Aiming High or Over-reaching?

Kenneth-armitage-sculpture-123578-lThis is one of those posts that I write because I don't know the answer and I'm trying to figure it out. (Ha! Like I ever know the answers.)  So bear with me as I sort it out.


–a writer, talented but still raw, without a lot of words beneath her belt, finishing a short story and submitting it to the New Yorker.

–an under-achieving professional applying for jobs–and assuming he'll get them–way beyond what his experience warrants.

–an entrepreneur starting a business from scratch–and setting a goal that she'll reach one million in sales by the end of her first year.

Or how about the emails I get on a fairly regular basis that go something like this: I've got an idea for a book, how do I find an agent?  Note, the writer has an idea only.  Hasn't written a word of said book, but he/she is already looking for an agent.  Or the writers I used to meet whose main goal was getting on Oprah, still without having written a word? (I still remember one such woman, who had seen herself sitting on Oprah's couch in a vision.  She was certain it was going to happen.  Writing the book that would get her there was just a pesky nuisance in between.)


What do all of these people have in common?  


But you could also call it aiming high.  Having confidence.  Who's to say it won't work out?  Who's to say that story won't be accepted, you won't get the job, you won't win the millions?  One of our enduring cultural zeitgeists is the exhortation to dream big, to reach for the stars.

And who am I–or you–to dash the hopes of our strivers by pointing out the reality of the situation?

Yet I'm certain all of us have heard such stories and rolled our eyes.  Tut-tut-tutted at the silliness of these over-reachers.  

Which is a terrible, toxic reaction that shows more–perhaps–about ourselves and how we're not going for our own dreams that anything else.  However, part of that reaction is grounded in truth.   And I think I'm starting to figure out why we bristle when we hear the unrealistic goals of these dreamers:

Because they want to skip steps.  They want to go from zero to 90 in one second, without any work in between.  

And those of us who've been working towards our goals for a long time know that doesn't happen. 


When it does–such as when a college student gets a big book contract, or an obscure blogger catapults himself into the spotlight, or, you fill in the blanks–we feel a bit like they've cheated.  And skipped the steps that most of us have to take.

There's also, I think, a sense of entitlement inherent in over-reaching:

–Give me this job because I deserve it, even though I've never done anything like it before, ever.

–Publish my story because I wrote it, even though I've not rewritten it and worked to get it right.

–Buy my product because I made it, even though I've not done the market research to know if you'll want it.

Aiming High

On the other hand, it's good to dream big, right?  It's good to imagine the job, the publishing contract, the massive business success.

Yes, it is.  We humans live on hopes and dreams.   So there's absolutely no harm in imagining the big payoff.   Think about it every day, and see it happening.

And then forget about it and get down to work.  Because that is what is going to make it happen.  

Those folks who get the publishing contract while they are still in school, or make the product that nets them a million?  Outliers.  And yeah, it could happen to you, or to me, but in the meantime let the universe decide and keep at what you're doing.  Behind most overnight successes you'll find years of toil.

Reach, match, and safety.

So here's what I tell my students and clients.   When you're ready to submit a story–after you've written and rewritten it, and then gone back and rewritten it yet again–make a list.  At the top, put your pie-in-the-sky places (The New Yorker and Tin House come to mind).  Then choose some middle-ground publications.  And then, opt for a long list of publications that will be most likely to want to publish your stories.  Send them out.  And keep writing.

This is much like the advice given to high school students applying to college.  Opt for reach, match, and safety schools.  I think it's a good policy for us as writers as well–go for reach, match and safety publications, or editors, or agents.  

(This list is a great starting point for those of you submitting to journals.)

This way, you can aim high and not over-reach.  Because as long as you continue to work and hone your craft, one of these days you'll get your ambitious goals, I'm sure of it!

Do you have experience with over-reaching and being disappointed?  Or are you a big believer in confidence?  Please comment!  And feel free to share on your social media of choice.

And don't forget–tomorrow I pick (by random selection) the winners of the blog birthday giveaway! You have until the end of today to enter, I'll choose first thing tomorrow morning.  (And, also, for a mere 99cents, you can buy my new short story on Amazon.)

 Image by kloniwotski.

, , , ,

24 Responses to Aiming High or Over-reaching?

  1. Holly-Marie St. Pierre 04/03/2014 at 08:27 #

    Hi Charlotte,

    What a great post! I absolutely love your warm encouragement to lovers of dreams coupled with sage advice for making their dreams a reality.
    As I read your words, I have to confess I was a bit abashed to see myself in the over-reaching category. I have a pattern of leaping toward a lofty goal and landing with a painful thud when I realize there’s not enough steps beneath to support my reach! LOL. But sometimes, I’ve picked myself up from the fall and worked with the splat to accomplish goals I’m most proud of.
    For me, the difference between an overreach and aiming high is when I’ve worked with a support group or mentor (like you) to guide me through the steps. A monetary investment helps motivate me too. Once I’ve committed my hard-earned cash, I don’t want to squander it.


