Toughen up, buttercup!

By Caitlin Kelly

A French laundromat washing machine...quite incomprehensible.
A French laundromat washing machine…quite incomprehensible.

Have you seen this interesting list of the seven habits of the mentally tough? From Inc. magazine, it includes no whining, acting as if you’re in control (even when you’re not) and refraining from the bad habit of freaking out endlessly over…everything.

It seemed quite a contrast from this post, from a blog about what it felt like for this writer when her agent wasn’t wild about her finished manuscript, from Women Writers, Women’s Books:

The sounds you just heard were my dreams and confidence being blown to bits.

Super Agent’s opinion – and she was right – was that I needed to do a major rewrite. The story concept was strong, but the story structure didn’t work at all. She said that she knew the audiences the editors who are interested in me are selling to, and the manuscript as I wrote it wouldn’t be a good fit. In publishing, not being “a good fit” is a death sentence.

You, shakily: But what about the betas, they liked it a lot. [My note: a “beta” is a “first reader”, someone you’ve asked to read your book before your agent and/or editor do.]

Super Agent, calmly: Betas know writing. Agents know the market.

I’m going to be honest with you. This was a very dark day. My lips and hands trembled. For weeks, my breathing would be shallow and intermittent…

It was a Thursday. By Monday, I had pulled myself together. This is not because I’m some kind of hero. I’m not. But what choice did I have? There are only two: leaving it wrong or making it right.* I love my story and my characters. I have big dreams for my career. Super Agent was right on every count. There was only one thing I could do. Write it again. I wrote her an email thanking her.

Then I dedicated myself to taking my magnum opus apart, scene by scene, word by word. It was excruciating, but that wasn’t the only problem. Firstly, I had no idea how to put it back together any better than before. Cue the panic. Secondly, my heart was still in pieces…

I found myself talking to a writer-friend who happens to be an award-winning, bestselling author..when I abruptly spilled to her what had happened and how I felt…

That is when I heard the words that put me back together. She said to me, “This is how it goes.”

I had a similar moment when I received the notes on my second book. “I really liked Chapters 11 and 12,” said my editor. Um…what about the first 10?

I felt the same panic, that I wouldn’t be able to make it good enough. Like the author above, I called a calm friend who said six fateful words: “You’re the mechanic. Fix the engine.”

So I did.

My husband began his career as a news photographer working for a small town newspaper. He had a mentor, a highly accomplished older professional with national experience to whom Jose would proudly mail copies of his published photos.

A manila envelope would return — filled with confetti. Jose’s work. (He went on to a 31-year career at The New York Times as a photographer and photo editor, and helped them win a team Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of 9/11. Here’s his blog.)

But what if he had given up?

Sugar helps!
Sugar helps!

Maybe journalism self-selects people who can withstand pretty harsh criticism, even if it’s painful.

It certainly comes with the territory — our editors, highly-competitive colleagues, determined competitors from other outlets and readers are all quite delighted to tell us when we’ve screwed up. Our ass-whipping is also relentlessly public, whether in comments on a blog or website, nasty Amazon reviews or letters to the editor.

And newsrooms are rarely warm, nurturing places where someone will hand you a tissue if, ego battered, you start crying. No crying!

One super-talented award-winning friend of mine in his mid-40s recently won a prestigious and well-paid year studying, thanks to a fellowship. It was his third attempt.

My first book -- 25 publishers rejected it before Pocket Books said yes
My first book — 25 publishers rejected it before Pocket Books said yes

He did not give up.

I’ll probably re-apply for a similarly difficult-to-win fellowship this year, for the third or fourth time. It’s annoying to keep putting my hand up and never winning, but them’s the breaks.

As someone who’s competed at a national level as an athlete, I know what mental stamina it takes to just keep going in the face of frustration, exhaustion or disappointment.

So I really find it sad and surprising to see how fragile some young women are in the face of fairly standard forms of bullshit — sexism, chauvinism, rejection.


They freak out when people don’t admire their work or quickly promote them or don’t answer their emails quickly or don’t “like” their posts on social media.

Toughen up, buttercup!

I was sent off to boarding school at the age of eight, surrounded night and day by strangers, a place where comfort was elusive, at best. So maybe this is just a habit learned early.

