Defining Success

Katie Ledecky, winner of 7 Olympic and 15 world championship gold medals.

When my youngest kid was in middle school, he had knee problems. He couldn’t play football, but all that energy needed to go somewhere, so I signed him up for swim team. He went to one regional swim meet and I was impressed (confused? befuddled?) by the sheer number of kids who were rotating in and out of the water. His coaches reinforced the message that the kids weren’t racing each other as much as they were racing themselves. Winning gold was nice, but getting a personal best time was better.

That philosophy fits pretty well with an idea I’ve run across more than once in writing classes, often in terms of inspiration and motivation. We’re told that rather than waste time in jealousy or envy for another author’s success, each author needs to define success for themselves. For example, in a master class at last weekend’s Emerald City Writers’ Conference, Angela James started her presentation by asking each of us to describe what success looks like, and then leave a comment in the chat (we were on zoom) sharing some aspect of it.

People piped right up with comments like, “I’ve figured out what success looks like for three months, six months, and a year.” Which, okay then. LOL. I was happy for them – sincerely – yet there I was, still parsing the question.

See, if you ask me to list my goals for whatever time increment, I can do that, no problem. Weekly, monthly, one year, five year? I got this. (Well, five years might be a little vague.) And generally, I’m pretty good at accomplishing the goals I set for myself – or coming up with a damned good reason why I haven’t.

However, I’m not sure meeting goals and “success” are the same thing.

Clearly they’re related concepts. Checking things off a list feels good, whether it’s this week’s Trello to-do list or January’s goal to publish 4 books this year. And you know, according to the dictionary, that’s success.

So why am I balking? Why do I think success is bigger than just checking things off a list? Why don’t I feel like a success?

I think it’s because whenever I meet a goal, in the next breath I’m already planning the next one. Published 4 books this year? Good for me. What’s on deck for 2022? Pulled off a successful writing conference? Cool. When’s the next one?

I swear if I ever hit the New York Times bestseller list, I’ll immediately start figuring out how to raise the bar.

The thing about goals is they need to be concrete, measurable, and within my control. I’d argue that success is none of those things – unless it’s only about meeting goals. To me, it’s bigger than that. Success is satisfaction and happiness and pride, a complicated emotion that isn’t easily quantified.

I also think that defining success depends on where you focus your lens. The second bullet point in the dictionary definition is “the attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.”

And all of those values are relative.

Like, in my day(night) job, I’m a nurse practitioner in the NICU of a major university medical center with a national reputation. Does that make me famous? Probably not, although pretty much everyone in the world of neonatology has heard of my unit. (And if you google the name that’s on my ARNP license, you almost certainly won’t come up with hits about vampire romance. LOL)

Am I a success? Well, this gig is seriously my dream job, the reason I went back to school for a masters degree, and after working in a couple different places, I can honestly say its be the best utilization of the NNP role that I’ve found.

But it’s still a job, and I still have to pump myself up to go to work every night.

My husband and I have owned a house for over 20 years. To someone who’s worried about making rent every month, that might look like success. To me, it looks like unfinished projects and the garden needs work. I’m planning on taking early retirement at age 62, which might look like success, but it’ll only work if I write more books.

And….that might sound like a whole lot of bellyaching, like my cup’s half empty. It’s not. I’m very fortunate and very grateful. In thinking all this through, though, I have reached one conclusion.

If I’m not going to define writing success by meeting goals, there needs to be another way of looking at it. If I take away the goals – the yearly plan, the Trello to-do lists, the orange banners from Amazon – what’s left? The dictionary would say it’s wealth, and yeah, there’s the money, the number of books I sell minus what I spend on production and promotion.

But do I really write books to make money? Maybe a little, although I’m leery of picking a dollar amount to define success, because I can’t truly control how many books I sell. I can put together a good product and do my best to let buyers know it’s available, but I can’t make them buy.

So if I’m not successful because I meet my goals and it’s not about how much money I make, what’s left?

I think for me to be a successful author, it’s about the writing. It’s about being engaged in the process, the nitty-gritty draft and edit and read and learn and polish. It’s bringing characters to life and exploring the world through them, and it’s readers who tell me they love my work. It’s the alchemy of creativity and craft, organizing words into thoughts and recording them with care and attention so they’re telling the story’s truth.

I may not have an Olympic gold medal – or an NYT best seller – but I am writing. And by that measure, I’ve been a lot more successful than I realized.

2 thoughts on “Defining Success

  1. I definitely feel this! I am the worst about constantly moving my own goalposts.

    As you mentioned, separating the goals from the idea of “success” has been key for me (although I’m still working on it!) To me, goals are nouns while successes are verbs. Finishing a manuscript, revising a chapter, even writing a line I love–that’s where I’m trying to find “success” these days!

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