I originally published this article on Lore Forge. It's one of my best ones, in my opinion. Written with the writer in mind, the concepts will still work across all domains.
There are individuals in every field who transcend the rest of the pack, who perhaps defy impossible odds, who elevate themselves to legendary status. People who seem to come around only once in a generation or even a lifetime. Some of them seem to defy time itself, immortal. The Da Vincis, the Bruce Lees, the Shakespeares. Yet if we were to dissect the process of their mastery, we would notice common threads among them: their mindsets and their actions are all things anyone can emulate. Revealing the process not only provides a road map on how to become a champion, it serves as a reminder for why we are not champions ourselves.
Being a champion is a distinction reserved for the elite. Not everyone has the resolve to do it. The status is earned.
That is what this article is all about. These ten principles span across all domains. Whether you're a writer, an athlete, an artist, a musician, or a craftsman, it doesn't matter. If you want to be a champion, you must do what it takes to become one.
You will manufacture your own success, guaranteed. You will find, as you read these principles, that talent is not among them. Bruce Lee, a man of incredible talent, still did each of these things. Talent only helps you hone in on what you should be doing, hard work finishes the job.
If you want to know why you aren't finding success, here's why.
1. You Don't Take It Seriously
"You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair - the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page." - Stephen King
What you put into your chosen skill is directly proportionate to how much you want to succeed.
That is the crux of the matter. Your efforts = exactly how much you want to succeed.
So how serious are you? This is all a corollary of your mindset. How do you approach your craft? Are you a professional? Because professionals show up. They don't make excuses. Or are you someone who just dabbles? Is this a hobby for you, or do you consider yourself "aspiring?"
How you approach your game will be reflected in your actions, which will subsequently determine how successful you will be. There is a saying in gymnastics - where the head goes, the body will follow. So if you want to succeed, you can't half-ass it. You have to treat the entire process with respect. Look at any legend and examine just how seriously they are about their craft. Do you think Tiger Woods makes excuses to get out of working on his swing? Tom Cruise watches one movie every day, not just for pleasure, but to dissect the art of film-making, of acting.
Professionals do not take their fields lightly. If you are wondering why you're not getting results, you might not be serious about them. If you go into it thinking it's just a hobby, you'll never treat the process like it matters. Make it your priority. The hardest working person I know, actor Jeff Bosley, spends every moment doing something conducive to his goals. He studies, he hits the gym without fail (no matter how tired he is), he seeks out any opportunity to act and improve his skills. He is the yardstick by which I measure champions. This is why he succeeds where many I know fail.
Successful people are all in. They burn their ships behind them, leaving no choice but to succeed or die. Are you willing to burn your ships?
"When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you will be successful." - Eric Thomas
2. You Don't Have Discipline
"The first and best victory is to conquer self." - Plato
True champions don't skip out on practice. They show up early. They stay afterwards. While their friends are out partying, they're studying the game. When everyone else is waking up, they've already started producing. This is what sets the champions apart from the mediocre. And it is a natural consequence of taking one's trade seriously. Contenders know that in order to become champions, they must be as disciplined as those they want to beat.
"With self-discipline most anything is possible." - Theodore Roosevelt
One of the most infamous scenes in film is when Rocky Balboa wakes up at four in the morning, drinks a glassful of raw eggs, then goes on a run. He does it because he wants to win. He wants to beat Apollo Creed. And he knows that discipline - the self-control it takes to raise himself up to Apollo's level - is a necessary element to reach that goal. In fact, discipline is the key ingredient towards achieving any goal. It's obvious by the look on his face that he would love to stay and sleep in, but he doesn't because he has a hunger for success.
"Suffer the pain of discipline or suffer the pain of regret." - unknown
It is foregoing what you want now in exchange for something greater later. So you must have some sort of goal in mind. Specific goals are better than vague ones, but having a goal will give you something to work towards and help you stay focused and motivated. Discipline is the ability to do what needs to be done, even when you don't want to. So bring some work ethic to the party already. Create habits that can carry you through the things that aren't so fun. Keep your eyes on the goal so you remember it's all worth it.
"I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'" - Muhammad Ali
As a writer, having discipline will greatly contribute to the amount of words you put to paper. Chuck Wendig recommends just 350 words a day. Stephen King writes 2000 words a day. I watched author Richard Thomas report 12,000 words one day while working on his latest novel, The Breaker. This is the difference between a champion and someone who just does something kinda sorta because they want to call themselves something. "I'm an actor/writer/cage fighter." Don't be one of those guys, be the real deal. And it's okay to start small to develop habits and expand them over time. But true champions don't make excuses. They figure out what they want and they do what it takes to get there.
