Sean Michaels speaks to about 130 students in our school library.

Guest author in the school library

In the transition between his presentation and a brief Q & A segment, I spoke out. “You’ve presented your story in a such a humble, laid-back way, yet you’ve won this amazing award. We’re just so proud of you! It’s an honour to have you here speaking with us.” I had never before interrupted a guest author’s talk to say such a thing, but the subsequent burst of applause from staff and students in the library let me know I was expressing what we all felt. Friday morning, an author visited our high school to share with about 130 students the story behind his first published novel.  For students who are budding writers, sculptors, painters, actors, or musicians, it is a real eye-opener to hear a first-hand account about what might be involved in making the art of their passion a part of their lives.

Michaels’ early writing

Sean Michaels (who had to clarify that he was neither the wrestler nor the porn star of the same name) was a local high school student at the turn of the millennium. He loved to write, and as a teenager, he started a website with a few friends called Tang Monkey – about everything from music to ice cream. In an aside Friday, he said he is now embarrassed by what he wrote during his adolescence but that he recognizes in those early posts the 10,000 hours of practice that, according to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, lead to mastery. After high school, Michaels went away to university, and as he earned his degree, he launched the website Said the Gramaphone, an MP3 blog still going today – that in 2003 was one of the first of its kind. Upon graduation, Michaels knew that he wanted to make writing a central part of his life, but he also knew that he was in no position to make a living off of his writing. End of story? No.

How Michaels set up his early adult life for writing

Here is the first part of his story that blew me away: Michaels decided to find a job that would cover the bills and that would also, and more importantly, leave him with enough energy at the end of the day to write. So the recent university graduate became a part-time legal secretary.

I don’t know about you, but all sorts of questions come to my mind about that move: What did your parents say? What did your friends think? Did people judge you for taking on part-time work? Did men judge you for working in a position typically held by women? Did you feel pressured to justify your decision? Did you feel uncertain as your friends accepted full-time jobs that paid well and allowed them to buy cars and houses? Did you feel not-quite-grown-up?

For six years, from 2004-2010, Michaels centred his life around his first novel. He worked his part-time job, kept up his blog, took on the occasional paid writing assignment for print publications covering the music scene – and wrote at least 300 words per day for his book. It took four years to complete and edit the novel. One year to find a literary agent and edit some more. And another year of countless rejections before . . .

. . . he put his unpublished manuscript in a drawer. It’s still there.

Here is the second part of his story that blew me away: He started to work on his second novel.

Again, questions: Didn’t you feel frustrated? Didn’t you feel defeated? Didn’t you feel depressed? Didn’t you feel you’d wasted 6 years of your life for nothing? What did your parents think? What did your friends say? Did you feel the need to justify your decision to try again?

For three years, Michaels worked on a story based on the life of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the Russian scientist who in 1928 invented the theremin – an electronic musical instrument that is played without touch. In 2014, his novel was published. In 2014, Sean Michaels, author of Us Conductors, won the Giller Prize, the highest literary honour in Canada – and at $100,000, the most lucrative literary prize in the English speaking world.

For the love of writing

More than once, Michaels came back to this point: “I had to remind myself why I was doing this. It wasn’t for money, and it wasn’t for fame. I was doing it because I loved to write.” After his first novel went into that drawer, any sense of defeat was overcome. He had loved writing it. After his second novel won the Giller Prize, he consciously steered his head away from the intoxicating swirl of success. He had loved writing it.

I can’t fathom the clear-sightedness and the deep, quiet confidence it must have taken for Michaels to have pursued his passion for writing so persistently. So intentionally. So practically. Many people harbour the dream to incorporate their art into their lives, but few take those nuts-and-bolts steps required to make it a reality. Few can withstand the obstacles and rejections. And even fewer reach the point at which they’re satisfied to do what they love to do – without reference to money or recognition. I’m sure Michaels struggled with the fate of his first novel, and I’m sure he is thrilled with the success of his second novel. But I hope and believe that in the end, he will continue to make writing a part of his life for the simple reason that he still loves it.

What does this have to do with debt-reduction?

Those of us who are working our way out of debt have to be inspired. Our society is set up to normalize debt and glorify spending, so anyone trying to become debt-free faces pressures to capitulate. Besides societal forces, some of us also have to contend with our own sabotaging habits and thought processes. It’s a relentless effort, requiring mundane, detailed strategies that often feel like drudgery and deprivation. The “Why?” has to be pretty enticing. Is it for the love of financial freedom itself? I don’t think it can be. It’s got to be for love of the life that freedom promises. The only question is, do we even know what that looks like?

