On being overly attached to goals


Hey friends,

Have you ever had that feeling where you’re overly and unhealthily attached to a goal that’s fundamentally outside your control? That’s what this email is about.

On Monday, we had the first ever meeting of the Transatlantic Book Squad – a Google Meet with the editing and marketing teams of both our UK publisher (Penguin) and US publisher (MacMillan). The book I’ve been working on for nearly 3 years is now (almost) finished, with just the final tweaks and typesetting to go, before it’s ready to print.

This was the first time we’ve all sat down together and thought about the marketing side of the book. And this is where I’ve been dealing with various issues. Let’s talk about them.

When you’re working on a book, there are three distinct phases of the process: (1) Landing the Deal, (2) Writing the Book, (3) Selling the Book.

Phase 1 – Landing the Deal involves writing a proposal, finding an agent, and pitching the proposal to publishers. If this works out, then you get a “book publishing deal” with one of the publishers. They give you a certain amount of money up-front (the “advance”), which you then pay off based on future royalties of the book. So if for example, your advance is 5k GBP, then you won’t earn any royalties from the book until the 5k has been “earned out”, and then subsequently you’ll start earning royalties (often 7-15% of the sale price of the book, or something like that). At the point you sign the deal, you get an editor who works for the publisher, and who works with you (the author) to craft the book over the next 1-3 years.

  • In my case, I signed with an agent (Kate) from Peters Fraser + Dunlop literary agents in Feb 2021.
  • We signed the book deal in April 2021 with the Cornerstone imprint of Penguin Random House (UK), with a lovely chap named Rowan as our primary editor.
  • May to Oct 2021 was all-in on writing the proposal to pitch to US publishers.
  • And in Oct 2021, we got a US and North America book with the Celadon imprint of Macmillan (US), with a lovely chap named Ryan as our US editor.

At this point, we move to Phase 2 – writing the book.

Phase 2 – Writing the Book has been a long and twisty journey from Oct 2021 until now. So many lessons learned throughout the process that I’m going to share over time in this newsletter, and might even make a video or two about. There’ve been plenty of instances of totally scrapping everything we’ve written and starting from scratch. But we’re finally at a point where I feel I’m proud of the book.

And so, as of this week, we’re now in Phase 3 – Selling the Book.

Phase 3 – Selling the Book

This has a few different components

  1. Announcing the title and cover, and hoping that lots of people will preorder the book on Amazon or via other retailers. This will hopefully happen in late July.
  2. Figuring out and unveiling all the “preorder bonuses” – the free stuff that people who preorder the book will get as a thank you for preordering. Hopefully we’ll get another round of preorders then. This will hopefully happen sometime in August / September.
  3. The 2-4 weeks before the book’s actually released, we do a big round of promo across all our social media channels, and I ask all my YouTuber and podcaster friends if they’d be willing to do collabs with me to help promote the book.

Right now, our tentative release date is late December 2023 (or thereabouts). So now that the book’s finished, all book-related efforts in the next 6 months are related to marketing.

But here’s where things get emotionally tricky.

In this whole book journey, I’ve had 3 “goals” in the back of my mind. You could call them “desires” instead of goals. Or even “dreams”.

Dream #1 – I write a book that I’m proud of, while enjoying the process and learning new things along the way. This one’s a definite tick. I’m proud of the book, and I’ve (broadly) enjoyed the process, and learned a tonne of new things along the way. No problem there.

The issue comes with Dreams #2 and #3.

Dream #2 – Lots of people buy the book, and it hits the bestseller lists (Eg: New York Times, Sunday Times).

Dream #3 – Lots of people enjoy reading the book and find it helpful (ie: they leave nice reviews, and recommend it to their friends).

The issue with dreams #2 and #3 is that they’re broadly outside of my control. Hitting the bestseller lists is mostly about how many preorders for the book you can rack up. The bestseller lists are calculated weekly, and all your preorders count towards week 1 sales. So if, for example, you get 500 preorders, it counts as “500 sales in week 1”. Most people I’ve spoken to say you need several thousand preorders in the UK to hit the Sunday Times list, and often 10,000+ preorders in the US to hit the New York Times list. And then you need to maintain those week-on-week sales numbers to stay on the lists.

These preorder numbers aren’t completely absurd, and given the size of my audience overall, they’re definitely doable. So part of me thinks “cool, so I’ve got 4M subscribers on YouTube… it should be doable to ask a tiny % of them to preorder the book”. But then another part of me thinks “but 10,000 is a lot of people… why on earth would 10,000 people decide to buy my book?”

And then another part of me thinks “why are you attached to this outcome? It’s outside of your control, all you can do is write a book you’re proud of, and then you should be non-attached to external factors like sales numbers and bestseller lists”.

I’ve always said, and tried to maintain, that it’s not a good idea to set goals outside of your control. With my YouTube channel for example, the only goal I’ve ever had is “make 1 video per week” – that’s a goal within my control. I can’t lose with that as my goal. And that’s a key ingredient in what’s allowed me to stay consistent with YouTube over the past 6 years.

But with this book… I just can’t shake my attachment to the dream of “hit the bestseller list”. It’s bizarre. It shouldn’t mean anything. But for some reason, I care about it. And I’m trying really hard not to.

And then there’s the whole issue with Dream #3 – wanting people to like the book, and to find it helpful, and to leave nice reviews about it. Again, outside of my control. All I can do is write a book I think would be helpful and interesting. It’s outside of my control how people receive it. But I know that inevitably, when I see negative reviews, it’ll feel disappointing. Maybe even crushing. And again, I’m trying to figure out how to become less attached to that.

Have you ever had a goal that you felt overly attached to, knowing that it’s probably unhealthy and unhelpful to be overly attached to it?

