In 1965, a young man named Tom graduated from college with a degree in English.
Soon after, Tom took a job with an insurance company in Connecticut. After working there for seven years, he transitioned to a new role in the industry and started working for an insurance agency. He worked at that insurance agency for the next eight years.
In 1980, he decided to buy a small insurance agency. At this point Tom had been working in the insurance industry for 15 years, but he was beginning to feel an internal pull to do work that really excited him. He had always wanted to write a novel.
He started by writing in his spare time. Then, he started cutting his work day short so that he would have more time to write. Eventually, he was working on the novel whenever he could find time.
His wife, Wanda, recalled Tom's early writing years by saying, “He was writing at home every weekend. I told him he should go back to selling insurance.”
In 1984, after working for almost 20 years in the insurance industry, Tom Clancy finally published his first book, The Hunt for Red October.
He was hoping to sell 5,000 copies. By the end of the decade it had sold more than 2 million.
It’s Never Too Late to Reinvent Yourself
Tom Clancy was one of the most successful authors of his generation. Focusing primarily on military story lines, Clancy wrote 17 novels that became #1 New York Times best-sellers. In total, his books sold more than 100 million copies. Many of them, including The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and The Sum of All Fears were turned into major motion pictures. Others became the basis for popular video games like Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, and Splinter Cell. For millions of readers, Tom Clancy is a household name.
But even with all of those amazing achievements, what I found most amazing about Clancy was his willingness to reinvent himself.
We all have goals that we say are important to us — getting in shape, building a business, writing a book, and so on — but for most of us, the inertia of life holds us back. This is especially true when we're living a relatively comfortable life. Most people in Tom Clancy's situation would probably continue their insurance career rather than chase the dream of becoming a novelist.
It's easy to look at someone with the success of Tom Clancy and claim that he was destined for success. 100 million copies sold? He must have been born to be a writer. But if you were to look at him at any point during the first 20 years of his career, you wouldn't have seen a writer at all.
And that raises an interesting question…
What made the biggest difference in Clancy's life? Was it his level of talent? Or was it his willingness to make choices and take action?
There are plenty of talented people who never make a choice to do something different, to reinvent themselves, and to pursue their dreams. It's hard to work up the guts to try something new. Nobody wants to feel stupid and start from the beginning all over again.
But talent isn't worth a thing without the willingness to take action. It's great to have a dream, but it's better to pursue it.
How many Tom Clancys are out there right now, holding their dreams inside and letting the inertia of life pull them in the same direction they've always gone?
Tom Clancy's Advice for Writing (And Life)
“You learn to write the same way you learn to play golf. You do it, and keep doing it until you get it right. A lot of people think something mystical happens to you, that maybe the muse kisses you on the ear. But writing isn’t divinely inspired — it’s hard work.” 1
—Tom Clancy (source)
There's nothing special that happens to the people who choose to reinvent themselves and chase their dreams. It's not any easier for them than it is for you. It's just that at some point, they choose to do the work. They choose to take action. And they choose themselves.
Reinventing yourself and developing a new skill is hard work. Going from out of shape to the best shape of your life is hard work. Transitioning from corporate desk jockey to proud entrepreneur is hard work. Moving from life-long insurance salesman to best-selling novelist is hard work. And so is pretty much every other goal worth fighting for.
As Clancy says, there's nothing “mystical” about it. You won't feel “divinely inspired.” The first steps toward any dream are slow, unsexy, and inconvenient — sort of like writing a novel on the weekends while you're still running a small insurance agency.
And to further complicate things, reinventing yourself is particularly hard because nobody is going to praise you for it — especially in the beginning. Tom Clancy's wife told him to “go back to selling insurance.”
The good news is that the path to doing work you love might not look the way you expected, but it can still get you to where you want to go — if you make the choice to try something new.
It’s never too late to reinvent yourself.
Special shout out to Julio, the awesome reader who originally sent me the Tom Clancy quote.