  2. Ledger D' Main 04/03/2014 at 09:15 #

    Just the other day, yes it was a Tuesday, I did some over-reaching and I threw my back out. Then I had to ask myself, was that bottle of 20 year old scotch worth it?…damn right it was…

  3. Charlotte Dixon 04/03/2014 at 09:38 #

    Holly–Recognizing that pattern is half the battle.  And, I have to say, it's a battle you've won, because you are in the midst of doing wonderful things!  It takes a sure knowledge of baby steps to get accepted into a master's program!  And you make an excellent point that having the guidance of a mentor or support group helps.  Thanks for commenting!

  4. Charlotte Dixon 04/03/2014 at 09:39 #

    And hopefully the bottle of Scotch helped to self-medicate the muscle pain of over-reaching.  :-)

  5. Zan Marie 04/03/2014 at 11:48 #

    wonderful post, Charlotte! Overreaching is a failing of human nature. We want the validation without the hard work. Keep reminding us that we have to take the steps–all of them–to get there.

  6. Charlotte Dixon 04/03/2014 at 13:21 #

    Thanks, Zan Marie!  Always a pleasure to have you stop by and comment.

  7. Angie Dixon 04/03/2014 at 14:35 #

    What a great post. I know I have been one of those writers wanting to skip steps at times. I suspect I’ll do it again, and probably again after that. I’ve also learned, though, how to back up and do things right when my overreaching runs me into a wall. I don’t always back up and do things right, but I know how.

    Years ago I got an agent for a mystery novel I wrote. About the same time I joined a local writer’s group, which I didn’t stay in because it wasn’t a good fit.

    Two things kept coming out of the mouths of the others in the group. The first was, “You sure were lucky to get an agent,” and the second was, “I need the name of your agent.”

    To the first I said, “It’s amazing how lucky you get when you write a very good book and then spend over 40 hours researching agents to find the right one for your book.” I never had to say that twice, but I also got a lot of dirty looks.

    To the request for my agent’s name I said, “They’re listed in Writer’s Market. There’s a whole list of agents that accept submissions. You can research them and see which is a good fit for your book.” And no, most of them didn’t even have a book.

    When I eventually left the group, it was with the recognition that they were all good people and enthusiastic writers, but I didn’t want to spend five hours on a Saturday, once a month, in a writer’s group meeting.

    One thing I gained from the experience was seeing some of my own past overreaching in perspective.

    Thanks for the article!

  8. Charlotte Dixon 04/03/2014 at 15:17 #

    Angie, Thanks for stopping by.  And I love your story about having an agent and everyone in your writing group wanting one. It's so funny how we think we can zoom right to publication without taking the necessary steps in between.  You also make a great point that once we realize we've skipped a step, we can go back to it.  I know I've been guilty of submitting a novel too soon. But at least once I figured it out, I went back to rewriting. By the way–great last name!

  9. Don 04/03/2014 at 15:23 #

    Great post Charlotte. Years ago, after learning the hard way, you could have included my name in there! Your advice is much like that given to me by Charles M. Schulz (the Charlie Brown guy) as he gave me basically the same advice when I was still young and foolish. It was hard advice, but it’s the truth —- most things DON’T COME EASY, but rather they come from sheer HARD WORK and a never give up attitude!. As for those who seem to get everything handed to them it happens, I guess, as I recently I read of a girl who never bought a lotto ticket in her life and then, on a lark, won $48-million with her first and only lotto ticket purchase. Success doesn’t just happen, we have to make it happen at least for the majority of us.

  10. Milli Thornton (@fearofwriting) 04/03/2014 at 17:09 #

    I was guilty of over-reaching when I was younger. I wanted a screen test to be in a movie, although I had no acting experience. I submitted some stories (and a novel) while my writing was still painfully undeveloped. Part of it was ignorance. I didn’t know what I had to do to hone myself. Embarrassing to look back on!

    I have not read Outliers, but I have read of Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get really good at something. I found that very comforting to know. It liberated me from the fear that I have to be good at ‘whatever’ right away.

  11. Charlotte Dixon 04/03/2014 at 17:25 #

    You know, Milli, I remember talking to a recent college grad a few years ago and she lamented that she wasn't where she thought she should be.  She thought she would graduate from college and have it all–great job, new car, blazing career.  Just by virtue of having graduated!  And I think that stemmed from ignorance and also cultural expectations that have been drummed into us.  Our relentless advertising machine (and now social media) makes everyone look more successful than we are and we have to discern that its not true.  Also I love that you refer to your early writing as undeveloped.  I really work hard to get away from the good/bad dichotomy and undeveloped is a great way to put it.

