Monday, Feb. 24,likely will pass without much notice. The distance runners I coach at JSerra Catholic High School probably will spend the afternoon doing their weekly long run in the hills above San Juan Capistrano without any idea of its significance. I could point out that Feb. 24 is the date on which President Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868, the Nazi party was founded in 1920, Steve Jobs was born in 1955, and the 1968 Tet offensive of the Vietnam War ended. So it’s actually a pretty big day. But
it will be special to me this year because Feb. 24 also marks the 20th anniversary of the day I left the corporate world.
I will not share this detail with my runners, and I don’t think it would sound like much to them anyway. They’re still too young to appreciate how soul crushing a dead-end career can feel, or understand the quiet desperation of realizing that your hopes and dreams are going—and then gone. But they are the beneficiaries of a lesson I learned because of that day. Quite simply: The harder you work, the luckier you get.
I did not possess a good work ethic back when I was employed at what then was called Fluor Daniel, the engineering and construction giant in Irvine. In fact, I was quite possibly the worst employee in the history of corporate America. I arrived late and left when I felt like it. My lunch hours were long and taken at arbitrary times. I was fond of slipping away from the office for the occasional mid-afternoon matinee. And I managed to write several screenplays while pretending to bust my hump as a marketing coordinator, thanks to the Shift-F7 keystroke, which made it possible to change computer screens in an instant.
When there was not corporate work to tackle—and very often when there was—I also wrote magazine stories in my little cubicle. If an editor needed to get ahold of me, it was as simple as dialing my Fluor Daniel phone number. More than anything, my prayer was that I would find a way to unlash myself from the corporate wheel and become a full-time writer. I envisioned that this would involve a few hours each day of putting my deepest, innermost thoughts on paper, as well as many, many afternoons taking in a matinee.
I didn’t quit Fluor Daniel, so my leap of faith wasn’t as romantic as I might have liked. I was fired. I’d received a call offering me a magazine assignment in Madagascar, which would mean taking a three-week leave of absence. My boss graciously granted me the time off, only to fire me on my first day back. He did it Jerry McGuire style, in the middle of a crowded restaurant so I wouldn’t make a scene. Keith Thomsen need not have worried. I was overjoyed. It took a few weeks and a great deal of persuasion, but my wife eventually bought into the idea of me taking a flier on the writing life.
At the time, our sons were 1 and 3. My wife did not work. Up to that point, the most money I’d ever made as a writer in a single year was less than $6,000. And yet, on the morning of Feb. 24, 1994, as I poured a mug of coffee and headed out to that corner of our garage which now comprises my office, I was unafraid. I was living the dream.
“Make this work,” Calene told me, balancing our oldest on one arm. “If you’re going to do this, you’re all in. Make it work.”
I’ve never forgotten those words. They changed my life. Calene’s unshakeable faith in my ability gave me the resolve to do whatever it took to keep the writing afloat. That meant work. A lot of it.
And not a single matinee.
During the past 20 years, my wife has taken considerable grief from people who think that writing is some sort of whimsical profession. They ask her how much longer she’s going to indulge my dreams before asking me to get a real job. Even close family and friends have treated her like a fool.
But Calene has never buckled. She’s never swerved from her belief that I was meant to be a writer. Or perhaps she understands that her husband is otherwise unemployable, though I prefer to think the former. Either way, she has been resolute in her belief that somehow, some way, the writing gig would work.
There’s that word again: work.
Writing is a blue-collar profession. Nothing glamorous about it. You put your butt in the chair every day and write. You don’t just write when the muse speaks, because more often than not, she doesn’t. As a writer friend of mine once noted, “I don’t believe in writer’s block any more than a plumber believes in plumber’s block.” You hustle to put words on the page, and work the email and phones to find that next job. Anything involving the written word is fair game: magazine work, press releases, technical editing—anything to pay the bills and keep writing for a living. For years, I wrote the online catalog copy for Asics’ lines of footwear and apparel. Those weren’t Hemingway moments, but they were checks I was more than glad to cash.
