Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

You don’t have to know what you are doing, if you know what you want to do

This week I am doing a series on how I wrote and published my first book in one year You can download the first two chapters of my book , Meeting Miss Irby, for free.

On September 15, 2011, I released my first book. Over 200 people including two TV stations and a national newspaper attended the press event in the Eastern European city of Sarajevo. The British Ambassador and local officials spoke on behalf of my book and the woman I wrote about.

It was spectacular. And surprising.

Eighteen months earlier, when I decided to write the book, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

Photo credit David Goehring (Creative Commons)

Photo credit David Goehring (Creative Commons)


I live in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina with my wife and three children. We lead an organization called Every Student, which basically means we hang out with university students, drink coffee, and talk about big ideas like purpose and meaning.

Six months before leaving our home in Atlanta and moving to Sarajevo, I made a shocking discovery. One hundred fifty years earlier, a distant cousin, Adeline Paulina Irby, also moved to Bosnia. She was a wealthy English who gave up the privileges of upper-class life to open one of the first schools for girls in Bosnia. During her 45 years in Bosnia, she made such an impression that tens of thousands came out for her funeral. Today, a century after her death, there is still a road bearing her name in the center of town.

This little discovery was a huge encouragement for my family. We practically floated across the Adriatic. We were continuing a family tradition of moving to the Balkans. Not to mention, our new home already had a road with our last name on it.

Nine months after arriving in Sarajevo, one of my bosses visited. I took him on a tour of the town and told him Miss Irby’s story. I showed him the location of her school, the road named after her, and her personal belongings in the museum.

He told me I should write a book about her life.

I protested. I am not a writer. I studied engineering in college. I am busy. I am trying to learn Bosnian. Where would I even start?

He shrugged his shoulders and suggested I think about it.

The next week my language teacher arrived to class with a two-page center spread from the national newspaper about Miss Irby. I was shocked that Bosnians still talked about her. As I scanned the article, I noticed the date of her death—September 15, 1911.

The 100th anniversary of her death was 18 months away.

At that moment I knew, I had to write a book about Miss Irby and release it on her anniversary.

The clarity was unlike anything I had experienced before. This was not just another of my crazy ideas, it was a gut-level longing. I knew what I wanted and would not see it fail. Even though failure seemed like the most likely outcome.

You see I had one major problem. I had no idea how to write a book.

This is not false humility. I really had no idea what I was doing. The longest paper I had ever written was a 10-page essay in high school. English class at my Institute of Technology involved writing technical papers. How was I going to research and write this book?

For three months, I half-heartedly worked at writing while reading all the books I could find on Miss Irby’s life.

Instead of writing, I found myself searching the Internet for ghostwriting services. I even met with a writer friend and asked him to write the book for me. I flailed about searching for rescue but only found silence.

Finally, in July, I had a heart-to-heart with myself. There was only one person who could write this book and it was me.

This book MUST be written. And I MUST write it.

When I finally accepted the responsibility, an overwhelming sense of desperation descended on me. I did not know how I would do it, but I knew what I needed to do.


Looking back, I realize I had a one of the most important ingredients for success—Clarity.

I had A Clear Purpose.
I had A Clear Deadline.
I had A Clear Desire.

It is amazing what we can accomplish when our purpose and desire is clear. When we know what we want, we will do whatever it takes to discover what to do.

(Read part two, The Truth is your friend, even when the Truth hurts.)


How has knowing what you want to do helped you figure out what to do? Let me know in the comments.


About Josh