Life lessons from the writer of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Just back from a great talk by author John Boyne at the Wimbledon Bookfest. He was (warning: proud dad alert) giving a prize to my daughter ChloĆ© for a story about War & Peace she entered in a writing contest.

John was talking about his life as a writer, but I thought some of the things he said were relevant to life in general, in business and beyond.

If you don't know John, his most famous book is The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Set in the 2nd World War, it tells the story of a friendship between a young boy who is a prisoner in a concentration camp and the son of the camp's commandant. The book sold a whacking 5 million copies and was turned into a film by Dreamworks.

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Here's what I took out of John's talk.

1. Find your vocation

John talked about knowing from a young age that he wanted to be a writer. He then set out to make this happen. I've posted here about searching for the thing that you love and that you're good at.

2. Be ready to sacrifice 

John talked about working in a book shop, for I imagine not much money, whilst he was trying to make it as a writer. He didn't actually write his first book till he was 25. This is another reminder that in the real world, not the world of reality TV, success needs sacrifice. 

3. Stamina makes the difference

Linked to the point above on sacrifice is stamina.

John's first book didn't get published at all. But he stuck at it.

He then wrote and published three books that weren't big hits, between 2000 and 2006.

Only then came The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (TBSP).

4. Practice, a little bit every day

John made the distinction between doing some writing and being a writer. The latter means writing every day, even Xmas day in his case. This can be a little bit each day, but what's important is making the practice habitual. The same thing applies to whatever you want to improve at, whether it be playing an instrument, doing yoga, creative writing or whatever.

5. Inspiration can strike at any time

The idea for TBSP came to John one morning, when he had an image of two boys talking, separated by a fence. He started writing and got so into his story that he carried on writing for 60 hours in a row without any sleep! This shows that i) you don't know when inspiration will strike, ii) a big idea can grow from a little seed of inspiration, iii) when inspiration does strike, stay in the flow and embrace the idea with all your might


6. Celebrate your strengths
John was asked about writing poetry and screenplays, but said he did neither as he wasn't very good at them. He preferred to stick to what he was good at and get better and better. This idea of focusing on your strengths, not your weaknesses, is a topic I posted on here. I think its an important point, as most companies (and parents) seem to focus on weaknesses and trying to fix them, rather than celebrating strengths.