And the more I worked, the luckier I got. The “coincidences” piled up.
I’m a man of faith, and know I didn’t travel this arduous path alone. But while everyone’s journey is different, Providence added one caveat to my challenge: Nothing happens without daily discipline and hard work. That’s not to say I find writing to be a grind. Quite the opposite. I am happiest when lost in the written word. I liken the process of writing a book to that of slowly slipping away from the real world, like a man in a boat, untying it from the dock and drifting into the middle of a vast lake. It’s still possible to see family and friends and responsibility from that vantage point, but they become distant and untouchable until the book ends and it’s time to row back to shore. I sometimes forget niceties like shaving and a daily shower during my months in the literary wilderness, which my wife refers to as “the bunker.” Then begins the inevitable task of reconnecting with the world.
I discovered this sensation in 1998, when my sons got too big for me to spend three months of every year on the road chasing magazine stories. I added even more words to my workload by writing a book on spec. It was a first-person take on the world of adventure racing that was rejected 21 times. I still have the letters. The common refrain: “We’re going to have to pass on this project.”
Dave Hanna, a longtime friend who owns Hanna’s Bistro in Rancho Santa Margarita, lent me the money to self-publish. Through an amazing coincidence, a representative of a big New York publishing house just happened to pay a call to the company I’d hired to print my book. Someone pressed into his hands a copy of my little opus. And the next day, after all those rejections, I got a call asking if that big publishing house could buy the rights. “Surviving the Toughest Race on Earth” was a flop, but by then I understood that the only failure in life comes from quitting. So I bashed on.
In 2000, six years after leaving the corporate world, the guy who called to dangle the Madagascar assignment back in 1993 repaid my faith in him. Mark Burnett had just hit the big time. He’d sold an idea for a TV series to CBS. It was to be called “Survivor.” Turns out, the guy he’d hired to chronicle the project was squeamish about snakes, and Burnett asked if I’d come to Borneo, live on Survivor Island for six weeks, and then write a book about it.
At the time, our house was on the verge of foreclosure. The amount Burnett was offering me was the exact sum we needed to save our home. I was on a flight from LAX to Kota Kinabalu that night.
I laugh when people describe
Orange County as laid-back. It’s a spectacular place to live, and I never tire of gazing up at Saddleback or walking the beach trail down at Strands in Dana Point. But judging from the people I know, those of us who live here work incredibly hard for the privilege of savoring those moments. There is nothing easygoing about the Orange County lifestyle.
I’ve heard that when you place a frog into boiling water it immediately leaps out. But if you immerse that frog in a lukewarm pot and slowly increase the heat, it will remain in the water, even once it boils. Sometimes I feel that this describes hard work. What once seems overwhelming slowly becomes tolerable. The once-impossible challenge now leads to the desire for new and even more daunting challenges.
So it was that I added coaching to my writing duties back in 2005. My son was a new student at JSerra and the school didn’t have a cross-country coach. I’d competed in high school and college, and had long wanted a team of my own. It took a few years of coaching but we finally began winning, and that came about only when I realized that the secret to success in distance running is the same as in writing: work. Lots and lots of it.
My runners pull me out of the bunker each day when I arrive at practice, forcing me to live in the moment. They demand nothing less than my complete attention. I give it to them, separating the absent-minded professor aspect of writing from the interpersonal connection of challenging young men and women to push themselves beyond their limits. We talk about the “bubble of mediocrity” that consumes so many people who settle for good enough, rather than challenging themselves to be better. Not the best, necessarily. But their best. And I find that the more I ask of my runners, and the harder they work, the more they value themselves as athletes and individuals. They appreciate the perseverance, character, and sense of hope that come only through enduring difficulty.
There also are tangible rewards. Those great young men and women have won three state championships, four Trinity League championships, and four CIF-Southern Section championships in the last four years.
