(Interviewer) Most authors speak of the difficulties they have before their “big break,” did you have to start from humble beginnings?
(John) I did, although my entrance into the writing world is a little unusual compared to most people. In 2002 my wife and I took a year long sabbatical. We sold almost everything we owned, rented out our house, and backpacked around the world on $40 per day. That’s starting pretty humble.
At that time I was closing in on becoming partner at the international business consulting firm where I worked. Everyone thought we were crazy. I can’t tell you how many people said something along the lines of, “But you’re doing so well with your career, how could you leave now?”
But I had gotten to the point where the idea of working until you’re 65 and then experiencing the freedom to live the life you want, just wasn’t palatable anymore. So in 2002, we left it all behind and off we went. The trip changed my life. I saw the world, I met amazing people, I gained an entirely new sense of what I was capable of and my place in the world… In other words, it was worth it.
When I came back, I was inspired to sit down at a computer and start typing. If you’ve ever seen that scene at the start of the movie Jerry Maguire, where he has this epiphany and can’t stop typing, you’ll have a sense of what happened to me. I think he typed for about five hours. I typed for twenty-one days. I’m a slower typer I guess.
It was a surreal experience in that I had no training as a writer, no plans to be an author, none of that. But something was telling me, “type.” During the whole time I never planned what I was going to write next, I never read what I had typed the previous day…none of that. I just sat down each day and typed.
What happened after that was a bit of a whirlwind. I published the story myself, despite having no clue about anything associated with publishing. In the process, I successfully made every mistake that could be made. That was humbling too.
But it didn’t seem to matter. There was something in the story that people related to. Within a year I had gotten orders from people in fourteen countries, just through word of mouth. How they were hearing about the book I had no idea.
With each mistake I made, I got a little smarter. Eventually I got picked up by a literary agent out of New York. Now, that book, which is called The Why Cafe, is in twenty-one languages and has made it to best seller lists around the world, including hitting #1.
So it was humble from the standpoint that I didn’t have any connections, or really any clue what I was doing. Sometimes that can be a good thing though. Since I didn’t know what was or wasn’t “supposed to happen” I just tried what I felt like trying, and rolled with the punches as things unfolded.
(Interviewer) What has been the highlight of your career so far?
(John) You know, you get different highs as an author. When my book hit #1 on the best seller list, that was a real rush. It ended up outselling all books in all genres for one month. For a guy who had no plans to be an author, or any formal training as a writer, that was very cool.
In total, I think my books have been rejected by well over 100 publishers around the world. Those same three books have all gone on to make the best seller list and two of them have gone all the way to #1. I’m a pretty relaxed and laid back kid of guy, and there can be a bit of snobbery in publishing, so it’s just kind of fun to watch readers trump the editors in saying what’s good.
On a totally different level, there’s nothing more powerful than hearing back from a reader about what the books have meant to them. I had a young woman who was seventeen years old write me a letter after she read my first book, The Why Cafe. She told me how she had been suffering from an eating disorder and had been in and out of hospitals for years.
Her mom gave her the book as a gift, and the young woman said it changed her life. She said for the first time in a long time she wanted to live. That letter humbled me in ways I can’t even begin to describe. It made me realize just how important our words of hope can be to someone who really needs to hear them. And it doesn’t need to be from a book. Everyone has the ability to offer a kind word, or moment of optimism, to someone who needs it.
(Interviewer) What inspires you to write these stories that then become bestsellers?
(John) In my case, it has always started with a feeling that’s sort of an incredibly focused sense of inspiration. It’s like when an athlete gets in the ZONE and everything just flows. That’s the same for me. One moment the idea wasn’t there, and then all of a sudden not only is the initial idea there, but all thirty-five chapters are there.
The first time it happened was when I came back from backpacking around the world. The other books have happened the same way, at different intervals. Once I sit down, I can’t even type fast enough because the story is just pouring out through my fingers.
(Interviewer) Do you have any advice to give writers that hope to publish one day?
(John) DO IT!!!! So many people get stuck in the “thinking about doing it” mode. But you can’t do a second draft unless you do a first one. If you want to write, write! Don’t worry about making every sentence perfect from the start. Just let the words flow.
