When John Updike passed away in 2009, his papers were donated to Harvard, his alma mater. Weighing in at more than 100 boxes, they trace his career from college onward. A recent New York Times article offered a fascinating glimpse into this treasure trove and Updike’s approach to writing. What struck me most in the story was the confidence about himself that Updike radiated in college as an aspiring writer.
In a letter to his parents, Updike observes, “I am not a mental superman as is Blake. There is no danger of my eking out an existence in a garret. If all I have is talent, industry, and intelligence, I should be able to please enough people to earn money at it.”
“If all I have is talent, industry, and intelligence” — I love the way Updike takes a personal inventory and decides he has what it takes to succeed. What a rock-solid belief in his writing future Updike conveys! It allowed him to rebound from early rejections, not only by several Harvard professors, but from The New Yorker as well – the place where he later landed a job after graduating.
Updike’s youthful brio called to mind a wonderful self-help book called, The Art of Possibility. In it, one of the co-authors — orchestra conductor Benjamin Zander — describes how, on the first day of his music workshops, he routinely awards everyone in his class an “A.” Then he has each student write a letter to him about what he or she plans to have achieved by the end of the class in order to actually earn that coveted grade. What an inspired idea for a teacher: to let his students determine what they expect of themselves – and also decide precisely how they’ll go about accomplishing their goals.
Updike had the same idea some 50 years earlier: he didn’t look to a professor for a top grade – he simply awarded himself an “A” through his own belief in his ability – his talent, industry, and intelligence. Why not do the same for ourselves and each other? Why not simply decide that we have everything we need to succeed — and then get going?