"You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence is not an event, but a habit." - Aristotle
3. You Don't Have a Goal or Objective
"People with clear, written goals accomplish far more in a shorter period of time than people without them could ever imagine." - Brian Tracy
For fighters, the answer is clear: beat the next person they put in front of you. Same thing for any other sport. It may seem like champion athletes have an advantage there, but it's more complicated than that. Yes, the obvious goal is to beat the next team, but how? No matter what the answer is, deciding on that answer becomes the mini goal. Because champions not only set high goals, they also break them down into steps. A runner may want to beat the record. That's a lofty goal.
Basically, you need to know where you're going, or you'll just end up wasting time that could have been better spent. Having a goal helps you keep focus. Having a plan towards reaching that goal provides a clear route you can use so you don't get lost along the way. It is a fact that people who write down their goals drastically improve their chances of success over those who don't. In fact, in a Harvard MBA study, they found that the 3% who said they wrote down their goals later made 10 times the money of the other 97% combined. Writing the goal down solidifies it, makes it real.
Defining a goal is the first step of the journey. It will be easier to lay out a plan for reaching that goal if you know what it is. Then you can break that goal down into easier steps. That's how productive people get more done. They break up large tasks into smaller ones. This helps you stay on task over the long haul, plus you get to celebrate reaching each benchmark.
As a writer, these goals are usually in line with a project. How many words do you want to write? How long do you want it to take? How many words is that per day? You can also set a specific time for writing and make that your goal. I like to work in scenes, or small chunks. Could be just a conversation one day or a setting description the next. Small goals are always easier than large, daunting ones, and they keep us moving forward instead of stalling.
"Goals are dreams with deadlines." - Diana Scharf Hunt
4. You Don't Practice
"When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win." - Ed Macauley
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell gives us the dirt: it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master at anything. While there have been numerous detractors of the claim, experts still say practice is essential for improvement. The debate seems to surround whether or not practice is all you need. Since practice only makes up 10% of the suggestions in this article, it's obvious which way we're leaning. If you are not a prodigy, it stands to reason that you are not the best at what you do starting out. Becoming the best does not happen magically if you don't do anything about it. There is no end to improvement. Even the most skilled champions continue to practice. The blade cannot sharpen itself.
"If you don't practice, you don't deserve to win." - Andre Agassi
What I want to iterate here is that if you're not practicing your art, craft, sport, whatever, it's going to take you a lot longer to achieve mastery. The most renowned artists did thousands of sketches in order to master their arts. Champion kickboxer Joe Lewis would do a thousand strikes a day after kicking the bag for one hour. Eddie Van Halen would play his guitar for hours a day as a teen. Legendary basketball player Larry Bird would throw 500 free throws a day, even while on crutches. How are you supposed to get better at what you do if you don't practice?
"To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it." - Kurt Vonnegut
This is what it takes to be a champion. They practiced harder than their competitors. They wanted to be good, and they understood that one does not get better by chance or magic or wishful thinking. Through practice they were able to improve and, eventually, be better than their peers or opponents. As a writer, practice means anything from writing actual stories, blogs, articles, to learning new vocabulary words, to figuring out new ways to use words, to learning more about grammar. The intent is to become better at your craft, whatever that may be, so whatever you are doing for practice should be to that end.
What are you doing towards mastering your craft? What else could you be doing to put you closer to your goals?
"I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times." - Bruce Lee
5. You Don't Study the Competition
"If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles." - Sun Tzu
Watch any movie about a sports team who accomplished the impossible and there will be footage in there of the coach watching footage of the rival team. Like in Miracle. Or Rudy. Or Moneyball. Picking it apart. Analyzing. The same thing goes for any other sport. Bruce Lee used to watch hours of footage of the boxing greats to dissect their movements. Studying every nuance. Athletes do this to learn their opponent's strengths and weaknesses. This doesn't just apply to the competition, it applies to anyone you want to emulate. Be like the musician who listens to the radio and tries to recreate the sounds coming out of it, or the comic artist who scrutinizes every panel to learn new tricks on lighting, perspective, inking. Many beginning artists recreate the drawings they see in their favorite comics. Politicians study the debating skills and positions of their opponents.