I’ve been fired from jobs. I’ve been mercilessly bullied, in high school and in several workplaces. I’ve survived divorce, four orthopedic surgeries within a decade, criminal attack.

25 publishers said no to this one, too!
25 publishers said no to this one, too!

Both my books, both well-reviewed, were rejected by 25 publishers apiece before they finally found a home.


To some people, I appear mean and impermeable. I’m neither.

But I do know how to armor up.

How many things can you do well at once?
How many things can you do well at once?

It’s an essential skill for anyone who hopes to thrive professionally, and, often, personally. It’s essential to anyone doing creative work, whose income relies on the subjective opinion of others.

Oh, yeah…like…everything.

Here, from the brilliant blog Brain Pickings, is a post about Henri Rousseau, the French painter who worked as a toll collector, taught himself to paint and was nastily dismissed for decades. Without his persistence, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy his gorgeous, complex and mysterious paintings.

Are you mentally tough?

16 thoughts on “Toughen up, buttercup!

  1. I like to think so. I’m moving to Germany for work a week from Sunday (yay! I got a job) and I’m handling it much better than my dad, who apparently is freaking out over his son moving to Europe for at least three-four months, possibly longer. I’m just taking it as is and making sure I leave no unfinished business. My biggest stress really is packing–what to bring and is it too much? And even that’ not bugging me as much as it might others.

    1. Fantastic! How exciting for you. 🙂

      I think it’s always scary for a parent to watch their child disappear, even for a while. Have a great time.

      What will you be doing there?

  2. Good post. 🙂

    Unfortunately, many of today’s young women (and young men) are used to having it pretty easy. There is some truth to the argument that the present 20-somethings are entitled. And I’m saying that, even though it’s going to make me sound like the worst old fart. Whatever – I am. 🙂

    Women of our generation had to get tough about a lot of stuff; my mom’s generation had even more stuff.

    1. I’ve been a bit stunned by the fragility.

      I think of the women who survived WWII, for example, or VietNam — when it was normal for be alone for years and to lose many of the men you loved and relied on.

      1. They sure did. At age 16, my mom was a radar operator just outside London during the Blitz. Avoiding bombs was a regular part of life. Later, she said good-bye to my dad for about 18 months as he prepared for and later participated in D-Day. She didn’t see him again until the war was over, and there were long gaps between their letters as my dad moved across Europe with his unit.

        When I think of our present 20-somethings, I’m struck by their fragility, too. I wonder if they could endure what my parents endured.

      2. She sounds amazing — and that was probably quite normal for women of her generation. I doubt they expected coddling nor would have welcome it.

        I doubt it. I’m fairly saddened by what I’ve seen recently. Some, of course, will always have it together.

  3. My husband and I came from rather impoverished rural backgrounds and through the support of our families and a lot of lucky breaks and hard work, are now middle class and able to help others. But, the thing I end up telling my four young adult kids over and over is “Life’s not fair. Lots of other people will have advantages our parents couldn’t give us and we can’t give you. But, great accomplishments don’t come easy to anyone and it’s the great accomplishments, the hard things, that really count in this world, in moral terms, in social terms, and sometimes even in financial terms.” Our three older kids (youngest is still in high school) have all gone in career directions that didn’t exist when we were in college (enzymology, architectural acoustics and applications software design). I like to think that mental toughness that we taught has given them the courage to go in new directions.

    1. Thanks for this…they sound like amazing kids! What fascinating career choices they’ve made.

      I whined at 18 to a family friend much older: “It’s not FAIR!” She wisely replied: “Who told you it was going to be?” I never forgot that and wish everyone was told this, young and often. It’s how you handle stress and challenge that gets you through.

      I have no doubt that you’ve modelled tremendous grit and resilience. They are lucky in this respect! 🙂

  4. mmfinck

    One of the replies used the word “grit.” That’s it. That’s it exactly. Thank you for referencing my article on WWWB – I’m so glad it resonated with you. Your story resonated with me too! I love that line, “You’re the mechanic. Fix the engine.” What would we do without the wisdom of friends? 🙂 Best of luck with everything!

  5. Pingback: [BLOG] Some pop culture links | A Bit More Detail

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