Pushpushushpush = success! Maybe not…

By Caitlin Kelly


It’s a deeply American belief that if you never ever ever give up you’ll eventually get what you want.

It’s charming in its meritocratic faith — but it’s also often bullshit.

Some doors, for all sorts of reasons, stay shut, locked and barred to us, whether social or professional.

Maybe not forever, though.

Patience, it turns out, really can be a virtue. (Oh yeah, and tenacity, in it for the long haul.)

I recently broke through to a market I’ve been wanting to write for for, literally, a decade or more. I wanted it soooooo badly, and wrote to the editor in chief several times, even as every new one arrived.

I had all the right experience and credentials.


Then (yay!) someone who works on staff there followed me on Twitter and I asked, nicely, for an introduction to someone higher up the ladder. She did it. Now I have an assignment I’d finally given up ever attaining.

Sometimes it’s best to just lay down your tools and walk away.

We’re taught from childhood that winners never quit and quitters never win.

But sometimes it’s wisest to retreat and re-think strategy, to ask ourselves why we even want this thing we think we need so desperately.


Patience — such a Victorian ideal in this era of instant everything —  can produce results.

I won a New York Times national exclusive, a story about Google, (and I don’t cover tech nor live anywhere near Silicon Valley), by waiting six months after learning about it. During those months, my contact and I exchanged more than 100 emails, as the negotiations were so delicate and protracted.

Here’s the story.

Sometimes you just have to wait:

— For the right person to get the hiring/budgetary authority to appreciate you and your skills. That might take months, even years.

— To develop the emotional intelligence to handle a situation you’re sure is yours right now. Maybe you’re really not quite ready for it.

— To nurture social capital, and its referrals to the players who can help you achieve your goals. Trust takes time!

— To polish the social skills required to network well with senior people in your field or industry. Not everyone will respond to your texts or emails just because you’re in an unholy rush. Buy and use high-quality personal stationery. (It works, I know.)

— To acquire the requisite technical skills to add real value to whomever you’re approaching. Just because you want it rightnow! doesn’t mean you’re offering what they need. Your urgency is not theirs.

— To realize, by thinking about it calmly for a while, that a golden opportunity is…not so much.

— To accumulate the savings you need to be able to ditch a crappy marriage or live-in relationship, a nasty job, abusive internship or freelance gig. Once you have a financial cushion, (or, as we call it in journalism, a fuck you fund), your choices become true options. You don’t have to rush into a decision, or stay miserably stuck in a bad situation.

— If you’re mired in endless conflict and confrontation with someone, withdrawing for a while, (maybe even years, if social/family),  might be the best option while you decide what’s best for you, not just for them. It takes time to reflect deeply and to process difficult or painful emotions.

What success(es) have you gained by waiting and being patient —  even when you didn’t want to?


Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, by Skype, phone or in person, have helped writers and bloggers worldwide; details here. Contact: learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

31 thoughts on “Pushpushushpush = success! Maybe not…

  1. Congratulations on the Google article. 🙂

    I recently got a job I really wanted after sort of giving up on it. As you mention, I think I needed more seasoning as a professional in order for it to work (and the stars had to do a little aligning too).

  2. I consider my job and the life I get to live because of it an achievement. I had to struggle through lots of applications, interviews, looks and comments from well-meaning family and friends, my dad saying I should maybe move out before I had a job (and me having to bring back research saying why that wasn’t going to happen), and the occasional bout of despair and depression when I thought about how jobless I was. I persevered though, and today I work a great job and I have an apartment that I can decorate any which way and which has become a happy place for me. That was hard-won and I’m happy I got it.

      1. What does “snowflake” even mean these days? I think it’s gained two new meanings since the 2016 election.
        By the way, I thought I’d let you know that I’m going to see Romeo & Juliet the ballet on Saturday. May or may not blog about it.

  3. I remember reading your NY Times article when it came out. (I enjoyed it just as much then as I do now.) At the time you wrote that article, I was creating a plan to return to academic life and teaching – but every door kept getting shut in my face. I took a step back, rethought my strategy, and ultimately took a different path to get there. This post really spoke to me.

    1. Thanks!

      It’s such a NYC behavior to PUSH hard on everything and everyone, as if it’s the best way and the only way. Most of my best opportunities have come to me, ironically, organically. So I try to trust that this is the way it’s generally meant to work for me.

  4. wow, brilliant. amazing how life works out, isn’t it? that is fantastic. i think the closest i’ve come is putting myself through school, while working at night and raising my girls. it took me 6 years to do 4 years of college, i worked many internships, didn’t sleep and included the girls in the whirlwind. finally got it done.

