(12 minutes reading time)
They say it takes ten years. Yes, ten years of effort and commitment until such an event happens that you’re considered an overnight success. For me it took fourteen.
Those years began with me getting up well before sunrise and driving to markets to sell my nature photos, with accompanying inspirational quotes I’d written. This was before the Internet arrived. So, you took your work to the people instead of having them come to you. During this time, I also held jobs I hated within the banking industry. There was nothing really wrong with the jobs, just that my heart wasn’t in them.
At most markets I prayed to at least make enough to cover the cost of my stall. Mostly I didn’t, though once a woman gave me a $10 tip (because I didn’t have any money to give her change). Her grace healed my defeated heart. But even if I wasn’t making money, it was impossible not to notice how many people said my work would be great in a book. So, a few years later I created a photography and inspiration gift book. It was called ‘A Little Something.’
This was still before the Internet, though it was starting to creep in. Submissions to publishers were in paper form. So were rejection letters. Over the course of a few years, my pile of them grew to four or five inches high. Every time I sent a submission off to another publisher, hope rose, until the rejection letter arrived. Within a day, my commitment somehow kicked back in and I’d be off to the printers and post office, getting yet another submission ready to post. As long as it was out there, possibility remained. But after a few years, not even the strongest spirit could deny it wasn’t working. There was much encouragement from publishers, but it just wasn’t what they needed at the time and colour printing was an expensive exercise for them.
In frustration I picked up a guitar and half wrote my first song. It remained hidden by my embarrassment, with no one hearing it until years later. I quit my office job at a photography lab, realising I was never going to be transferred to the creative team. The next couple of years were lost, as I went from temp job to temp job, leaning on my previous banking career. Then after praying for a job with heart, I was called to work in palliative care: unqualified in the role, except for a kind heart and natural empathy. The rest I learnt as I went. (I share that story and so much more in my first memoir, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.) In the meantime, my songwriting was improving, and I started doing gigs at open mic nights around Sydney.
I hated being on stage, but the call to share my message pushed me on. Almost every night, I drove there in dread and returned home in tears. During the daytime I sat by the bedsides of dying people, carrying both them and their families through the greatest sadness they had known. I remember one day crying in the bathroom of one of my patients. My load was too heavy, with no support professionally or personally. I prayed, clearly, ‘Please let this be worth it’. What my heart meant was, ‘Please let it help the families I am caring for’. What I couldn’t imagine then was that it would be worth it for me too, that life was taking it all in and putting things in place for a better future for me. Palliative care was to play a massive role in my life’s calling, as well as in my creative life. I thought it was just a job to fund my creative endeavours, even though it was very personal and I came to love many of my patients.
When I started wearing out from years of that work, my idea to set up a songwriting program in a women’s jail eventually turned into reality. I taught female inmates for about a year. During this time I also began writing an online blog. The second article was about the regrets that dying people had shared with me. It is no real surprise that I completely burnt out soon after the teaching role, despite it being an amazing experience. But one can only serve others for so long without sustenance.
It was time to learn how to receive, as life pulled the rug out from under me. More about that time is also in my book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. As I climbed out that abyss of darkness, the blog post I had written months earlier took off, reaching over a million people in its first year. (It has since reached over 10 times that.) An agent contacted me about writing a book. Like many people, I always felt I had one in me. This was a chance to stop doing pub gigs and find work more suited to my quiet nature. The life of an author felt enticing, even if a little unbelievable. Sure enough, the book was rejected 25 times and I was released from the contract.
There was no point in quitting it by then, though. Plus, what else was I going to do? So, I released The Top Five Regrets of the Dying independently, kept writing a blog, and focused on healing. Within a year or two of that time, I had intentionally and gratefully conceived a baby, becoming a first-time mum at 45. Things didn’t work out with her father, so by the time my daughter was born I was already a single mum.
In the same 24 hours as my darling little girl came into the world, I was offered an international publishing deal with my dream publishing house. The full story of that is in my third book, Bloom. My second book is Your Year for Change, a collection of short stories. It was written just after my daughter was born. As well as the publishing contract arriving with her birth, so did disease into my dear body. At the time of writing Your Year for Change, I had a newborn baby and felt like my hands and feet were in vats of boiling oil 24/7. Short stories were all I was capable of. My publisher and I were going to make it 50, but 50 Shades of Grey was gaining momentum, so we thought we’d best stay away from that number! So, I decided on 52 stories, one for each week of the year. Hence, Your Year for Change.