What would you do if you were financially free to do it?

After work on Friday, I was talking with a friend who said, “I don’t even know what I want, and I feel like I’ve wasted my life.” In her teen years and early twenties, she had felt powerless against the strong scripting she had absorbed from her family. The script was: Get a job after high school and wait until you get married. It struck me as incredibly sad.

Many of us who are fighting down debt are motivated by a negative: We’ve experienced the life-sucking pain of financial distress, and we want to shield ourselves against a recurrence of it. But I don’t think that negative motivation is enough.

Sean Michaels knew as a teenager that he wanted to write, and he set up his life – financially and otherwise – to follow that desire. There was no vagueness, no confusion in his pursuit. I think that many of us who have gone astray financially have done so because of a lack of clarity. A confusion of advice, societal and family scripting, peer pressures . . . And our authentic desires have become lost in a muddle of competing messages. Let’s find them again – and pursue them for simple love. I can’t think of a better motivation.

 What would you do if you were financially free to do it? Does the answer to that question motivate you? Your comments are welcome.



Join the Conversation


  1. What a great reminder this was. Sometimes we forget to do the things we love just for the sake of loving to do them. I’ve been thinking of this a lot lately, but not with the clarity you presented in this article. Nicely done, as usual, and thank you! 🙂

    1. Thank you, Kay. You are so encouraging : ) I don’t think that you would struggle too much with things like “scripting” and peer pressure. You have the gift of following the beat of your own drum. That’s a great gift to share.

  2. What a great story. I wonder if there is interest in Sean’s first Novel now? I’ve always wanted to work in film, writing or directing. I certainly have a passion for helping people with their finances now. When I think of things as careers it’s super motivating. Trying hard to figure out how to make it happen.

    1. Sean made sure that his financial needs were taken care of so that he could pursue what he loved. I think that if you know what you love and you can find a meaningful outlet for it, you’re one of the lucky ones – even if no money is made from it. I wondered the same thing about Sean’s first novel. He said he’s not sure what he’s going to do with it – even though he knows that it would be published now if he re-submitted it. I hope that he will. Thanks for commenting, Brian!

    1. And the thing about Sean Michaels is that he reached success long before he won any literary awards. I say he reached it when he gave himself permission to do what it took to centre his life around his passion to write. (I hoped you would stop by to read this post. I knew you’d be interested in this man’s story!)

    1. I think he’s so accustomed to living on a modest income that the $100,000 cheque must have been a shocker! I hope he remains frugal. That amount of money in good hands can go a long way : )

    1. While you’re driving all over the U.S. I hope you will find the opportunity to head north into Canada! Travel will definitely be a part of my financially free life too : )

  3. Wow that’s so cool! It would have been so easy to just give up and find an “adult job” after he put his first book in a drawer. It’s so true though about any material that is subjective like art, music, books, movies, etc. Sometimes you make the best piece possible and no one sees it, or sometimes you make crap and it gets huge (er, like Justin Beiber). Either way you have to remind yourself of the why you like creating in the first places. Sure money and some popularity is nice, but it’s fleeting, which is why so many celebrities can’t hack life when they aren’t A-listers anymore. Very inspiring!

    1. I thought his story would speak to you, Tonya. You’re one of the clear-sighted ones who knows what she wants to pursue – and who goes for it. I’m glad you find Sean Michaels’ experience inspiring. Even more impressive than his award-winning success is the apparent peace he’s had for years – choosing to set himself up to do what he loves. Thanks for your comment : )

  4. I have thought about your final question often. And in the end I’ve decided I prefer to keep my passions as hobbies. If they were jobs with all the trappings of work, I think I would enjoy them less b/c I would then HAVE to do them.

    1. You raise a very good point. If you can pursue your passion in a meaningful way without the need to draw an income from it, then it is almost guaranteed to remain enjoyable. I think though, that many people find the demands of life take over any time they might wish to devote to “hobbies”. So it’s up to each of us to be very intentional about carving out space in our live to allow that pursuit – whether paid of not. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Laura.

  5. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. We keep delaying what we want to do. Waiting until we are out of debt, have more savings…the list seems endless. But, what if you never get the opportunity to do what you really want?

    1. That is such a great point, Tre. It takes the average household 7 years to get out of debt – and that is certainly a long time. But on the other side of those 7 years? LOTS of opportunity to do what you really want. In the end, those 7 years will seem like a brief chapter – one that changed the story completely : )

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