Thinking about Success

This is likely to be a rambling piece, because when I’m trying to work out how I feel about something, I write about it. And that’s what I’m doing now.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

What I’m puzzling over is how we – I – measure success. I write for the love of the art of writing, and the need to tell stories, and the desire to tell the stories that present themselves to me in the best possible way, not to make money. (Yes, I realize the privilege inherent in that statement, but this is a personal essay, and my reality.) So why do I find myself falling into the trap of equating ‘success’ with commercial success?

Most of us want both reviews and sales; our hearts and confidence are riven or rewarded by what we see on the KDP graphs and the stars on Goodreads and Amazon. There is no doubt these things validate us as writers. But then I think back to my two previous careers: as a research scientist, and as an educator. In the first, I did good, solid, and to some extent ground-breaking work in a specific area. That work mattered to – how many people? A good question. So I did a Google Scholar search for citations of the nine research papers my name is on.  Based only on that search method, just under 50 people have cited one of more of those papers. Others may have read them, but they didn’t cite them. Not a huge number – but I never felt unsuccessful as a scientist.

I spent 25 years as an educator, both as a teacher of secondary students and then in a district-wide position, working with the most complicated of students and their parents. Over the years, perhaps a double handful of parents and another handful of students expressed their appreciation for what I did. But I never felt unsuccessful in this position, either.

Nor, actually, do I feel unsuccessful as a writer. I sell a few books every month. Occasionally, people take the time to tell other readers what they think of them, via reviews, and a few let me know personally.  I appreciate that: that there are readers out there who love my imagined world and my characters as much as I do remains a source of wonder and delight. But it is so easy to let the comparisons creep in.

If I walk away from social media for a while, and evaluate what I do, I am completely content. I get to work with words for most of my day, either my own work or the work I do as an editor or beta reader for others. I get to read books on things that interest me as research. That I have fewer reviews than many writers (and more than others) isn’t a measure of the quality of my book, just its reach. I remember I have other aspects of my life that bring me joy. And more than anything else, I remember I love writing.

The pandemic has taken a toll on our collective mental health. It’s taken me a little while to notice and evaluate this particular negative aspect of social media – which otherwise keeps me connected with other writers, and informed of developments in my research fields like nothing else could – and I haven’t quite decided what to do about it. But the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging there is one, right? 

Your thoughts on this subject are most welcome.

Featured Image: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

4 thoughts on “Thinking about Success

  1. I’ve been thinking recently about what success means for me, and the answer was – the first five-star review from someone I didn’t know at all. Not even a friend of a friend. Just a complete stranger that SOMEHOW found my book, thought “yes, this is worth my money,” bought it AND liked it enough to review it – and it was a good review, too.

    Does this mean I am now done, feel successful and accomplished forever, and will never have any bigger expectations? Of course not. But everything from then on is just a cherry on top. If I set my expectations for success as “earning X dollars” or “selling X copies” I would probably still be miserable – and I do occasionally feel this way. I get envious when writers I know get great reviews on blogs and the same blogs don’t even bother rejecting my book. I see people whose books I, ah, don’t consider to be great, outselling mine 100:1. But ultimately it’s about that one stranger. Who might have actually been you. So my biggest success might be becoming friends with you, and you can’t put a price on that. 🙂

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  2. I have similar feelings. I left a high-stress, high-paying job to ‘write’. What I have lost in salary I gained happiness. My life is pretty stress-free; I can sleep at night and my blood pressure is normal. But am I still successful? I admit that I have joined the chase for sales and reviews, I am competitive by nature. But I am trying not to define my current condition by the amount of money I earn, but rather by my state of mind. When I blow the 20 buck I made on book sales on a good bottle of wine, I smile and know that life is good. That is my measure of success.

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    1. It’s Scotch for me, but exactly! I just have to make sure I don’t get caught up in a narrow definition of success; it’s an external pressure I don’t need.

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