We don’t often hear about the work habits of those who are good at what they do.

Or when we do, they are misleading. In recent years, the press has focussed perhaps too much on people who made names for themselves while still quite young with seemingly little effort. Mark Zuckerberg comes to mind.

Perhaps some of the wunderkinder perpetuate the illusion of effortless achievement.

But for every standout who rises to the top with ease, at least 100 emerge from the pack through good, old-fashioned hard work.

Early on, novelist David Cornwell, better known by his pseudonym John Le Carré, faced a 90-minute-long commute each way to his day job in London. He used that time to write in little notebooks, he told George Plimpton of The Paris Review in 1996.

Even later, with writing as his only work, he has followed a monkish routine. “It’s like being an athlete,” he said.

Le Carré goes straight to work, often quite early. If a book’s near done, he may start writing by hand at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning and write up to lunchtime. In the afternoon, he takes a walk. Later over scotch, he looks over the typed version of his draft, maybe fiddles with it. He likes to sleep on any lingering questions. The next morning, answers emerge.

Le Carré’s experience suggests that people who really want to make something work don’t just dabble in it, they devote a lot of time to their work and make it part of a routine. Off days are not an option.

Source: “John Le Carré, The Art of Fiction No. 149,” The Paris Review