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Gritless to Gritty in One Simple Step

11/15/2013 11:05 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

A sense of dread washed over me. I shivered. I inhaled deeply, and clicked to open the email. It read:

"Dear Daniel, I regret to inform you that we're not interested in your manuscript. Best of luck finding a suitable publisher."

I'd been rejected. Again. This feeling was becoming much too familiar. At least this publisher bothered to take a minute to write me a reply, I thought. Better than the dozens of other publishers who hadn't even shown me that courtesy.

I'd already submitted my manuscript to so many publishers and agents that I'd lost count. I was on the brink of giving up. A wannabe author can only take so much rejection, right?

Months earlier, I'd developed the concept for the book. Its title would be The Happy Student: 5 Steps to Academic Fulfillment and Success. I had it all planned out. Not your typical self-help or how-to book, The Happy Student wouldn't just hype readers up or make them experience a temporary surge of motivation. Instead, it would empower them to find enduring success and fulfillment. It wouldn't merely be an inspirational book; it would equip readers with precious life skills.

The Happy Student would be based on my personal experiences. 16 years of being a straight-A but mostly unhappy student, 16 years of constant questioning what the purpose of education is, 16 years of wisdom... all compiled into an easy-to-read manual. It would be a book written by a student, for students. "Happy and successful" -- that would be the book's catchphrase.

Doesn't this all sound fantastic? It did to me, at least. I could see it all happening: The Happy Student would impact readers around the world. Lives would be changed. Students and parents would flock to bookstores to get their copy. It would be the start of a global "happy" revolution.

Despite these grand dreams, I couldn't even get a single agent or publisher to take a second look at -- much less like or love -- my manuscript. I felt as if my soul was being crushed, one rejection at a time.

Fast forward two years. The Happy Student was eventually published by Morgan James Publishing, and has sold thousands of copies (by "thousands," I do mean thousands, not hundreds of thousands). I'd call it a moderate success. It has never made it to any bestseller lists, but I'm encouraged to have received a number of emails from happy readers.

Through my journey of getting The Happy Student published, I displayed far more grit than I thought I possessed. I felt like conceding defeat on so many different occasions -- I'm almost surprised that I didn't!

I'm far from the grittiest person around. In fact, for most of my life up until that point, I was almost gritless.

I didn't have determination. I rarely kept my commitments. I only got involved in activities that I was confident I'd be proficient at. Whenever I discovered that I wasn't good at something, I would quit right away. All in all, I focused purely on performance, rather than on the process of learning, exploring and growing.

Everything revolved around me: my grades, my achievements, my education, my career, my social life, my future.

During her TEDTalk, Angela Lee Duckworth described grit as the "passion and perseverance for very long-term goals."

I wondered to myself: What was it about The Happy Student project that enabled the formerly gritless me to display the passion and perseverance needed to get the book published?

Upon doing some self-reflection, I realized that The Happy Student project wasn't primarily about me. It wasn't about becoming a published author, or about being featured on the bestseller lists.

Instead, the project was about making a difference in the lives of readers and preventing them from committing the same mistakes that I did in the blind pursuit of success. I can honestly say that even if I only sold 10 copies of the book, I would have no regrets about writing the book in the first place.

"Realize more deeply, day by day, that life has never primarily been about you." -- Daniel Wong

I became grittier when I stopped asking "What's in it for me?" and started asking, "How will this add value to others?" I became grittier when I stopped asking, "What will people think of me if I fail?" and started asking "How many lives will I fail to make a difference to if I don't at least try?"

It's only natural for me, as an extremely imperfect person, to be self-centered, so it's still a daily battle to get beyond myself and my wants and my needs. But I know that it's a battle worth fighting.

As a coach and speaker, I've had the privilege of working with thousands of students. I've observed that, just like how I used to be, the gritless students tend to be self-absorbed. On the other hand, the gritty students see that their education, goals and dreams are simply avenues by which they can make a contribution to the people around them and to the world.

And so I've learned that grit is a fire that can only be lit when we're less concerned about how impressive the fire is and more concerned about how much light we're providing to others.

Gritless to gritty in one simple (but not necessarily easy) step? Realize more deeply, day by day, that life has never primarily been about you.

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