Each summer the team travels to Mammoth for high-altitude training. It’s everyone’s favorite week of the year. In 2009, my agent called from New York just after the team had arrived in Mammoth on Monday. Could I be in New York for lunch on Wednesday? There was a guy he wanted me to meet, and a potential book deal.
Now, it’s not easy to get to New York from Mammoth Lakes. I could have asked that the meeting be pushed back a week. But if I’m going to ask my runners to tackle mountain trails in 90-degree heat, I couldn’t very well pass up the chance to secure a new book deal to feed my family just because the travel was hard.
I handed the team over to my assistant coach, got behind the wheel of my Suburban at 1 a.m., and drove through the night to Reno to catch a morning flight. My headlights went out halfway there, so I relied on my brights to make my way up that lonesome Sierra highway in absolute darkness. On the way back, the flight was delayed by thunderstorms, which meant I missed my connection and spent the night sleeping on the airport floor in Denver. It was a very difficult trip.
Although I have no recollection of what I ate, that lunch changed my life. The guy my agent wanted me to meet was Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly. The book we discussed was called “Killing Lincoln,” which went on to sell a couple million copies and has spawned a series of similar books and two movies. To this day I have no idea why O’Reilly offered me the job, but I’m certainly glad he did.
If you’d told me Feb. 24, 1994, all of the things that would happen just because I left the corporate world and developed a work ethic, it would have sounded far too good to be true. I’ve flown around the world on the Concorde at twice the speed of sound, covered the Tour de France each July for 10 years, and stumbled into a ton of other adventures that have found their way into the books and magazine articles that I’ve poured forth since that date 20 years ago.
Sure, these years often have felt like a roller coaster, but this has been a great ride.
And not just dumb luck.
A ‘Lucky’ Man’s Eclectic Bibliography
“On the Edge” (1994)
A collection of short adventure stories for Sports Illustrated for Kids. Made me believe that I could attempt something longer.
“Inline Skating Made Easy” (1997)
The best part about this book is that my contract stipulated I provide all the photos, so I took lots of photos of my wife and kids that now form a nice memory of when the boys were young.
“Surviving the Toughest Race on Earth” (1998)
The first real book. Written completely on faith and hope.
The true story of the Sydney-to-Hobart sailing tragedy, which claimed the lives of several blue-water sailors. Did all the research in Australia.
“Survivor: The Ultimate Game” (2000; with Mark Burnett)
Written during the 40 days and nights that the original “Survivor” was filmed. It was an amazing opportunity to write a book and live an adventure.
“Farther Than Any Man: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook” (2001)
My first history book, during which I learned the importance of deep research to make a story rise up off the page.
“Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone” (2004)
Got arrested by rogue cops while tracing the path of these legendary explorers. Scared the living daylights out of me—and made it a better book.
“The Last Voyage of Columbus” (2006)
The final book in my exploration trilogy—or so I thought.
“Chasing Lance” (2005)
Long before Armstrong’s fall from grace, I spent a decade covering the Tour de France and compiled those experiences into this book.
“The Training Ground” (2008)
This book about the Civil War’s greatest soldiers sold about 10 copies worldwide, but I’m proud of the work and sweat that went into it.
“The Murder of King Tut” (2009; with James Patterson)
A fun book to write, with lots of great worldwide research. Nothing beats being alone in King Tut’s tomb with the dead pharaoh himself.
“To Be a Runner” (2011)
As a runner for nearly 50 years, I challenged myself to write 30 essays about why I love being a runner.
“Killing Lincoln” (2011; with Bill O’Reilly)
“Killing Kennedy” (2012; with Bill O’Reilly)
At the time, the greatest research challenge of my life.
“Killing Jesus” (2013; with Bill O’Reilly)
An even more daunting research challenge.
“The Explorers” (Coming June2014)
A fun new take on the world of exploration and why successful people need to push their personal limits. A vast book. It literally took 10 years from conception to completion.
Illustration by Christopher Nielsen
This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue.