Success—By Whose Definition?


I struggled with writing this post, because I struggle with this issue: Am I a success?

Am I a success if
• I’ve written books that have gone out of print within two years of publication?
• I’ve been laid off?
• I can’t have children?
• I have over 60 rejections under my belt (and 60 is a conservative estimate)?
• Much of what I’ve written has been at a work-for-hire basis or under someone else’s name (nonroyalty or ghostwriting)?

For me, this isn’t a choice of A, B, C, D, or E—some of the above. All are a part of the landscape of my life. Some of the items might seem odd, because you might think they have no relation to writing. But I came up with this list, because maybe they’re the yardstick by which you too measure success in life.

Several years ago, I visited a few classrooms in a school on the south side of Chicago. I’d been invited for Career Day. In a previous post I mentioned a question I was asked by several eighth graders: “Do you make as much money as J. K. Rowling?” J. K. of course was the measure of what they deemed success. (The answer to their question was no, by the way.)

We live in a society that often quantifies success by the ever shifting characteristics of the American dream or by how quickly someone gains fame, riches, and other perks: i.e., that first week at the box office; that first print run catapulting you to The New York Times bestseller list; that video of you picking your nose which goes viral and makes you famous overnight; that green jacket you don at the end of the Masters tournament.

As I thought about this post, a marathon came to mind. My younger brother ran the Chicago marathon last summer. He didn’t come close to that special group which finished the marathon in a little over two hours. He could barely put one foot in front of the other by the end of the race. But the thing is, he finished the race. And there was not a single person at that finish line who measured his run by those who had finished the race earlier. Instead, everyone lauded him.

A marathon might seem cliché. But it’s apt isn’t it? We struggle in this race called life. But we deal with the good and the bad and keep going.

When my sister-in-law and I asked my brother which mile would be best for us to wait and cheer him on, he mentioned the twentieth mile. Why that mile? Because many runners want to give up at that point, though they’re so close to finishing.

Maybe like me you struggle with a definition of success, one that fits your life. I don’t know about you, but I tend to feel less successful, less apt to keep running, when I measure myself against others. Maybe we can both take the marathon approach, not just as people participating in the marathon, but as the spectators also, cheering each other on, whether we’re at mile 1 or mile 20, whether we finish the race in two hours or six.

Because that’s what success is all about, isn’t it? Finishing the race, whatever finishing might look like; to keep trying, keep putting one foot in front of the other as we do what we love to do.

9 thoughts on “Success—By Whose Definition?

  1. This makes me think of discussions on when you can call yourself a writer. Is it when you’ve written something? Is it when you write the stories that satisfy your creative side? Is it when you’ve self-published and sold a certain number of copies, or does one need the “validation” of a traditional publishing contract before she earns the title?

    Which of those scenarios makes you a “success?”

    I think I’ve answered the “Am I a writer?” question for myself, but success is a whole other question. Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

  2. I think life is about getting better, not about either meeting or not meeting goals. Today, I wanted to increase my bench press…and I did. I’m not benching what my son does. Or what my husband does. Or what I did twenty years ago. But I did more today than yesterday and I’m so incredibly grateful for that opportunity. And tomorrow, I just might do it again.

    My son, the dyslexic, thought he’d never read. But every time he recognized a word, he read. It was that simple. Then when he recognized another word, he read even more. And now? He’s graduating from Boston College with a 3.4, and no special help or program assistance.

    I’m not published and I’m not very strong but that’s okay because today I wrote a beautiful sentence and I put up more weight than yesterday…and I always have tomorrow.

    • Congrats, Laura, on reaching your bench press goal and writing a beautiful sentence. And for having a son who is graduating with that GPA! That’s awesome. So much of life is just flat-out grace. I tend to cover over the warm sunshine of that truth with the dark clouds of despair. But you are so right. There’s always tomorrow. (And no I don’t plan to sing the song from “Annie.”) And I’m grateful for a supportive community.

  3. So needed to hear that today. I’ve been struggling not to compare myself against everyone else I know as I work through this WIP, especially since it has been taking so long…Guess I need to keep telling myself it’s a marathon: not a sprint. 🙂 Thank you for being you. Keep writing!

    • I think we all fall under the comparison wheel at times. I do that constantly, and sadly am crushed. I read others’ manuscripts and think, My manuscript is boring or whatever else my inner critic spouts. And other days, I feel like I’m at mile 37 of this 26-mile race. But keep strong, keep writing that WIP. It will be done when it’s done.

  4. Pingback: Your Most Important Writing | Linda Taylor's Blog

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