How did you deal with it? I’d love if you could hit and share your thoughts.

In the meantime, here’s how I’m trying to go about it:

1 – Premeditatio malorum

This is a technique from Stoicism where you premeditate about the bad things that might happen in your life, so as to be mentally prepared for them. Of course, as far as “bad” things go, “releasing a book that flops” is nowhere near the end of the world and very much a first-world problem. But I’ve made it into a demon in my own mind.

So I’ve been finding it helpful to sit with my eyes closed, and imagine the following: “We launch the book, and it gets a very meh response from my audience. We don’t get anywhere enough preorders to hit any bestseller lists. And when the book comes out, the response to the book is meh to negative. We get a bunch of negative reviews on Amazon, of people saying the book’s a waste of time and not at all helpful, and that Ali should’ve stayed in his lane and just made YouTube videos rather than try to write a book”.

After doing this, I realise “tbh if that’s the worst case scenario, that’s not so bad. I’m still alive and healthy. My friends and family still love me. And I’ve still written a book I’m proud of, I’ve enjoyed the journey, and I’ve learned new things along the way. So what if it doesn’t land with the audience? That’s absolutely fine”.

I’m hoping that by doing this enough times, I’ll actually be able to convince my monkey mind that this is true 🙂

2 – Being aware of the different ‘parts’ of my mind

I had a great discussion about this stuff this week with Dr. Alok Kanojia (“Dr K”) from the fantastic platform and YouTube channel HealthyGamerGG. Alok’s a Harvard-trained psychiatrist with an interest in spirituality, who helps people with their mental health in the digital age.

We met IRL in Austin a few weeks ago, and caught up over Zoom this week. The catch-up turned into a pseudo therapy / coaching session (although he was careful to flag that it wasn’t either of those things lol).

Alok said that part of the issue with this “attachment to certain outcomes” stuff is that I’m seeing “I” as a monolith, rather than a multitude of parts. Instead of thinking of it as “I am attached to the outcome of hitting the bestseller list, and also writing a book I’m proud of, and also writing a book that gets lots of positive reception and has zero negative reviews”, I might approach thinking of it as “there are multiple parts of me. One part of me wants to write a book he’s proud of. Another part wants to hit the bestseller list. Another part is afraid of negative reviews”.

My “homework” from the session was simply to notice the different “parts” of my mind as I went about my life, not just in this book context, but in the rest of life too. So far, when it comes to gym for example, I’ve realised that there’s a “part” that loves comfort and hates going to the gym, and another “part” that wants to have a healthy body and wants to weight train regularly to get there.

I’m still not quite sure what the point of the exercise is (I guess I’ll find out in my next catch-up with Alok) but it’s definitely intriguing. It reminds of of a model of therapy called Integrated Family Systems that I started reading about a few weeks ago. We’ll see how it goes, and I’ll report back here if I get to any interesting conclusions by going through the process.

3 – Writing this very email

Now that I’ve written 1900 words for this email (whoah that was way longer than I thought it would be), I’ve realised that writing this all out is actually quite helpful.

I feel something of a sense of relief to name my fears and write them in this semi-public-semi-private space for you to read. And as I write this, I’m thinking “lol yeah these fears and attachments I have are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things”. The act of writing this email has, in some ways, also helped me feeling less attached to Dreams #2 and #3. It’s almost like a private journal entry 😛

So if you’ve read this far, firstly thank you for getting through this somewhat self-indulgent semi-public journaling session of mine. I hope you found something about it at least vaguely interesting, if not actually helpful.

And if you’ve got any thoughts about my dilemma (how to become less attached to goals outside of my control), I’d love if you could hit and share your thoughts, or any links to any resources you’ve found helpful for something like this.

Have a great week!

Ali xx

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♥️ My Favourite Things this Week

🎮 Video Game – I’ve been absolutely loving levelling a rogue in Diablo IV, on my gaming PC, while racking up steps on my standing-desk-with-treadmill-underneath. It’s such a great setup that let’s me feel like I’m being productive with exercise while I’m slaying demons. If anyone happens to play, add my Battle Tag please (AliAbdaal#2149).

📝 Article – I really enjoyed this article from Simone Stolzoff, author of the new book The Good Enough Job which I started reading last week (it’s great so far, and very much vibes with my views on jobs and careers). The article’s titled “On the Value of Not Reaching Your Goals: What I learned from not becoming a New York Times best-selling author“. It was published a few days ago, and when I saw it on Twitter, my eyes popped out of my head because this is literally the dilemma that I was writing about in this week’s email. Simone published a book, it nearly hit the NYT list in terms of preorders, but not quite, and the article’s a great read about the disappointment he felt, and the silver-lining about it. Hugely resonated with everything he writes.

🩳 Item of Clothing – I’ve been loving my recent purchase from Lululemon, the Commission Classic Fit 7″ shorts in navy blue. Lots of compliments from friends, they’re so comfortable, and I can go to the gym in them too. Would recommend. Lululemon is fast becoming my favourite brand to buy clothes from. If anyone at Lulu happens to read this, please do get in touch 😉

🎙️ Podcast episode – I absolutely loved my friend Chris Williamson’s interview with Bill Perkins. I spent some time with Bill a few weeks ago in Austin, and hearing his longform thoughts about his Die with Zero philosophy on Chris’ podcast after seeing him literally living it was pretty cool. I’ve been journaling about my learnings from this episode – maybe I’ll share them in a future issue. But in the meantime, I’d 100% recommend this episode, and also Bill’s book Die with Zero – here’s a video I made about it to whet your appetite if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

✍️ Quote of the Week

“If I’m the only one who will notice, it ain’t worth doing.”

From Someday Is Today by Matthew Dicks. Resurfaced using Readwise.