Define “Successful”

The New York Times
Image by Laughing Squid via Flickr

I found out this week that my new book won’t be getting a review from The New York Times. For ambitious writers, a review — even a crummy one — in the Times is a sure sign of success.

So, I’m disappointed.

But…maybe I dodged a bullet. Some of “Malled’s” reviews have been so vicious they’ve left me gasping.

And yet almost every day since it came out I’ve also been getting private emails from fellow workers in retail, like the one that arrived this morning asking: “Have you spent 23 years sitting on my shoulder?”

To know I’ve been able to tell a complex story well and to connect emotionally with readers is success for me.

I’ve been struggling for a while to write a guest post about “the writer’s life”. There are many!

The reason I can’t figure out what to say is that we all define success so differently.

I received an email this week from a young woman who described me as very successful. In many ways, on paper, that’s true; I’ve punched most of the standard tickets.

But how do I feel internally?


Because “Malled” has gotten a ton of press attention, many people consider this success. But for a writer trying to find thousands of paying readers, it’s only one crucial piece of it…success is actually selling books.

Success, for me, is the ability to wake up in the morning and not worry about where the next set of bill payments is going to come from, and freelancing without any steady income means almost constant anxiety.

Getting a job doesn’t feel like it would solve the problem; my last staff job, from 2005-2006 at the New York Daily News, was a terrible fit and an extremely stressful experience. No job can be better than the wrong job. And at my age, in this hard-hit field, getting a staff job feels next to impossible.

Success to me, then, would mean freedom from financial anxiety.

For others, it’s another day simply being alive and/or healthy, or their child’s achievements or finding and keeping a partner or a home…

How about you?

How do you define it?

Have you achieved it?

Or is it…I suspect!…a constantly moving target?

11 thoughts on “Define “Successful”

  1. Woman Wielding Words

    I think in many ways you and I are very similar. While I wish I did not equate success with financial security, without that security it his hard to feel successful. For me, though, I think I define success (beyond financial security) with being recognized and acknowledged for a job well done. Of course, that is also my struggle. I wish I could define success without needing to be recognized by others. I wish I could define success in terms of feeling that I have accomplished something every day, and touched the lives of someone as well “as connect emotionally” with someone else. So, I guess the answer to your question is that success is a “constantly moving target.” Be proud of what you have done, you are a success.

  2. I suspect you’re doing all these things every day — but may not know it! i.e. people may not be giving you explicit feedback about this, (prompting such [self] doubts) but I bet you are having all sorts of good effects but not hearing about them.

    I am fortunate in my work that I *do* get feedback from readers via the blog and emails. But, truthfully, “Malled” is having an effect I didn’t expect and am very glad to see. I think taking the risk of speaking out has emboldened others to tell me “So true!”

    Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t need affirmation? But we do!

  3. I have recently created my Life Plan and I have 3 month plan called my Creative Vision that aligns with my LP. I have given myself the freedom to change what success means to me, but I am clear about what it ultimately looks like. Success is defined differently in various aspects of my life and this has been very helpful for my esteem.

  4. I think for me, it comes down to this (excuse the vagueness)

    Success is:
    1. Recognition from my peers and leading authorities in the same industries
    2. Repeat commissions because of above recognition
    3. Something like financial stability because of above repeat commissions
    4. Critical responses from peers/leading authorities (negative or otherwise) to any deviations from the work I have gained recognition in and get repeat commissions from

    Each item is dependent on another and is always a moving target depending on where you are in the journey at the time.

    Have i achieved any of the above? Nope. I’m a nobody in a field I’d like to be somebody in, but it doesn’t really bother me at this stage… have other plans that may or may not contribute to it, but living life is more important than success at this stage.

  5. Hardly vague at all! I think the moving target piece is hardest for me…when you work for yourself, as I have most of my life, it’s tough to pin your “success” to one thing because so many projects don’t happen or don’t pay (enough) or your ideas get rejected…

    Are you then successful because you’re still in the game trying? Hard to know.

    1. I’ve never worked for myself but I can see how one thing could be a success and not, at the same time, depending on what you’re chasing.

      “Are you then successful because you’re still in the game trying?”

      That’s an interesting one. If someone’s still trying, it would imply they haven’t gotten somewhere with their work yet (somewhere again being a moving target), and success implies having arrived at a milestone at least, if not the end point.

      I’m dangerously close to thinking myself in circles here 😀 Like you said, hard to know!

  6. Mmm very interesting. Success is a good day. And a good day is when I’ve done nothing more than make pages come alive with stories. Fiction, non-fiction, doesn’t matter – they still have to come alive.

    I wouldn’t have – couldn’t have – written the above paragraph a year ago, or even six months ago. Back then success was publication. And it still is, in a way. It’s just that there’s been his realisation in my life. that the greater success is the doing.

    1. Woman Wielding Words

      Nigel, your words really speak to me. Thank you for that. I want to find success in the doing. Of course I would love to publish, but the doing is so valuable.

  7. How do I define success? Interesting, provoking question; especially when you realize that you have to continually revisit that question depending on the given circumstances of your life. I have no recollection how I would have defined it at 18, upon my high school graduation, or 22, at my college graduation. But I do know that the idea of success has changed over the years, the more I’ve worked in theater and the more life experiences I’ve had.

    The fact that I’m still here, working in theater, is now “success” to me. I’m still kind of poor. I don’t have much in the ways of worldly goods. But I live in NYC. I live in a great neighborhood. I spend my early morning hours walking through Central Park with my French Bulldog, who I adopted with my own money and I care for him all by myself. I have an MFA from an amazing graduate program. My work has been seen on TV, stages regional, Broadway, and international.

    My life may not have made me rich financially, but the path I lead is rewarding in its “insecurity” and “variety.” It’s a hard life, but I still manage to live life. I guess that’s my success right now.

    But I know if you ask me again in ten years, the situation and circumstances will have changed. I hope my positive outlook will continue in the years to come.

  8. I like how you parse it all out.

    I think for creative people, the standard measures of success: big house/car/country house/whatever material goods, are much less compelling than doing good work for clients who appreciate you — and seeing your skills and talents used so widely. Our fields are so insanely competitive that carving out a niche for yourself within it is, in itself a huge win. Congrats on that!

    I agree that success will change with age and experience. I had always dreamed of writing a book, and now I’ve written two. My challenge is, always, a higher and steadier income. I like what I do and feel I’ve carved out my own little niche here as well. Just weary of fretting about cash.

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