I didn’t know then how much that format would actually suit some of my readers. Others read it right through or opened a story at random. Either way, this quiet achiever of a book lives in the shadow of its predecessor yet remains the favourite for some of my readers. Bloom followed a few years later. It’s a tale of courage, surrender and breaking through upper limits. It’s my favourite book, perhaps because of who it made me. But Five Regrets remains the classic that people from all around the world seem to most relate. After those 25 rejections, it is now in 32 languages with a movie in the pipeline.
I travelled to Europe to do a TedX talk. I thought people would be sick of hearing about the five regrets, so didn’t mention them. I focused on regret-free living, something I have mastered very well myself. But almost every person who queued to say hello after my talk, also said, ‘I thought you would have mentioned the five regrets’. Oops! We live and learn. In the meantime, others have taken my work without credit and clicked up millions of views. (It might be best to read the copyright guidelines now on our FAQ page before considering it yourself!)
Through all of the success and learning, my main focus has been to stay connected to my own heart and what makes me happy, not how I will be perceived by others. It takes courage to live that way, but is also incredibly freeing. I’ve been bullied by journalists and podcasters wanting my time, been judged online by people who know nothing about me, ran out of money in between royalties while having to learn that sometimes it floods, sometimes it trickles, and sometimes it flows beautifully with little effort or excess.
I’ve created two online programs. The first, Regret-Free and Loving It, hands the tools onward that I’ve developed and implemented into my own life to be truly free of regrets. It continues to help people all over the world to change their lives. The second program, Write for Delight, supports budding writers who might otherwise sabotage their dreams, by thinking too far ahead or judging their writing so harshly that they forget the joy it offers. I’ve also released two albums of original songs, before my hands stopped working properly through disease, making guitar playing nearly impossible.
My first job out of school was in banking. I have no qualifications in palliative care or writing, nor in banking, for that matter. What I do have are courage, commitment, boundaries, and the understanding that if I don’t back myself, I am going to regret it. Having repeatedly witnessed the regrets of the dying, I well know the pain and anguish they cause. No amount of challenges to break through fears will ever be as heart-wrenching as lying on my deathbed knowing I could have chosen differently, but didn’t, due to lack of courage.
It is just over a decade since my blog first exploded onto the international scene, 14 years after my first foray into creativity at the markets. That’s more than two decades of backing myself. It seems astounding when I look at it that way. Over twenty years since I first dared to think I could live differently, by working for myself instead of someone else.
I thought I wrote that first book, A Little Something, for others (and as an eBook, it is a part of my premium package so does reach some people), but I also wrote it for myself. My own words within it remind me: Have fun and trust in the process. Miracles and adventures are floating your way.
I am paid well to speak on stages these days. It is something I find natural and delightful, compared to who I was when venturing onto the stages to play my songs all those years ago. I have also just finished writing my first novel. Again, I had no qualifications, just the courage to act on my heart’s calling, to follow its yearning and curiosity. I’ll have to start again with publishing, since my current publisher doesn’t do the type of fiction I’ve written. But it’s lovely being curious and trusting in how the journey will unfold.
Life and success are a step by step process. We cannot always know where it’s all leading, even if we think we do. I’ve found that the more present I can be, by surrendering with trust into each step, the more life blesses me with surprises and shortcuts. This has been revealed repeatedly. When I dare to let go of the ‘how’, particularly if it’s taking me too far from joy, then life breathes a sigh of relief and offers a helping hand, always more perfect than I could have imagined. One of my songs was inspired by these occurrences. It’s called ‘Let Yourself be Surprised’. Tune into it on regular streaming channels if you need a reminder from time to time.
Even though it is decades since I first began selling my photos at markets, I’m still learning, still a beginner. I am also still allowing myself to live on my own terms. It is up to each of us to define our own version of success, then give ourselves permission to honour that. I live a simple life, focusing on my time offline much more than on. I could have developed a company with 20 staff and be making much more money than I’ve ever known. But everything has a price, and time is worth more than gold. I have enough to eat well, live in an amazing country (Australia) and have clean water. I pay my bills, provide for my daughter and I through work I love, and live at a gentle pace.
Success is what you make it. Those moments that may appear to define you, like when my work first went viral, are not what really do. It is the everyday decisions you make that really shape success and joy.
If you have the courage to honour your heart through conscious choice and action, facing each fear as it arises, then you are already a success. You don’t need 10 years to become one overnight. You are already on your way.