Tuesday, January 27, 2009
When thinking of success many people turn to role models. How has someone else done what you want to do before? The danger with role models is that we often pick them because of their results. We may look at women's success like Jackie Joyner Kersey's athleticism, Katherine Hepburn's portfolio of movies, or Beatrix Potter's generational tale of Peter Rabbit and see them only for what they produced.
I realized my own "star struck" role model studies were causing frustration and perhaps unrealism. When we study role models we are so focused on all that the person has achieved and we forget that in some cases it took 10-20-30 years or even a lifetime to create.
We read of a role model's success in a period of hours and because it took us a far shorter time to read or to watch a movie of their life, as compared to actually creating the success, I believe our brains develop a false sense of just how long it takes to create something successful.
Before J.K. Rowling became a smashing success with Harry Potter, another Englishwoman, Beatrix Potter, drew similar fame and generated another literary legacy with her Peter Rabbit books.
I've always been under the impression that Beatrix Potter was a strong, forthright woman. Perhaps Renée Zellweger's bright, solid portrayal of Beatrix in the 2006 movie, Miss Potter, plays in my mind as I read an old biography on Beatrix Potter entitled "The Tale of Beatrix Potter" (1946).
In this biography by Margaret Lane, I am reminded of how lonely and awkward Beatrix Potter was in her early life. Born in 1866 to uninteresting parents who felt parenting simply meant providing a roof over a child's head and arranging for their education, Potter found herself living a very quiet, secluded childhood.
She was never sent off to school, having a governess teach her in an upstairs playroom/nursery instead. Potter didn't hang out with friends or cousins her own age. She did have a younger brother, with whom she was quite close it seems, but he was sent off to school as soon as it was appropriate.
Through loneliness and to entertain herself, Potter was forced to create her own stimulating environment and she did this beautifully.
She was intrigued with nature, finding her summer vacations on Scottish estates far more exciting than living indoors in London. In Scotland, she could run free and explore – which she did with relish. She carefully studied and drew rabbits, frogs, and fungi. As she drew, she observed the behavior of her subjects which is how she created such endearing and yet still anatomically correct, animals for her children's books.
Potter decided to convert a story she told, that of Peter Rabbit, into a book. She approached six publishers with her idea and drawings, only to be rejected by each.
Disappointed but not giving up, she decided to print her own private edition of 250 copies. Her "little book," as she called it, was surprising popular and many of her family and acquaintances would buy four or five copies at a time to give as gifts to the children they knew.
Emboldened by this warm reception, she again approached the one publisher who had given her the softest rejection. As the book was now somewhat proven, the publisher felt the risk of publication was less and took on the book.
I've always been so impressed with the steps Potter took to get her book published. I found it especially remarkable because it was the late 19th century and she lived in a time when respectable middle class ladies such as herself didn't write or work. Although Potter didn't grow up in economic poverty, her childhood was void of social interaction, stimulation, and from our modern perspective, love. Her parents were not interested in her, yet this was not necessarily a reflection on Potter, but rather her parents were not interested in much of anything!
Potter, in contrast, lived her entire life with her childlike enthusiasm (a key ingredient to creativity that sculptor, Maya Lin, also adheres to), and saw the magic of living throughout her life. Her books created financial independence for her, a rare feat for a woman of her time.
She was able to create the life she wanted and she became successful, not only in her writing career, but also in her second career as a rancher and land preservationist. Yet driving all this success, under all this strength, lay a reticent, awkward, quiet, young woman whose self consciousness manifest itself into perfection.
When Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" was accepted for publication, she went into a frenzy. In letters to her publisher, she questioned the quality of the drawings, offering to do them over again and again.
"I am perfectly willing to redraw the who if desired…" p. 64
"Would you be so kind to post me the two [drawings] that are the worst? I should be very glad to try them again, any that you are not satisfied with…" p. 65
While it is a natural inclination to want the drawings to be perfect for her publisher's edition, I find it interesting that she didn't seem so self conscious for her own private edition. I expect she didn't take her private edition as seriously, after all, it was just "a little book."
During negotiations with her publisher over her writing contract, she states, "I must apologize for not understanding, but I would like to be clear about it… I am aware that these little books don't last long, even if they are a success; but I should like to know what I am agreeing to…I have not spoken to Mr. Potter [her father], but I think, Sir, it would be well to explain the agreement clearly, because he is a little formal, having been a barrister." P 64
It isn't that I find her language objectionable or disempowering; it is just that it struck me as very different from the image I held of the stolid Beatrix Potter, successful author and ranch woman. While studying her as my role model, I had forgotten that she too, started at the very beginning, with rejection letters from publishers and a lack of understanding of the industry.
I remember when my manuscript for A Portrait of Josephine was with an agent I developed an acute attack of writer's block and I fretted over the revisions my editor suggested. I was so surprised by my feelings that my novel was no longer "good enough" just because it was being considered by someone in the industry.
I was relieved to read of Potter's own self-doubts and beginnings, especially since her success was so great. It is helpful for me to keep in mind that when I am learning about someone who is successful, I keep an accurate perspective on the amount of time it took for them to become successful. I hope Potter's example will help you be more forgiving of yourself if you are currently in the beginning of your journey to success.
As a side note: The reason Potter became so wealthy in her own right was because of the franchising opportunity she created with Peter Rabbit. This same model has been utilized modernly by George Lucas with Star Wars and more recently by J.K. Rowling with Harry Potter. I just noticed while writing this article that Harry and Beatrix have the same last name. I can't help but wonder if Englishwoman, J.K. Rowling could have been inspired by Beatrix Potter's legacy and perhaps her lead character's name is an homage. This is pure speculation.
Click here to watch a wonderful, short interview with Renée Zellweger regarding her portrayal of Beatrix Potter.
Allison Frederick believes that Role Modeling is one of the most effective ways to launch a program, improve a product, and personally achieve a higher level of success and goals. www.AllisonFrederick.com