The secret to success (well, some thoughts anyway…)

I once heard an anecdote from a famous literary agent’s assistant that made me laugh:

‘Every author wants a publishing deal. The authors who are critically acclaimed want to be commercially successful, and the authors who are commercially successful want to be critically acclaimed.

‘Every author is desperate to win an award. And those authors who win an award are most miserable of all, for they see the award as an albatross around their necks and fear nothing they ever do will scale those heights again.’

(Basically, every author is miserable!)

People definitely compare themselves upwards. None of these authors were thinking ‘It’s so great I have an agent!’ They were taking that for granted and wishing they were more successful. So there’s definitely something to be said for being extremely grateful for where you are now in life, rather than always striving for more.

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But if I had any advice for achieving your goals, it would be along the following lines:

Work out what you want to achieve. You can’t aim for a target you haven’t set. I know many people who want to lose weight, but that’s such a nebulous goal that it doesn’t focus the mind. In contrast, a goal to lose 4 stone is specific and measurable, and you know when you’ve achieved it.

Figure out the steps between you and your goal. Break it down into manageable chunks.

Recognise that you’ll fail before you succeed. You’ll take two steps forward, one step back. If we’re talking creativity, everyone gets rejected at times; everyone has to produce more than will ever be published or used. Just think of all the many drafts of novels. Remember Samuel Beckett’s quote: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Keep going. You’ll fall down, but make sure to keep getting up and attempting to succeed. You’ll be amazed by how many people fall by the wayside. The person who succeeds is often the last (wo)man standing. So keep your goal in mind when things get tough.

You never know when your luck will turn – when you’ll come to the attention of a gatekeeper who could change your life, or just get an exciting opportunity. Last week, I was headhunted for a role. It wasn’t right for me, but at least that person now knows I exist.

I also got invited to debate Brexit on Good Morning Britain. They went with another guest in the end, but I wasn’t expecting the invitation, and the randomness of it cheered me up. (Though I was also slightly relieved at being stood down to be honest – pretty sure Twitter would have been unusable for me for about two days afterwards thanks to angry Brexiteers!)

Writers: remember to preface harsh feedback with ‘in my opinion’. I’ve been told before by a literary agent that I can’t write. It floored me; I had to remind myself I’ve written endless columns for the Guardian, and lots for the Spectator and the Sunday Times. That knowledge helped to reframe this person’s opinion as ‘in my opinion, you can’t write’. And, in less polite terms: fuck ’em. Feedback should be constructive, and that wasn’t. Metaphorically kick them in the fanny and move on.

People who aren’t gatekeepers will also be shitty about your achievements. Look at the comments section of any comedy article. You’ll find ‘This isn’t funny’; ‘That’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back’; ‘I can’t believe [publication] pays for this crap.’ That’s cool: you got paid and credited and you aren’t the person wasting your life leaving negative comments. Put it down to jealousy and don’t let it bother you. The publication wouldn’t have run the article if they didn’t like it.

Realise that you have to adapt to life’s changes. The Guardian stopped running me regularly in 2010; it hurt as it was the paper I grew up reading, and I still love it. I’d write for it again in a heartbeat, but if not, other publications are available. I also really enjoy writing for the Daily Mash and writing books for Little, Brown.

Sometimes things change because of you, not your employer. I realised I wasn’t enjoying writing for television in late 2007, and made the leap to journalism after six years of telly. I used to love going into the BBC and being the youngest person in writers’ rooms, but now I go into the BBC as an occasional commentator and am sometimes the oldest person on the panel, and that’s OK too. Life changes and you have to change with it rather than be depressed by it.

Oh, and lastly: never self-deprecate! As someone wiser than me once said, ‘People accept the value you place upon yourself’. Keep telling people you’re rubbish and they’ll eventually believe you.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

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The time I got ‘pregnant’, aged 10

The first boy I ever kissed was Seth*, a boy at my school, when I was ten.

Seth was my mum’s friend’s kid, and I would go over to his house to play after school on a Thursday. Though only three months younger, he was in the year below me, so thankfully didn’t realise how unpopular I was at school.

Seth’s mum had a whopping five children, three of them under six – so fortuitously for us, she couldn’t keep tabs on us easily. One warm evening when I was ten, Seth and I were lying facing each other in a hammock in the garden, our bare legs touching – and I started to feel all tingly and weird. Seth must have felt it too, as he asked, ‘Do you want to go up to my room?’

We went up to his room, and he asked me, ‘Do you want to kiss?’. I hesitated, and nodded. Then he warned, ‘No tongues, though.’

I was confused. How could I take my tongue out of my mouth? Surely I couldn’t. I compromised by pushing it as far back in my mouth as I could before we kissed. I still remember how soapy and clean Seth smelt.

The next week, we kissed again, and he said, ‘Do you want to sex?’

My mum had told me about sex a couple of months previously, looking extremely embarrassed. She’d mumbled, ‘The man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina, and that makes a baby.’

The next day, I’d gone into school and excitedly told a girl in my class, ‘Guess what sex is? The man puts his willy in the woman’s fanny!’

‘You’re lying!’ she accused me. ‘That’s disgusting!’

‘I’m not lying!’ I insisted. ‘My mum told me.’

‘You’re lying!’ she said again.

These days, she’s a doctor and is married, so hopefully she now knows I was telling the truth.

I didn’t know how to have sex in practice though.

‘I don’t really know how,’ I confessed to Seth.

‘It’s okay, I know,’ Seth reassured me. ‘I’ve seen it in films. First, you take all your clothes off except your pants.’

We both stripped down to our pants.

‘Then I lie on top of you,’ Seth instructed.

I obediently lay on the floor, and he lay on top of me.

‘And now I do this,’ he finished.

He began thrusting on top of me, and grunting: ‘Uh! Uh! Uh!’

I could feel something hard pressing into my knickers, between my legs, which wasn’t very comfortable.

After about a minute, Seth stood up and announced, ‘There. I’ve sexed you.’

I was distinctly underwhelmed by the sexing. If that was sex, I decided, I was happy to do without it forever.

The next day, I woke up with a sick, horrendous feeling in my stomach. I remembered what my mum had told me: The man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina, and that makes a baby.

This must mean I was pregnant, which was terrible news. My dad was literally going to kill me!

I didn’t tell anyone, though. I just cried every morning for months, and stared at my belly in the mirror. Was it swelling, or did I imagine it? Was a baby growing inside me?

I hadn’t started my periods yet, but I’d heard that you could get pregnant before starting them if there was an egg there. It was the end of my life, and I was only ten.

To her credit, my mum asked me several times what was wrong, but I couldn’t tell her I’d had sex with Seth. She was embarrassed enough about sex as it was, and would definitely disown me.

Eventually, I was exonerated by my Usborne book How Your Body Works. It said that boys started producing semen aged eleven. Seth was only ten! The wash of relief that coursed through my body was immense.

Of course, Seth hadn’t actually come either, and you can’t get pregnant through your knickers anyway – but How Your Body Works couldn’t tell me that.

*name changed


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