Bestselling author James Patterson’s commencement speech on how rejection is part of success

“When I was 25, I wrote my first novel, a mystery called ‘The Thomas Berryman Number,’ ” Patterson said. “It was turned down by 31 publishers.”

University of Florida

James Patterson is a bestselling thriller and mystery author, known for his Alex Cross series, and has sold more than 375 million books worldwide. He’s also a literacy advocate, and in 2013 he established The James Patterson Teacher Education Scholarships to support 16 University of Florida College of Education students pursuing careers as elementary or secondary school teachers.

Patterson, whose father grew up in the Newburgh Poorhouse in New York, spoke at the University of Florida’s commencement on themes of rejection, failure, work-life balance, and doing the right thing.

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


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Patterson said that he used to keep a list of all the editors who turned down his first novel. “Sometimes they send me books and ask for blurbs – for their author’s books. Lots of luck with that!” He was just kidding – Patterson said that he gave them the endorsements.

Rejection is especially common for writers, but it’s a normal part of life for everyone, Patterson said.

“Sooner or later we all have to deal with rejection, and you just have to keep moving forward. It’s going to happen.” The lesson and the grace that Patterson encapsulates is that he’s learned not to take it personally, become paralyzed by fear or self-doubt, or hold grudges.

Just as rejection is a step along the path of life, so, too, will be a failure. Patterson quoted Winston Churchill, saying ” ‘Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.’ Churchill kept improving his story with each failure – do that. You’re going to fail sometimes – keep going.”

When it came to work-life balance, Patterson said, “Many of you will face the problem of balancing work with family. …here’s a story you should try to remember.

“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls in the air. You could name them – work, family, health, friends, spirit – and somehow you’re keeping all of these balls in the air.

“Hopefully, you come to understand 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 irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, maybe even shattered. They will never be the same.

“Once you understand that, maybe, just maybe, you strive for more balance in your lives. Try to do that.”

That said, Patterson has an admirable work ethic, telling the graduating class he wrote every day, 365 days a year. He wrote before he came to give the speech, he said, and he’d write on his way back on the plane. When you find your passion – something he told the students he hoped they’d also find – it’s hard to take a day off.


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Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.