The Long Road to Here: Six Steps to Achieving Your Long-Term Goal
Lessons from Learning to Become a Writer
Today I submitted a completed manuscript to my publisher: a non-fiction book I have been working on since 2018. The book will come out in the fall of 2022.
During this same period, I also wrote two fiction books, largely during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and started a weekly newsletter here on Substack.
This journey has been a long one, complete with twists and turns, but this article is not about the book itself. Rather, it is about what I learned from the experience of turning a goal into reality. Though my journey was centered around writing and publishing, these concepts are applicable to anything you are passionate about and willing to make time for. We often think our aspirations are out of reach, but whether you want to learn to play the piano, start a side gig, or become a creator, with a clear plan and some discipline, nearly anything is possible.
1. Making Time
The first question I get when I tell people I am writing a book is, “Where do you find the time?” The truth is that during the past four years, I have not written one book, but three, and started two others.
This journey began many years ago, in 2012, when a friend of mine, Abigail Wen, told me that she was writing a young adult fiction book. I asked her the exact same question: How on earth did she find the time? Abigail was a well-respected lawyer leading the AI team at Intel, but for nearly 12 years, she had also been a writer. She told me that she wrote for an hour every day, and it was something she actively made time for.
Today, she is the New York Times bestselling author of the book Loveboat, Taipei, which she is also producing into a movie. Her second book will soon be released. Abigail proved that it was possible to make time for something she loved, even though it took her nearly a decade to publish her first novel. Her passion demonstrated to me that a goal like this is possible, even when it initially seemed out of reach.
2. Having a Catalyst
I never imagined myself as a writer in any capacity. It was pure happenstance that I started this journey.
In 2016, my new manager, Andrew Bosworth, and I made a deal that we could each ask something of one another. I sent him a list of my requests, which mostly involved my team and product. He responded that he wanted me to write and publish something every month. I was surprised but didn’t push back. Since we had a mutual commitment, I began writing monthly and posting my work to our internal Workplace groups. From there, I started occasionally publishing elsewhere when the opportunity arose, but largely still stuck to writing for an internal audience.
Then one day in 2018 a friend, fellow writer, and former Facebooker, Zainab Ghadiyali, introduced me to an agent and encouraged me to write a book. I laughed when she first suggested it, but what was the harm in learning more?
The agency signed me for a nonfiction work. Now I was committed.
3. Getting Help
I struggled with my writing. I had ideas but didn’t know how to put them to paper. Writing alone is difficult.
I tried to leverage my husband, who is incredible in every way except one: He won’t read my writing. He was an editor of the Harvard Law Record, so I naturally sought his help. But he was such a perfectionist that it was better for our marriage if we kept things separate. For that reason, he has not read any of my books, nor most of my posts.
While at Facebook, Lisa Revelli was my thought partner to help me shape my writing and hold me to a schedule for producing content regularly. But I struggled to write personally. Finally, I hired someone externally to help with a bit of editing, and eventually, Isabella Bailey became my coach and support. I have even had her coach my older two kids in writing as they work on their own stories.
4. Finding Accountability
Whether in the form of another person or a deadline you set for yourself, having accountability is critical to building and maintaining forward momentum.
I had been talking to my career coach about my book for years, and finally, she told me, “Just finish the book proposal now. No more excuses.” Knowing I'd have to see her every couple of weeks, I hustled, got it done in record time, and submitted it to my agents. From there, they quickly found a publisher, who set a deadline for September first. Nothing focuses the mind like a contractual commitment.
Accountability can also come in the form of communities. Julie Zhuo, a bestselling author in her own right, encouraged me to try out NaNoWriMo. I had never heard of it before but seeing her write and publish her own non-fiction book while also posting to her blog reminded me that it could be done. I joined a NaNoWriMo community, which encouraged me to finish my two half-baked fiction books.
5. Knowing Your Roadblocks
I have a hard time focusing on one thing for long, but I’ve figured out a way to hack my own lack of concentration on a given project. For me, the solution is to work on three or four projects at the same time. While that probably seems crazy, there’s a method to the madness: If I get stuck, I can immediately move on to the next book to get my 500 words in.
This eliminated excuses. After all, how could one person have writer’s block for multiple books, in completely different genres, at the same time? When I struggled with the non-fiction project, I would move to my middle-grade children’s book. When I ran into challenges there, I shifted my focus to my adult fiction story. Round and round it went. Now, three of my five unfinished manuscripts are done.
6. Working Toward a Goal
Having a set of milestones in place ensures that you are making forward progress. I wrote about 500 words a day for years. Most of it will go unpublished, but it forced me to sit down and make space for writing in my life.
I started this weekly newsletter mostly because I am a glutton for punishment. Kidding (sort of)! I knew that forcing myself to put my ideas on paper would help me think through what had happened each week and codify my learning. It also helped me distill my thinking. Having both a goal and a weekly publishing schedule ensured that I was committed — to myself and to those who read this newsletter.
We make time for the things we love and want to pursue with a passion. So make space in your life for something you want to foster and create. Things are more within reach than you think, but it all starts with a plan. If you had told me in 2012, 2016, or 2018 that I would one day finish this leg of the journey, I definitely would not have believed you. You can do more than you can imagine if you set a goal and pursue it. Don’t listen to the internal voice telling you it is impossible. Instead, know that you can achieve a little bit every day.