Learn by examining what others are doing. This is what Stephen King meant when he said, "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot." So read. A lot. Study it. Pay attention to how others are doing things. Notice what works and what doesn't. Examine every nuance. Search for weakness that you can avoid in your own work. Take notes. Read negative reviews and you'll start to see patterns on what makes a story weak or hated. Then avoid doing those things yourself. And just like the champion martial artist whose learning takes her across multiple styles, read across all genres. A good story transcends typecast, as you will come to see.
Be like the athlete who scrutinizes footage.
"Know yourself, and know your opponent. They are never as strong as you think, and never as weak, either." - Carlos Newton
6. You Don't Study Your Craft
"You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else." - Albert Einstein
Ask any pro football player if they know the playbook. Chances are that they know it inside and out. Other athletes are known to have amassed huge libraries of books on things pertaining to their field of study. Anything they can get their hands on. They want to soak up any knowledge that will help them advance their skills or their strategy. By the same token, take any successful entrepreneur and it is certain they have read dozens of books on business. You can tell because many of them make their own recommended reading lists. Anything to gain an edge.
This is why many athletes later become coaches or commentators after they retire. Yes, they love the game and don't want to leave, but they are also experts, many of whom spent most of their lives learning every facet.
"I am still learning." - Michaelangelo
Pick any profession in the world, no matter how erudite or simple, and there is a training period where one must learn how to do that job. If you wanted to be a doctor, you would have to go to medical school. You'd study diligently for years. Even a fast food worker learns how to work the point of sale system, the kitchen equipment, the drive-thru, the damn mop station. So it doesn't matter what the job is. Learning is a component of it, and that applies to any phase. If you want to be the best, you study. You're constantly learning. The world of sales presents an excellent example of this concept. Top salesmen study the art of the deal from any medium they can get a hold of: books, motivational CDs, seminars, teleconferences on communication, you name it. Because they're invested, their livelihoods depend on it.
They take it seriously (see item number one). They've burned their ships behind them and have only one choice: to move forward.
Champions are constantly trying to improve their game. They know there is always something else to learn. So study the craft. Learn everything you can. There are millions of free articles out there. Get books from the library. Find online courses and workshops, attend seminars if you can, writing groups. Anything you can get your hands on. That's what champions are doing. They devour information and knowledge.
"You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise." - Michael Jordan
7. You Don't Play
"The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it, keep looking. Don't settle." - Steve Jobs
Remember how I said Eddie Van Halen used to play his guitar for hours as a teen? He loved it. Couldn't get enough of it. Bobby Fischer has said that all he ever wants to do is play chess. Bruce Lee loved to fight. Picasso would not stop drawing. In fact, he is estimated to have produced around 50,000 pieces of art. You can't do that unless you love it. Have you ever known a drummer? They drum on everything, all the time. With their hands, with ink pens, in the air. It gets annoying sometimes. But they can't help it. They love it. It's how they get good. Practicing what you love does not seem like practice.
So if you don't love what you do, then the question becomes: why are you even doing it?
A lot of writers hate writing. They force themselves to do this thankless thing that doesn't bring them any joy. And for what? Some people simply want to be called a writer. Or an actor. Or a model. They derive their validation from a title. Just like some people will become doctors or lawyers for the money, only to find out that they hate it. If you can't enjoy the art of it, if you are unable to do something without it being a chore, you should consider doing something else. People who develop the discipline to achieve the highest levels of their art are able to do so because they have a deep love for what they do. I don't imagine Bobby Flay would be a chef if he didn't love food. What if Eric Clapton was never in the mood to play his guitar? Or if Mia Hamm never felt like kicking a ball around?
"Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life." - Confucius
Champions love their profession, and they live for it. Artists doodle. Grapplers are always down to roll with you. Comedians are always telling jokes. They do it for fun, all the time. If you have to force yourself to do something, maybe it's not for you. If you don't love what you do, have the self-respect to move on from that which does not suit you. If what you used to love has become a chore, try to focus on what made it so alluring in the first place. Rediscover the magic. There are lots of things you can do to get back to that place. But the bottom line is that you need to be honest with yourself about what you really want. How much do you really love what you do?
Relationship coaches will tell you that when someone is in love with you, it shows through in their actions. They make efforts to be with you. They don't flake out on you. You can tell. If you're getting mixed signals, they're just not that into you. If you really loved your craft, you'd make an effort.
8. You Don't Believe in Yourself
"To be a great champion, you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are." - Muhammad Ali
If you don't believe in yourself, how do you expect to achieve anything? Do you think it's just going to happen by accident? If you don't think you're worthy of the distinction of champion, you aren't. No one ever became the best in their field by thinking they were worthless. They might not have believed they were the best in the world, the number one, but they certainly had the confidence it took to achieve whatever they set out to do. Bruce Lee knew he could beat anybody, as did Muhammad Ali. Whether that was true or not, they believed it. Picasso claimed he could draw like Rembrandt as a child. These people just knew.
