All Success Is A Lagging Indicator

The other day I sat down to write.

But it didn’t happen.

It just wasn’t there. The words. The momentum. One thought leading into the next. I knew I wanted to say something. I knew what I wanted it to be about. But I couldn’t get much further than that, beyond just a few sentences.

A classic case of writer’s block, right?

Maybe. Except I happen to think that writer’s block doesn’t exist. I’m with Jerry Seinfeld who said, “Writer’s block is a phony, made-up, BS excuse for not doing your work.”

The words I chose above were illustrative:

It just wasn’t there.

What is it?

It wasn’t the muses. Or inspiration. And I’ve never been a genius so that hadn’t abandoned me. What wasn’t there then?

The work.

I hadn’t done the work. Writing is a byproduct of hours and hours of reading, researching, thinking, making my notecards. When a day’s writing goes well, it’s got little to do with that day at all. It’s actually a lagging indicator of hours and hours spent researching and thinking. Every passage and page has a prologue titled preparation.

The solution to my writer’s block that day was not to write at all. It was to stop for the day and go research the topic more. It was to go for a run and a walk. It was to do the prep work.

Success as a lagging indicator is a phenomenon that holds true across most areas in life.

When I look in the mirror and I’m a little flabby, that is a lagging indicator that, for weeks and months, I’ve slacked on eating healthy and exercising. When I’m grouchy and frustrated and anxious or short with my wife, that is usually a lagging indicator that I need to eat (in 2014, that most fights between couples are because someone is hungry). When I’m getting sick a lot, that is a lagging indicator that I have not been taking care of myself, working too hard, .

Your retirement accounts are a lagging indicator of whether or not you have your financial act together—earning enough, saving enough. Pulling an all-nighter is not a sign of dedication but a lagging indicator of the exact opposite. It means you plan poorly, you procrastinate, you aren’t proactive enough, you don’t know how to effectively manage your work and your time. Not being able to on vacation is a lagging indicator that you don’t have good systems in place. Hitting a personal record on the bench press is a lagging indicator of a lot of discipline and hard work. Receiving a promotion is a lagging indicator of a lot of quality work. Delivering a keynote with confidence is a lagging indicator .

All my books are lagging indicators. . That’s actually Robert Greene’s definition of creativity. He says, “creativity is a function of the previous work you put in.” Creativity is not mysterious or romantic. It’s tedious, Robert says. “If you put a lot of hours into thinking and researching and reading, hour after hour—a very tedious process—creativity will come to you.”

But so are their sales. sold in its first year what sold in a week. How? Because day after day after day, I worked to build a system, a platform, that has become a flywheel that day after day spins faster and faster. Combined, over a million readers have subscribed to , , , and this RSS email lists. Of course, I have social media, too (you can follow me on , , and ). In other words, I’ve filled a dozen football stadiums worth of “true fans” who I have built a relationship with.

This is what keeps me moving—knowing that I have to keep filling and refilling the creative well. Knowing that creative output is a lagging indicator of a lot of hours of tedious work. Knowing that if I want to publish more books in the future, the only question is, am I doing the work now?

It’s what keeps my priorities straight as a parent. I want to have a relationship with my kids as long as I am able to—which means investing in it now. In twenty years, attendance at Thanksgiving will be voluntary. .

It’s true as a spouse too. Fifty years of marriage is a lagging indicator of how quickly arguments are resolved today, how mistakes are handled today, the pressure of (or better yet, the lack thereof) today.

And it’s true of fame and celebrity—at least the good kind, not the famous-from-a-sex tape kind. Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden that “fame is the excrement of creativity, it’s the shit that comes out the back end, it’s a by-product of it.” It’s a lagging indicator of years of making stuff that people like and get to know you through.

Even this article is an example. It’s a lagging indicator, a byproduct of a process that started with an idea on a notecard, to an idea I kicked around with others in conversations and with myself on walks, which led to a first draft I spent time on across several days, which I returned to across several weeks whenever I had tweaks and improvements, which was edited by a team, and then finally published.

Nothing comes from nowhere. Not success. Not inspiration. Not the muses. Not writer’s block. Everything is a lagging indicator. Of whether or not you did the work.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.