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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Author James Patterson Reminds Us That We Can Always Bounce Back in Our Careers

James Patterson at the University of Florida 2019 commencement ceremony

The theme of James Patterson’s commencement speech at the University of Florida was stories. Which is quite fitting for the bestselling author, who has sold millions of adult and children’s novels—including the famous Alex Cross series—and donated millions more to schools and the military under the belief that there exists no one who “‘doesn’t like to read,’ only people who haven’t found the right book.”

And we can certainly learn a lot from the stories he had to tell on Saturday, May 4 to UF’s graduating class of 2019.

“When I was 25, I wrote my first novel, a mystery called The Thomas Berryman Number,” he shared. “It was turned down by 31 publishers. It then won an Edgar as the ‘best first mystery novel of the year.’”

Patterson joked that he keeps a list of all the editors who turned him down in his twenties (much like a failure resume), emphasizing that “sooner or later though we all have to deal with rejection, and you just have to keep moving forward.”

He went on to tell another story to his audience. “Imagine life as a game in which you’re juggling five balls in the air,” he says. “And you could name the balls—work, family, health, friends, spirit—and somehow you’re keeping all of those balls in the air. And hopefully you come to understand—this is a hard one—that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, believe it or not it will bounce back. But the other four balls—family, health, friends, spirit—are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, maybe even shattered. They will never be the same. And once you understand that, maybe, just maybe, you strive for more balance in your lives.” (You may have heard this metaphor before—from Coca-Cola’s former CEO Brian Dyson.)

Whether you’re a recent graduate or decades into your work life, considering your career in this light really puts it into perspective. Rejection and failure are a part of the process. You can get rejected from your dream job, you can fail at a project, and if you’re Patterson you can even be turned down more than 30 times for trying to do what you love. But no matter how bad things get you always have the chance to start anew—whether you want to change careers later in life, quit your job without a backup plan, or pursue your passion project full time.

The other half of the coin, of course, is that other things in life—your family, your friends, your health—are more precious. Your career can recover from even the worst kinds of twists and turns, but when you neglect those other “balls,” the damage tends to be more serious.

Work-life balance isn’t easy, and it gets trickier as your career progresses and your life becomes more complicated. But it’s never too late to adjust (I’m talking to those of you who are much further out than this year’s graduating class). Yes, the balls you’re juggling get banged up, but they also heal with care. When you dust them off, polish them up, and give them a bit of love and attention, you’d be surprised how much happier you are—and maybe how much less you drop the rubber ball.