  12. Milli Thornton (@fearofwriting) 04/03/2014 at 17:50 #

    Yep, just logging into Facebook can give me the impression that everyone else has a life but me (and a fascinating, photographable one, at that).

    I lugged around the MS for my first novel for years – even brought it with me in my suitcase from Australia. When we moved from Ohio back to NM last year, I culled a bunch of stuff that I felt was bogging me down. Including my old novel, which I found in the basement.

    Rereading it, I could see there would not even be an effective way to rewrite it. My style was just too awkward and overwritten back then. I was able to recognize this gently and let go. It felt like a big step forward, not done from self-loathing but from a sense that I’ve grown and that’s no longer the me of today.

    (I used to be really good at self-loathing so that moment felt amazing.)

  13. Charlotte Dixon 04/04/2014 at 06:03 #

    When I reorganized my office a couple of years ago, I found the first novel I'd written.  It was all nicely organized in a binder.  I read over it (skimming, really) and realized it wasn't half bad–my big regret was that self doubt led me to not put it out in the world. As I write this, I realize that's the shadow side of over-reaching–the crippling self doubt.  Hmmm.  I still have the manuscript in the closet, though its not marketable now.  Maybe I ought to let it go like you did!

  14. Charlotte Dixon 04/04/2014 at 06:06 #

    Don, I apologize, your comments seem to be going into the spam file. I try to remember to check often, but if you don’t see something you’ve posted, that’s what’s happened and I’ll figure it out eventually!

    You know, part of me hates to say we all have to work hard and be patient because I feel like by saying it we make it so. But on the other hand, we can’t wish away the fact that you really do have to just keep at it and keep going. Also, I think that sometimes people who out of sheer luck get to skip steps, have problems later. Just like babies who don’t crawl sometimes do.

    Thank you, as always, for commenting!

  15. J.D. 04/04/2014 at 06:09 #

    Literary folklore is filled with tales of people winning the lottery on their first ticket. Just like the lottery though, our chances of publishing with no rewrite, no editing, and no experience are lower than Dr. Ruth’s batting average. Join a writers group, even if it’s on line. Let other people read your stuff. Read! This is a difficult game and there are a lot of good writers. Gird your loins!

  16. Charlotte Dixon 04/04/2014 at 06:31 #

    I think that's what lulls writers into thinking that they can skip steps–those literary folklore stories we hear.  Your advice to join a writer's group and let people read your stuff is great, J.D.  You gotta have other eyes on it before you put it out in the world!

  17. D young 04/05/2014 at 19:31 #

    Like most things in life. Always someone out there better. Just have to keep being better than YOUR former self and you’ll succeed!

  18. Charlotte Dixon 04/05/2014 at 22:00 #

    Yes, as long as you remember the competition is with you and not everyone else!  Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  19. D young 04/06/2014 at 06:38 #

    You’re welcome, Charlotte- it’s been a while:). Good to see some usual names around here and some new ones. Always enjoy talking all things books, writing, and life!

  20. Charlotte Dixon 04/06/2014 at 07:06 #

    I have the best readers–some of whom have been with me forever, some newbies, and some who pop in now and then.  I love you all!  Good to see you back.

  21. D young 04/07/2014 at 06:12 #

    Glad to be back:)

    Now for my writing to get back to where it was along with my marathon training!

  22. Charlotte Dixon 04/07/2014 at 15:58 #

    Again, glad to have you back!  And I admire you so for your marathon training!

  23. Linda Maye Adams 04/14/2014 at 03:48 #

    Unfortunately, this advice also has unintended consequences. The middle ground magazines are an illusion of success. Yes, you get your work into a magazine, and it feels great to see your name in print. Maybe you get paid $5 or $10, and that feels great, too. I did the same route, because those magazines are easier to get into. But safety had a huge price, because I felt successful — even if I wasn’t getting into the big magazines — and it kept me from actually improving in areas that I needed to. Aiming a lot higher has forced me to up my game, and I’m now getting personal rejections from editors of pro-rate magazines.

  24. Charlotte Dixon 04/14/2014 at 21:53 #

    Oh, I'm not telling anyone not to aim high at all.  I think its important to have big dreams and dream them every day.  I'm just talking about the situations where a writer with no experience writing anything ever, submits her first story to the New Yorker. That kind of thing.  You've done the work and earned the place you are in now.  Congratulations!  And good luck on those acceptances.

Leave a Reply