindset but also the right skills. The easy choice would have been to forge ahead with a good idea. The hard choice was to wait and be patient until his capacities and the demands of the work aligned.
This post was adapted from my new book, Do Hard Things. Consider checking it out. It’s currently discounted as a new release!
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