Let's look at the inverse, which is sometimes easier to put into perspective. Picture someone who doesn't think they can accomplish something. What happens? They won't even try! What is the point? Even if they do manage to get motivated to do something, the thought of inadequacy still pervades and infects their actions, so they never take things seriously unless something happens to cause a change in mindset. If there is one thing we learned from Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich it's that thoughts are things.
We all experience setbacks and we all get disheartened along the way. The trick, then, is figuring out how to get back in the zone.
The only limitation to what we accomplish are those we place upon ourselves. Everything else is an excuse. Don't allow fear to paralyze you into inaction. You have to be willing to take risks and face failure. It's not the failure that defines you, it's what you do after that. Do you quit? Or do you press on? Self-confidence need not be some elusive, cryptic force. You have to feed it. Starve the inner naysayer. Whether you think you can or you can't, you're right. Henry Ford said that. You only need one person to believe in you to be a champion. That's you.
"Courage is like a muscle. We strengthen it by use." - Ruth Gordon
Confidence isn't something you need to be born with. But it is something you need if you want to be a legend. Work on increasing your confidence.
"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams." - Eleanor Roosevelt
9. You Don't Have a Coach
"Learn of the skillful; he that teaches himself has a fool for a master." - Benjamin Franklin
In his bestselling book, Mastery, Robert Greene describes the importance of apprenticeship. Having a mentor enables you to glean information directly from those who have achieved mastery before us. Having a mentor will enable you to not only learn the valuable material that will help you improve your craft, but they will help you push your own boundaries. They know what your flaws are and how to get you out of your own way. They won't allow you to slack off.
Luke would never have become a Jedi had it not been for Yoda. Daniel had Mr. Miyagi. Rocky had Mick. Kirk Hammett learned from Joe Satriani. Isaac Asimov mentored Gene Roddenberry. Quentin Tarantino credits Elmore Leonard with being a mentor.
There are thousands of examples. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who rose to the highest level of their profession who didn't acquire a mentor or coach along the way. Every top-tier athlete has a coach. Every Olympic team has one. Why do they need one if they're at the top of their game? Coaches fulfill a vital role in the development of champions. They are teachers, advisers, motivators. Friends. A great coach helps you transcend yourself and achieve your full potential. Why limit yourself? A coach can see things you cannot, will hold you accountable, will keep you pointed in the right direction. If the best in the world have coaches and mentors, doesn't it stand to reason that everyone else needs one even more?
For writers, this person could be your agent or your editor. If you need help finding someone who can fill this role, start expanding your social network. Join a forum, find a meetup or writing group near you, hit up a seminar or workshop. Hell, take a risk and write your favorite author or screenwriter. You never know.
"I absolutely believe that people, unless coached, never reach their maximum capabilities." - Bob Nardelli, CEO, Home Depot
10. You Don't Have Training Partners
"You fight by yourself, but you didn't get that way by yourself. It's a team sport and everybody helps you get where you're at." - Nate Diaz
Every champion has training partners, whether they're a wrestler, a chess grandmaster, a tennis player, or a musician. In the first examples, the sparring partner is obvious - their opponent. They can pit their skills against those of another. It would be very difficult to master wrestling, for example, without a training partner. Obviously. And any coach will tell you it's best to have a variety of partners, as each person offers a different training experience, keeping you well-rounded.
You need feedback and you need someone to challenge your skills, which enables you to constantly improve. You have to keep your skills sharp. To learn new things. You have to put yourself in front of other people. People who can make you better.
As writers, getting feedback is essential. It is hard to be objective about our own work. We know what we want to say. We know the story. We can't see that some things don't make sense. We miss typos. We fall in love with characters or exposition and we include things that don't belong, things that serve no purpose. This is why we need other people to read our work before we put it out there. Beta readers. People who won't just tell you what you want to hear. People other than your mother.
You want to pick people who will challenge you the most. Don't just pick people who give you praise. That would be like Kobe Bryant only going one on one with kindergartners. The object is to get better, because everybody wins that way. You get better, you learn, the reader is entreated to a better experience, you sell more stuff, your kids get nicer things. All because you picked the right people to be on the bus.
Find people to critique your material. Strive for quality. The best ones will make you want to pull your hair out. But you'll be better for it.
"You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with." - Jim Rohn
What are you doing to become a champion?