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On Michael Crichton’s Busy Ambition

October 28th, 2022 · 17 comments

By his last year at Harvard Medical School, Michael Crichton, 26-years old at the time, knew he didn’t want to pursue a medical career, so he went to the dean with a proposition. He planned to write a nonfiction book about patient care, he explained, and wanted to know if he could use his final semester to hang around the hospital gathering research for his project. “Why should I spend the last half of my last year at medical school learning to read electrocardiograms when I never intended to practice?”, Crichton remembers asking.

The dean replied paternalistically with a warning that writing a book might be more difficult than Crichton expected. It was at this point that the young medical student revealed that he had already published four books while at Harvard (under a pen name), and had multiple other writing projects in progress, including his first medical thriller, A Case of Need, that would soon win him an Edgar Award for best mystery novel of the year, and his first fully-developed techno-thriller, The Andromeda Strain, which would become a breakout bestseller.

I came across this story in a New York Times profile of Crichton written in 1970, a year after he finished medical school.  What struck me about this profile was less its origin story heroics, and more its revelation of the sheer busyness of Crichton at this early point in his ascent. While nominally still a postdoc at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, when the profile was published, Crichton’s energy was clearly radiating in many different directions. He had just published Five Patients, the non-fiction book he had proposed to his med school dean (who had, as it turned out, ultimately agreed to Crichton’s plan),  was about to release an experimental novel about drug dealing that he had co-authored with his brother, and had, since that fateful meeting a year earlier, finished two other pseudonymous potboiler thrillers.

Perhaps most notably, he was also finishing the manuscript for The Terminal Man, his follow-up to The Andromeda Strain. As the Times reports, Crichton had become a “one-man operation” dedicated to this project: in addition to the book, he was simultaneously writing a screenplay adaptation and was determined to direct any resulting movie. To support this latter goal he began spending a couple days every week in Hollywood as part of what he called “a skills-building gambit.” The Times described the 27-year-old’s career as “hyperactive.” This might be an understatement.

It’s interesting to compare Crichton’s rise to that of John Grisham, one of the few novelists of the late 20th century to rival Crichton’s publishing success. Grisham’s ascent began with his second novel, The Firm, which attracted significant interest from publishers after Paramount, based on a bootleg copy of the manuscript, snapped up the film rights for $600,000. The book went on to eventually sell 7,000,000 copies.

It’s here, however, that Grisham’s path diverges from Crichton. As I’ve written about before, instead of embracing a haphazard collection of overlapping projects, Grisham instead built a simplified routine centered on the singular goal of producing one book per year. He typically starts writing on January 1st, working three hours a day, five days a week, in an outbuilding on his farm near Charlottesville, Virginia. He aims to finish the first draft of that year’s book by March and have the manuscript completely done by July.  Grisham will conduct a limited publicity tour surrounding the book’s fall release, but otherwise devotes all of his remaining time and energy to non-professional activities, like the youth baseball league he started in 1996. When his longtime assistant retired, Grisham didn’t bother hiring a replacement as there wouldn’t be enough for them to do. The only professional acquaintances who might call were his editor and agent, but they we familiar with his routine, and rarely bothered him.

In Crichton and Grisham we see two different models of ambition. The first model, exemplified by Crichton, is what I call Type 1. It craves activity and feasts at the buffet of appealing opportunities that success creates. The other model, exemplified by Grisham, is what I call Type 2. It craves simplicity and autonomy, and sees success as a source of leverage to reduce stressful obligations. Medical school wasn’t sufficiently stimulating for Crichton. Life as a lawyer was too hectic for Grisham. They therefore reacted to their success in much different ways when it respectively arrived.

As best I can tell, different people are wired for different ambition types. The key seems to be to recognize what type best matches you before success begins to exert significant force on your career. A Type 1 personality stuck in a outbuilding on a farm, quietly writing day after day, will quickly become bored. A Type 2 personality working on a screenplay at the same time as two books while filling weeks with Hollywood meetings will be crushed with anxious unease.

Ambition type mismatch, of course, is a lucky problem to have, as it means that you must be doing something right. But this doesn’t diminish its importance for those that it does impact. It didn’t take me long, for example, to realize I’m more Grisham than Crichton (in terms of personality, not, alas, cumulative book sales). This has likely saved me from untold volumes of unhappy anxiety. If you haven’t yet, now might be a good time to figure out what type you are.

17 thoughts on “On Michael Crichton’s Busy Ambition

  1. Dr Harhar says:

    God man. This is brilliant.

  2. Maria says:

    My first time commenting after reading many, many posts!

    I feel like I’m stuck in between these two modes. I see the value in the routine approach and always strive to organize my days with structure and time blocks. But then I have trouble sticking to routines, feeling like I want to follow the day’s energy levels and interests. I’m constantly wondering if I’m just not disciplined enough to follow through on something more scheduled.

    Is there an in-between, or is my struggle a sign that I’m inherently a bit chaotic and I just need to embrace it?

    1. Tegaguru says:

      Damn I relate so much to this.
      I guess we need to embrace it.

    2. Rayner says:

      I sense that I am a blend of the two: Type 1 (Crichton), in that I have many interests and projects, and Type 2 (Grisham), in that I seek simplicity. I believe that with time and growth, I may become more of a Grisham, but for now, I think I need to accept my Crichton nature and accept that even though things feel like chaos right now, they’ll simplify.

  3. Adelmo says:

    Una interesante propuesta a este mundo agitado por frivolidades, donde nadie quiere esforzarse por hacer nada y tenerlo todo en una pantalla que cada día nos roba los sueños literalmente.

  4. Kent says:

    Insightful ideas here, Cal. Thank you for the thought-provoking read!

  5. Jesse says:

    As a hopeful writer and a medical student myself, I really like this idea. I am also a Grisham-type and I often find that I am comparing myself to other physician writers such as Crichton. This inevitably adds pressure on me to write more often despite feeling the burnout from my schedule as a student. With this new schema, along with your ideas on seasonality and slow productivity, I think I can more easily pump the breaks and allow myself to trust the process.

    1. justaguy says:

      Good luck!

  6. Mary says:

    This is fabulous and enlightening. Thank you, Cal!

  7. Shishir Urdhwareshe says:

    Great insight. Everyone should be aware of this and decide his life plan accordingly.

  8. Martyn Newby says:

    A novel insight well written. Thanks

  9. seth godin says:

    I worked with Michael in 1983. I was 23, he was over 6 feet tall, it was very intimidating.

    The extraordinary thing about him though, was how shy he was. The media/culture business is hard to break into, and while he put his energy into the words, it was hard to find much chemistry or spark in person.

    I think the biggest takeaway wasn’t his work habits as much as his awareness and adherence to genre. He understood the system he was working in.

  10. Math Kiid says:

    I am in the business of Photography, where everything seem to be changing rapidly and it makes it kind of hard to keep up with the haphazard so it of priority to work long hours and tackle multiple projects roughly about 25 each year, and them have them publish in a form of a book by year end. However a great demand of quality work is of high expectations which also demands most of my time and a requirement of deep work, dedication, determination is at utmost recommendation to make all this a success by the time the year end. I could say that I am probably exhibiting both the types 1 and 2 characteristic because I have witnessed both of these scenarios just having the slightest differences here and there but for the most part type one and type two ambitions I could strongly relate with both of the tails. However in a case of options I would prefer to go for Grisham Type two’s way of approach to my ambition. Simply because he found a somewhat “calculated” way to go about achieving his goal and it seem less Andromeda straining and is a simpler approach…

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