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7 Life Lessons From James Patterson

Love, passion and balance are keys to success, says best-selling author


spinner image author james patterson looks off camera while sitting at a desk holding a pen
Stephanie Diani

James Patterson doesn’t give advice. “I’m too humble for it,” he said via Zoom. But he did share with Experience Counts what has worked for him over his illustrious career and what he has learned along the way. 

Despite all his success, Patterson, 76, “still sees the world through the eyes of a kid from Newburgh, New York.” He’s listed in Guinness World Records for the most number 1 books on The New York Times Best Seller list. He has collaborated on various books with President Clinton and Dolly Parton; with his wife, Sue; and many other writers. Plus, Patterson has donated millions of books to students and U.S. soldiers and millions of dollars to students, schools, libraries and independent bookstores.

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Whether you’re a fan of his famous characters, including Alex Cross, Michael Bennett or Maximum Ride; his numerous novels, narrative nonfiction and children’s books; or the movies or television series to which his pen gave life, just a few moments with Patterson would leave you inspired.

Here are 7 life lessons from Patterson.  

1. Identify your passion 

“When I was a little kid, one of my grandmother’s lines was that ‘hungry dogs run faster.’ That has stuck with me. It’s motivated me, in a good way, to stay hungry, to keep interested. ‘Passionate humans run faster’ would be another [way to say it)]. Passionate humans accomplish more, or passionate humans maybe have more fulfilling lives. I do, anyway. With any project that I’m considering taking on, if I don’t feel the passion, I just don’t do it.”

2. Prioritize your strengths 

‘My time here is short. What can I do most beautifully?’

“I heard this once, and I love it. I’ve been living with [this perspective] for most of my life. Now, it seems [particularly] relevant, but I think it’s equally relevant — and maybe even more important — for 20-year-olds. I really think that it’s just so useful in terms of figuring out the priorities you’re going to have in life. When you understand your time is short, what are you going to do? What are you doing today? You want to live your life. Is family important to you? Is being with somebody important to you? What kind of job do you want to do? Can you sacrifice some money to do something that you really love or not? When I was a kid, I wanted to play in the NBA. I was pretty good, but not that good. Sometimes you have to let go of the dream for something that’s more realistic, and that’s OK.” 

3. Pick the perfect partner 

“To me, one of the hugest things is to marry your best friend. I did. Sue and I have been best friends for 40 years or so. We’ve been married for 26. The first time we went out for a long dinner, she said that she and I talked more that night than she did during her entire first marriage. One of the things that I mentioned in the autobiography James Patterson by James Patterson is that every night Sue and I go to sleep holding hands. I have always felt very lucky I found Sue, and that helps me to be attentive and appreciative.” 

4. Hug your kids

“Sue’s book, Things I Wish I Told My Mother, reminded me of things I wish I told my father. As far I can remember, the first time we hugged was on his deathbed, and the first time we said ‘I love you’ was also on his deathbed. That’s not optimal. Our son Jack is 25 now, and from when he was a little kid, I have given him a hug before he goes to bed whenever he is in the house. Sue and I [believe] that you can’t love your kids too much. Jack’s in New York now, but he calls pretty much every day, and every phone call ends with ‘I love you.’ ”

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5. Create balance

“We’re all juggling things in life: family, friends, work and spirit. We’re trying to keep [all of these balls] in the air, and it’s useful to remember that if you drop the work ball, it’s probably not going to break. But if you drop the family ball or the friends ball, it will probably shatter — the family ball, in particular. For me, family always takes precedence.” 

6. Focus on what you can control

“Stress is the enemy. Guilt is another killer. People worry about things that they can’t do anything about. It’s not useful. It’s just taking up your time, and it’s not helping anybody. It’s certainly not helping you.” 

7. Find your song

“My grandfather would take me on his truck route [when I was a little kid]. He delivered frozen food and ice cream. We would get up at 4:30 in the morning and pack the truck, and we would get home at 6 at night. My grandfather was a real joyful guy. Every morning [during his route], he sang. He said to me, ‘You know, Jim, I don’t care what you do when you grow up. I don’t care if you become a ditch digger, or if you’re driving a truck like me, or if you become the president. Just remember when you go over the mountain to work in the morning, you gotta sing,’ and I do.” 

Although a duet with Dolly isn’t in the works, Patterson is busy with over 30 active projects, including a couple of screenplays. But writing for him isn’t work. It’s playing. To learn more about Patterson’s upcoming projects, go to jamespatterson.com.

Question: Which life lesson resonates with you?

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