To Be Great, Study the Greats
Stephen King is one of the most prolific fiction writers of our time. He has written sixty-one novels, published six non-fiction books, and sold more than 350 million copies. His books have been adapted into over fifty movies, including The Shining, Stand By Me, Shawshank Redemption, Misery, and The Green Mile. I have never read a King novel, although I have seen a few of the movies adapted from his books. But I’m a student of extraordinary people, so I recently read his wonderful memoir, On Writing. Whether you’re a writer, an aspiring writer, or just curious to hear lessons from someone who is a true master of his craft, the book is well worth reading.
I was particularly struck by one part of the book. As prolific a writer as King is, he is an equally avid reader. This likely shouldn’t surprise anyone. But it’s important to note what King said about the importance of reading to those interested in becoming a writer.
It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little, or not at all in some cases, should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written. But I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me that he or she wanted to become a writer but didn’t have the time to read, I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.
I love this passage. “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” Before I sat down to write my book, Master Your Code, I had read more than 250 books spanning disciplines such as psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, religion, leadership, biography, and so on. I was reading to become masterful at the subject about which I was planning to write. But, just as important, I was reading to know how to write. I consciously took note of what I liked and what I didn’t like. I gained mastery in the craft of writing by studying the greats and the not-so-greats, and in figuring out the difference between the two.
This is true for any discipline or craft. Kobe Bryant was famous for studying films of the great basketball legends that preceded him. His goal was to become the greatest basketball player to ever play the game. Of course, he was going to study those who were considered great. Recently, the Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, in winning the Oscar for best director and best screenplay for the movie Parasite (which also won best picture), remarked:
When I was young and studying cinema, there was a saying that I carved deep into my heart, which is that "The most personal is the most creative." That quote is from our great Martin Scorsese. When I was in school, I studied Martin Scorsese's films.
The lesson is clear. If you want to be truly great at something, you need more than talent, discipline, and hard work. You have to study the greats.
What are you trying to be great at in life? Do you know who the greats are in your field? Have you studied them? If you haven’t, grab the first great book on the first great in your field that comes to mind and start reading.