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John Grisham Can't Be Stopped

Four keys to persistence when you feel like giving up

Brent Hall, used with permission
Source: Brent Hall, used with permission

The bad guys are out to get you – do you give up or keep fighting? In a John Grisham story the answer is obvious: no matter what they are up against, his characters never give up. It turns out, however, the only thing more persistent than a John Grisham character is John Grisham himself.

Today, John Grisham’s books have sold hundreds of millions of copies. Long known for legal thrillers that dominate the adult reading market, he’s more recently branched out with a bestselling ‘kid lawyer’ series for school children.

But before any of that happened, John Grisham heard one word, and he heard it repeatedly.

That word was ‘No.’

After being inspired by the details of a real case he had come across in the county courthouse, Grisham began rising early before his work day began at a law firm. He took the case details he knew and made them bleaker and fiercer, and the result was A Time to Kill.

He sent the manuscript to literary agents. One, then another, and another and another said it had no commercial potential. When he finally found someone to represent him, every big publishing house in the country took its turn rejecting the novel. Every. Single. One.

In the face of zero encouragement from the publishing world, Grisham did two critical things. First, he never stopped sending out the manuscript. Second, he started writing his second novel before anyone even wanted the first.

Where does extraordinary persistence like this come from? Research points to four factors that surely helped Grisham get where he is and can help all of us get where we want to go.

First, persistence is habit forming.* Grisham has said that without going to law school he would never have become a writer. And while he was talking about how the law was the topic that launched him into fiction, it’s true in another sense as well. Persisting in anything helps us persist in everything. The fact that he had successfully completed law school – persevered through years of study and taking the bar exam – was ideal training for the task of persisting through the obstacle course that is publishing.

Second, persistence is a dividend of interest.** We imagine that persistent people have this super-power they can apply to any task at hand. In truth, persistence is a product of passion and interest. Grisham aced law school because he loved learning about the law. He conquered publishing because he loved writing about the law. But he ran screaming from his day job as a lawyer because the work of an attorney bore little resemblance to the great debates taking place inside a law school class and even less to the great tribulations that take place in one of his books.

Third, persistence happens a moment at a time or it doesn’t.*** Grisham had a demanding job and a young family. He could have easily given up on his book idea before he got started. But he didn’t try to write a book every morning at 5:30 am, he tried to write sentences, and pages. The totality of a big task can overwhelm anyone. But broken down into its constituent pieces we can actually do something -- today -- now that moves us closer to our goal.

Fourth, persistent people don’t care what you think.**** John Grisham keeps a file of all those rejection letters he received as a reminder of the modest beginnings of his life as an author. Stacked up against a ceiling-high pile of bestselling books, those rejection letters reveal a powerful truth persistent people understand:

No one can ever make you give up, except yourself.


* Eisenberger, Robert, and Fred A. Masterson. "Required high effort increases subsequent persistence and reduces cheating." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 44.3 (1983): 593.

** Isen, Alice M., and Johnmarshall Reeve. "The influence of positive affect on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: Facilitating enjoyment of play, responsible work behavior, and self-control." Motivation and emotion 29.4 (2005): 295-323.

*** Lent, Robert W., Steven D. Brown, and Kevin C. Larkin. "Relation of self-efficacy expectations to academic achievement and persistence." Journal of counseling psychology 31.3 (1984): 356.

**** Costa-Giomi, Eugenia, Patricia J. Flowers, and Wakaha Sasaki. "Piano lessons of beginning students who persist or drop out: Teacher behavior, student behavior, and lesson progress." Journal of Research in Music Education 53.3 (2005): 234-247.

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