Embrace Possibility Modeling Success Series – William Zinsser – #2

Modeling Success Series – William Zinsser – #2

Zinsser Satow(For those of you who are not familiar with this series or the benefits of modeling success, please read the beginning of this post)

(Sadly, William Zinsser passed away on May 12, 2015)

For the second interview of the Modeling Success Series, I had both the honor and pleasure of interviewing William Zinsser, the renowned American writer. It was a philosophical, inspirational and educational experience.

I first met Mr. Zinsser (telemarketers call him William) when I read On Writing Well, a widely accepted primer for writers. I enjoyed his practical tips and how he emphasized simplicity as strength in writing.

As I learned more about Mr. Zinsser from reading his award-winning blog on American Scholar, I realized his success is not only attributed to his accomplished writing career (19 books and countless published articles) but also the way he leads his life. Besides being a writer, a teacher and a jazz pianist, Mr. Zinsser is also a permission-giver (to be explained).

My appreciation for Mr. Zinsser’s way of thinking and life deepened when I finally met him in person for this interview. He is a true connector and genuinely interested in other people. During this interview, there were several times whe I felt like he was interviewing me.

I have included audio snippets of the actual interview throughout this article.


It’s hard to believe Mr. Zinsser is turning 90 this year. The only sign of his age is the wisdom he imparts. His memory, which he equates to his identity, is fully accessible and we start the interview discussing the virtues of “letting go”. Mr. Zinsser comments that at his age “you let certain things fall away that is not important.” He recognizes that many of the things that were important to him have moved to the background and that “the smallness of life” has moved to the foreground.

Audio - On Letting Things Go - 4:05 

After quoting some insightful lines from one of his favorite books, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Mr. Zinsser elaborates on what is important. He reflects on his experiences as a soldier in World War II and his difficult decision to give up a cushy position lined up in the family business to follow his dream to work as a “newspaper man” for the Herald Tribune. Here is what I took away from his message:

You should not follow any expectations that are not the right ones for you

William Zinsser was expected to go into the family business but he knew he wanted to write for the Herald Tribune from the young age where he had to spread that newspaper on the floor because it was too big for him to open in his arms. It was not easy for him to decline his father’s offer for a set job in the family’s business but it was the right one.

This has encouraged me to do what is right for me not what is right for other people. Disappointing other people may be painful but it's much worse to disappoint yourself. Do what you want because you're only given one life.

Check out Mr. Zinsser’s commencement address at Wesleyan University that inspired a few professors there to quit and pursue their own dreams.

Whatever you’re doing, try to convey a sense that you’re enjoying what you do

Although this was mentioned in On Writing Well, this surprised me when I heard it during our interview. I always thought “the struggle” was a necessary part of paying my dues and rarely focused on enjoying myself to get what I want. Mr. Zinsser drove the point home by saying he doesn’t write for other people, he writes for himself and that's the reason people choose to read his work.

For those familiar with Mr. Zinsser’s writing, you know that he never writes about anyone's life that he doesn't approve of and he doesn't write to “debunk or destroy” others. Rather, he bears witness to people he has been following and writes to build people up and for his own enjoyment.

If you don't enjoy what you do, what's the point?

Must have a belief in your own uniqueness

There is nothing wrong with listening to experts and emulating the greats but what is wrong is losing your own identity along the way. This happens when you lack confidence in your own abilities. You are unique when you were born and you have to remember that. When I asked Mr. Zinsser what happens if you don’t feel unique, he said you must generate it.

So how do you generate uniqueness?

  • Question your life – Most people don’t think about their lives actively and they end up sleepwalking through it. Challenge your beliefs and assumptions. Challenge the beliefs and assumptions of your parents. Starting asking yourself "What if".
  • Have a sense of ego – be a rebel and have a “sense of own limitless possibility” – Mr. Zinsser wasn’t drafted for the war, he volunteered.
  • Broaden your horizons – your experiences make you unique and the mix that comes from combining your unique experiences is what will set you apart. Travel to different places. Read different books. Listen to different music.
  • Keep stretching yourself – don’t stay in your comfort zone. If you want to generate uniqueness, keep stretching and do something you've never done before. I've found that a twinge of fear or self-doubt is usually a good sign that what you're pursuing is a good stretch. Embrace it.

Audio - On What's Important in Life - 5:24

Audio - On Generating Uniqueness - 6:44

During the interview, we had an interesting discussion about how difficult it is for people to give themselves permission to do great things and to be great. One of the major roles Mr. Zinsser plays is that of a permission giver. When teaching his memoir writing class, his students frequently lament “but who would want to read my memoir. Who is going to care about my life?”

He empowers them by saying “I would. I care.” and he finds that this helps them move forward.

When I work with my clients, I see the same issue. People, who are stuck in life, are really just waiting for permission to move on. Once they have it, I've seen them make excellent progress.

Audio - On Giving Permission - 2:33

Bottom Line: You don't need Mr. Zinsser or myself to give you permission. Give yourself permission to be great.

