Once upon another lifetime it was my honour to address the graduating students of a private school. When I’d exhausted my repertoire of pieties and platitudes the headmaster asked me if there was one piece of advice I could offer that would guarantee success in whatever they chose to do.
“Sure,” I said. “I can tell you how a simple, easy, healthy, dirt-cheap alteration in your daily life will guarantee success. I can also guarantee that 99 per cent of you will scoff and reject it the moment you hear it. Still game?
So I gave it to them in three words: Get. Up. Early.
How early? Crack of dawn early, I told them. Get up early and work on your dream. Read, paint, sing, sketch, write, knit — whatever. Do just an hour or so early every day.
They groaned and recoiled as if they’d been clubbed with baseball bats.
For once, I knew what I was talking about.
Thirty-five years ago, when I was a husband, a new father and a holder of a full-time job, it occurred to me that if I ever wanted to be anything more than the above, I needed to find some extra hours in my day.
It was summer, and I lived in a part of the country where the sun was already up and blazing at 5 in the morning. And so, after a few coughing, spluttering mornings, was I.
It’s a grand time to get things done, the early morning. There is nothing on TV, no colleagues to drop by and chat. The rest of the family is asleep, the phone isn’t likely to ring and it’s ‘way too early for Jehovah’s Witnesses to be knocking at the door. Best of all the mind is fresh, rested and — after a jolt of java — frisky, even.
So I got up and wrote. Not absolutely every day (I took Sundays off and there was the odd morning compromised by flu or travel or a hangover that made it too painful). But almost every day — and I got more writing done in those precious one or two hours than I did in the rest of the week.
Well, 13 books, five seasons’ worth of TV scripts, uncountable TV and radio commentaries and a raft of speeches — all written in the early hours of the day.
Oh, yes — and 35 years worth of weekly newspaper columns.
Thirty-five times 52 that means this is my 1,820th column, give or take.
I’m not boasting about this, because it’s no big deal. I didn’t erect a cathedral or compose a symphony — all I did was get up early most mornings and sit down in front of a keyboard. It’s like building a home or walking a hundred miles; it doesn’t get done overnight; it gets done a brick or a step at a time.
Ah, but what about the hard part?
What about rolling out of the sack at an hour when most folks are in deep sleep (and some are just rolling in from a night on the town)?
Yeah, there are compromises involved.
An early riser doesn’t get to close the bars or watch the Late, Late Show. People who get up at dawn tend to go to bed earlier than most which means your social life takes a bit of a hit. But there’s nothing on television that you can’t tape and watch at your convenience.
And having one or two fewer beers with the gang won’t do you any harm.
Best of all, you get to have some time to yourself to Get Something Done.
Read your favourite author, complete a correspondence course, paint a watercolour, write those letters you’ve been putting off.
Move your life along so that you’re not merely putting in time.
Just do it.
There are other rewards, often unexpected.
Some years after I gave my talk at the private school I got a phone call from someone whose name I didn’t recognize. She was a film producer, working in Edmonton. She had also been a member of the student body in the school where I gave my talk.
“I just want to tell you,” said the voice on the phone, “that I took your advice — about getting up early. It made all the difference in my career.”