One of the best kinds of joy is when you set what you think are high aspirations, and then to your surprise do so well that you blow those aspirations away.
Three examples for you to contemplate:
In 1899, one of Thomas Edison’s first inventions, the stock ticker, got the attention of the President of the Gold & Stock Telegraph company for which Edison worked. This president, General Lefferts, wanted to pay him for the rights to use it. Edison was trying to muster up the courage to ask for what he thought the invention was worth. From Edison, His Life and Inventions:
He called me into his office, and said: `Now, young man, I want to close up the matter of your inventions. How much do you think you should receive?’ I had made up my mind that, taking into consideration the time and killing pace I was working at, I should be entitled to $5000, but could get along with $3000. When the psychological moment arrived, I hadn’t the nerve to name such a large sum, so I said: `Well, General, suppose you make me an offer.’ Then he said: `How would $40,000 strike you?’ This caused me to come as near fainting as I ever got. I was afraid he would hear my heart beat. I managed to say that I thought it was fair.
In the early 1970s, Stephen King was a school teacher making $6400 a year, raising a family and selling short stories to men’s magazines for a couple hundred dollars each. He had a minor breakthrough when his novel, Carrie, became the first to be accepted by a publisher. Doubleday paid him a small advance of $2500. He and his wife discussed the possibility of the paperback reprint rights being sold. It was a dream, he acknowledged, but King’s best guess was that it might bring between ten and sixty thousand dollars, of which he’d get 50%. Thirty thousand dollars was 4+ years of teaching. “It was a lot of money. Probably just pie in the sky, but it was a night for dreaming,” King recounts in his book On Writing.
King goes on to recount the Mother’s Day in 1973 that his agent Bill Thompson called, long after he had forgotten about Carrie.
“Are you sitting down?” Bill asked.
“No,” I said. Our phone hung on the kitchen wall, and I was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. “Do I need to?”
“You might,” he said. “The paperback rights to Carrie went to Signet Books for four hundred thousand dollars.”
[…] I was completely speechless. I stood there in the doorway, casting the same shadow as always, but I couldn’t talk. Bill asked if I was still there, kind of laughing as he said it. He knew I was.
I hadn’t heard him right. Couldn’t have. The idea allowed me to find my voice again, at least. “Did you say it went for forty thousand dollars?”
“Four hundred thousand dollars,” he said. “Under the rules of the road” — meaning the contract I’d signed — “two hundred K of it’s yours. Congratulations, Steve.”
I was still standing in the doorway, looking across the living room toward our bedroom and the crib where Joe slept. Our place on Sanford Street rented for ninety dollars a month and this man I’d only met once face-to-face was telling me I’d just won the lottery. The strength ran out of my legs. I didn’t fall, exactly, but I kind of whooshed down to a sitting position there in the doorway.
“Are you sure?” I asked Bill.
He said he was. I asked him to say the number again, very slowly and very clearly, so I could be sure I hadn’t misunderstood. He said the number was a four followed by five zeros. “After that a decimal point and two more zeros,” he added.
Not even sure what to do, Stephen King felt compelled to go buy his wife a Mother’s Day present, so he went to the local drug store and bought the most extravagant thing he could find there… a hair dryer. When he returned home, she was there.
I took her by the shoulders. I told her about the paperback sale. She didn’t appear to understand. I told her again. Tabby looked over my shoulder at our shitty little four-room apartment, just as I had, and began to cry.
A final story, which I captured in a podcast interview. Kristen Wylie, a former coworker of mine from Franklin, Massachusetts, had been taking her two daughters Amanda (12) and Katie (9) to singing, acting, and dancing lessons. On a whim while attending a class in New York, they joined about five hundred other girls during an open call auditioning for the musical Annie. the third national touring production of Annie. They were thrilled to get a callback for the next day, calling that alone a victory. Little did they know that they’d work their way through callback after callback, and both succeed in earning a spot as two of the six orphan girls for the third national tour, performing a couple hundred times across over 90 U.S. cities.
The lesson? Work hard, aim high, and expect success… but don’t stop when you get there. The best rewards may be yet to come.