On Success

When asked about his definition of success, Mr. Zinsser doesn’t give a dollar amount or describe the typical retirement scenario involving some island in paradise. He simply says after pausing for thought:

“Success is doing what you want to do and doing it well.”

This resonates with my definition of success – I’m successful as long as I’m pursuing my passion to help people move towards what they want in life. One of the most common issues I see with my clients is that they don’t know what they want. How can you move forward when you're not sure where you are going? If you’re in this group, I recommend checking out my Know What You Want Workshop.

Audio - On the Definition of Success - 1:17

As Mr. Zinsser recounts the story of his son’s rise to being a successful artist, the message I took away is to be happy in what you do and let your vision guide you. If you’re not sure how to get there, it’s better to just start somewhere and no matter where you are, do excellent work.

“Don’t feel like you need to work for a magazine that your mother’s heard of” said Mr. Zinsser as he impressed upon me the adage that there are many paths to where you want to go and to be flexible in life. He also emphasizes the value of great mentors and the skill of figuring out what your audience wants.

We end the interview with a discussion about the keys to success. Mr. Zinsser attributes his success to:

  • Optimism – the kind where you feel confident you can get a taxi on a snowy night
  • Consistency – doing what you say you’ll do when you said you'll do it
  • Ability to Get Things Done - this one doesn't need much explaining
  • Humor - being light and getting along with everyone
Audio - On the Keys for Success 4:56

If you want to hear more of this interview and learn why William Zinsser doesn’t use email or how he is able to build such great relationships, sign up for my mailing list to get free access to the other audio files for this interview.

So What Will I Model? (There is a good amount)

  1. Conveying enjoyment in my work and stop trying to please everybody
  2. Cultivating optimism, humor and consistency
  3. Giving myself permission to cling to my originality and knowing that it is good enough
  4. Not waiting and taking action - just starting somewhere and being excellent at what I am doing
  5. Continuously broadening my horizons by travelling and experiencing new things
  6. When people come to me for X, giving them X+1
  7. Dropping in on people (sign up for the mailing list to hear the audio excerpt with this idea)

What will you model?

Robert Chen

Robert Chen is the founder of Embrace Possibility and author of The Dreams to Reality Fieldbook. He helps people who feel stuck move forward by guiding them to see other possibilities for their lives. He specializes in working with high performers get to the next level. If you're going through a tough time right now, check out Robert's article on How to Feel Better Right Away and if you're having trouble getting what you want out of life, check out How to Always Achieve Your Goals.

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  1. […] Commencement Speech at Wesleyan University 1988[…]

  2. Stefan Parmark August 5, 2012 at 8:04 am - Reply

    Do what you enjoy to do. I like that. Sometimes I push myself to become successful, probably too much, which actually removes the joy from it. I have to learn to just relax, and enjoy what I am doing, without forcing it.

    Good to see that you also learned some things. Being yourself is important, and not trying to please others. And giving people more than they expect. That will certainly make people see who you really are. I think you are already got at it, considering the very helpful response I got from you in the last article I commented on.

    I emailed the paragraph about giving yourself permission to be great to a friend. Great stuff! I think she needs just that extra permission to really get going, and show the world what she is capable of.

    I certainly have given myself permission to be successful, but I think I have forgotten to give myself permission to relax and enjoy myself, like going into the woods and snap photos, which I used to do a lot. I haven’t “had time” for that for some time now. I have got to change that.

    Excellent article, Robert!

    Keep up the good work!

    • Robert Chen August 5, 2012 at 5:43 pm - Reply

      Hi Stefan,

      It’s great that you found this article useful and it reminds you to relax and enjoy yourself. I learned a lot from my conversation with Mr. Zinsser. It’s interesting to pick the brain of successful people and to get their perspective. Enjoying ourselves is very important and like you I have to keep that in mind when setting and achieving my goals. Thanks for reading.

  3. How To Become A Hero in 15 Minutes | Stefan Parmark.com August 5, 2012 at 8:11 am - Reply

    […] Learn more about modelling success in Modeling Success Series – William Zinsser – #2 […]

  4. Bloom Oleary September 11, 2012 at 9:36 pm - Reply

    I loved your article. I’ve had a copy of “On Writing Well” for years, I managed to find one in a used bookstore. It has been on my desk ever since. It was nice to find out more about the man who wrote them.

    • Robert Chen September 11, 2012 at 11:51 pm - Reply

      Hi Bloom,

      Thanks for reading my article. On Writing Well is such a useful reference and its author has such passion for his craft that it’s no wonder we find his material so timeless. I’m glad you enjoyed this reading this.

  5. […] people rarely retire even when they are eligible to. Look at Warren Buffett, William Zinsser or Frances Hesselbein. They are well over the retirement age and have the means to retire yet they […]

  6. […] had the privilege of meeting Bill a few years ago when I interviewed him for the Modeling Success Series. In addition, to the wonderful insights from that interview, […]

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