  5. Jann Jasper

    Interesting post, as always. But you lost me at the word (in the comment section) “universe.” The universe is indifferent to us. Outcomes in our lives are far more random than most people want to realize. In any situation, our hard work, ability, etc are only small parts of a larger picture. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t. When they do work out, the cause/effect may not be clear…however comforting is to believe otherwise. There are many moving parts, many of which we don’t know about.

    1. Don’t take that too literally…I’m hardly a crystals-woo-woo girl!

      Yes, indeed, there are many, many moving parts, to success and to failure…Having the right connections, i.e. social capital (certainly in NYC publishing) is a HUGE factor and has been a hassle for me, not having attended any American formal schooling because I moved here at 30. Not having a graduate degree (why bother? Canadians in my field don’t) was another unforeseen obstacle.

      So, I just keep pushing along. 🙂

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  7. Great post, and so true, Caitlin. I think it’s especially hard for us self-employed people–it feels like the only way to succeed is to continually strive. “Taking our toys and going home,” at least for a while, can be the (counterintuitive) answer.

    1. Hey, Kelly — thanks so much for reading and commenting! (Kelly is a super-successful FT freelance writer/colleague).

      That’s a great point, and there’s a lot of peer pressure, thanks to social media, to be PRODUCTIVE ALL THE TIME now, when you might just be heading for burnout and annoying people with too much persistence.

  8. Interesting post. I used to live like that. Then I learned t’ai chi. In t’ai chi, we have a different philosophy. Set a goal, have an intention, but push forward toward it in moderation, not to exhaustion. And always be ready to take a different and easier route if one is available. I try to live that way nowadays. It saves energy.

  9. I’ve never known quite what the mix is for those elusive ‘writing breakthroughs’ that let writers fulfil dreams. Hard work for sure. Patience, as you say. And, I think, healthy doses of luck. All punctuated by ‘grind’ where the joy of writing is often subsumed by the fact of having to do it to somebody else’s drum-beat. That’s certainly been the case for me. I still remember being had on by the managing editor at Penguin NZ, who’d been publishing some of my more academic books, and suggested maybe I shouldn’t be churning out what I called ‘weetbix’ books for a major book-chain that had its own imprint. Au contraire, I suggested: the returns on the ‘weetbix’ product made up for the fact that the stuff he was publishing didn’t actually pay for itself, however much fun it was for me to write and for them to publish…

    1. You know this writing world well…:-)

      Success is, indeed, a bizarre mix of talent, luck, tenacity, timing…

      I also write a whole range of things, some putatively glamorous and high-profile (and sometimes fun) and then stuff that pays bills and buys groceries and puts gas in the car.

      I have little patience with people who endlessly romanticize “the writer’s life” — it’s got just as many (or more) frustrations and just as much grinding as many other jobs. That is, if you intend to earn a living from it. 🙂

  10. “But sometimes it’s wisest to retreat and re-think strategy, to ask ourselves why we even want this thing we think we need so desperately” — yes!

    I think the mantra that “winners never quit and quitters never win” is such an integral part of the American Dream. But it isn’t always helpful if it makes us feel guilty when we do ‘quit’. It isn’t wrong to change course or make a new career move, and sometimes I think we need to stop giving ourselves such a hard time about it. I like the t’ai chi philosophy mentioned by one of your readers.

    Case in point: I felt really stressed about deciding to stop my Master’s course in 2015. I believe in commitment and at that time, I had my heart set on an academic career right after I finished my undergraduate degree.

    But things weren’t falling into place and yes, I questioned whether I actually wanted to carry on. I don’t regret the decision to stop pushing for an academic career and to join the workforce instead. 🙂

    1. Interesting, I wondered about that — having noticed your shift.

      People change! Priorities change! Values generally don’t. In my 20s all I cared about was getting my staff newspaper stories on the front page. In my 30s all I cared about (hah) was trying to save a lousy first marriage.

      Now I’m most focused on maintaining my health and income. The rest, thankfully, is largely in place.

  11. You know I’m a bit of a seeker–spiritually and in life. And everything I’ve read over the past year talks about allowing things to happen rather than making them happen. It was a completely foreign concept to this breadwinner/freelancer. And yet . . . as I’ve done so, abundance has followed. I still don’t have a book contract, but my days are filled with work that I enjoy. I’m so happy you finally got the break you wanted.

    1. It’s VERY counter-cultural!

      Americans are taught from birth to GO GET IT!!!!!! and made to feel like useless slackers when they/we don’t. But some things just can’t be rushed. I hate being pushed into things and I figure others feel this way, too. 🙂

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