Editing comes later, and if you write when you are in the flow, there’s not usually even that much editing down the line.
Also, the world of publishing is completely changing with digital books. You don’t need a publisher or an agent anymore. Write it, get it to where you want it to be, and load it up on Amazon, iTunes, and BN.com as a downloadable ebook.
The days of holding your breath and waiting for an agent or publisher to accept you into the “club” are gone. You can do it on your own.
I do suggest getting smart about marketing and social media. Writing a book is just the start. If no one knows about it, they won’t read it. Part of being an author is letting people know the book is out there.
(Interviewer) How did you come up with the story line for Life Safari?
(John) That’s a cool story actually. After my initial book, The Why Cafe, hit its first best seller list, I flew up to New York to meet with my agent to talk about what I might write next.
I had been sharing a concept I created when I was doing speaking engagements and people really liked it. So we decided that would be the basis for my next book.
My flight was really late getting home, and by the time I walked in it was about midnight. My wife had rented The Best of Oprah on Netflix, and she said there was an amazing one where Oprah goes to Africa and gives away 50,000 Christmas presents to kids.
So we sat up and watched it. It’s a total tear jerker, you can’t get through it without getting emotional. Plus, my time in Africa when we backpacked around the world was completely life changing so I have a general love of Africa.
When the show was over it was two in the morning. I walked out of our room and the house was completely dark. And as I walked around, I just had this sense that there was a bigger story to tell than the one my agent and I had discussed.
I got up the next morning and was doing my stretching and the idea for the end of Life Safari came to me. It was so real, so powerful, that tears just started streaming down my face and I said, “That’s it. That’s the story I’m going to write.”
So I sat down that morning and started to type, and ten days later it was done.
(Interviewer) Life Safari was the book chosen for this year’s First Year Reading Project. What are you hoping readers, especially the freshman, get out of your book?
(John) I hope every single one of them figures out their Big Five for Life and aligns all their courses around them. I hope there is not a single student who drops out of FGCU because of a lack of direction or a lack of interest. I hope this freshman class is the most energetic, enthusiastic, and self-motivated that has ever stepped onto the campus.
Sixty-four percent of people aged twenty-five and younger report being “unhappy” in their jobs. That’s horrible. And it’s because they are out of synch with what they really want to do with their life.
I don’t want that to be the case with these students. I don’t want them to spend all the money and all the time associated with investing in their education only to walk out the other side and be “unhappy” for fifty hours a week.
The good news is, it’s easy to make sure that doesn’t happen. Study what you love. Study what fascinates you. Study things you can’t wait to study.
Picking a degree or area of study because “there’s lots of jobs in that field” or because “my parents want me to do that” is going to guarantee you end up in the 64% of unhappy people. Because if you don’t like your classes on Monday mornings, you are going to HATE your job on Monday mornings. And those job Monday mornings go on for about forty-five years, which is a long long time.
Why do it when there is such a better alternative? You can get paid to do things you love. And don’t buy into that ridiculous argument that “Not everyone can make a living doing what they love.” First of all, with the right understanding of the way the system works, yes they can. Second, don’t get caught up in the “Everyone” trap. Focus on you and your situation. The other people will take care of themselves.
(Interviewer) Did you draw from any of your own life experiences to shape the characters Jack or Ma Ma Gombe?
(John) I’ve spent considerable time backpacking through Africa and many other places around the world. I think when the story was flowing through me it incorporated pieces from my experience. Or at least having done those things allowed me to describe the ideas and information from a place of authenticity.
(Interviewer) Is there any other information or advice you want students to know about yourself or the book?
(John) Not really about me or the book specifically, more about life. The world is full of amazing people doing amazing things. Choose to be one of them. Learn about them, work with them, hang out with them…become one of them. Then you can inspire the next group of college students.
That path of living an amazing life is full of laughs, fun, incredible moments, and a general high level of satisfaction with life. It amazes me anyone would choose the opposite. Yet so many allow themselves to be sucked into a life that doesn’t look anything like that.
Don’t let that be you. Who you surround yourself with in large part determines who you become. Choose wisely.