How do you define success?

By Caitlin Kelly




An interesting/depressing essay in The Paris Review by Alexander Chee on becoming an American writer:

There’s another Alexander Chee in my mind, the one who I would be if I’d only had access to regular dental care throughout my career, down to the number of teeth in my mouth. I started inventing him on a visit to Canada in 2005 when I became unnerved by how healthy everyone looked there compared to the United States, and my sense of him grows every time I leave the country. I know I’ll have a shorter career for being American in this current age, and a shorter life also. And that is by my country’s design. It is the intention.

…Until recently, I struggled to get by, and yet I am in the top twenty percent of earners in my country. I am currently saving up for dental implants—money I could as easily use for a down payment on a house. But I’m not entirely sure I’ll see the end of a mortgage or that any of us will.


Only in America do we ask our writers to believe they don’t matter as a condition of writing. It is time to end this. Much of my time as a student was spent doubting the importance of my work, doubting the power it had to reach anyone or to do anything of significance. I was already tired of hearing about how the pen was mightier than the sword by the time I was studying writing.

And this is from a writer many others likely envy and admire.

A younger friend, who makes most of her income doing Spanish translation work, (and some journalism), posted the link on her Facebook page; almost every journalist I know today feels vulnerable, underpaid and disposable — just as Chee (who writes fiction) does.

It is deeply American to undervalue — even scorn — those who work as writers or creators of music, art, dance, theater, film, until or unless we become powerful, secure and wealthy, which (as many of us know well), may less reflect talent than acquiring useful connections and well-placed allies.

Some of the most professionally successful people I know are really good at sucking up to working well with powerful people, (who have the money and authority to hand out good jobs, plum assignments, grants, fellowships and other funding).

Others have (also) had the emotional, physical, financial and mental stamina to just stay in their field long enough to survive, rise and thrive.

Many fall by the wayside, bitter, broke and envious.

But a larger cultural and political American context elides the realities of slower progress, aiding in the deception that only the most wealthy and highly visible artists and creatives are truly successful.

In a nation that only offers affordable healthcare to the indigent, employed and old, the rest of us are left vulnerable to medical bankruptcy. I lived in Canada, ages five to 30, so I know what it’s like to live as a self-employed writer and not worry constantly about the cost of healthcare. Unless an American has lived abroad, they have no idea.

Which affects many creatives and often curtails how much time and energy we can devote to creativity.


But what defines success?


For some:

an enormous salary

lots of money in the bank

having and wielding power

owning your home

a (fancy) job (and maybe several promotions)

surviving tours in the military

having a healthy/happy child(ren)

a happy relationship with your spouse/partner

achieving an athletic goal — completing a marathon or triathlon, climbing a mountain or setting a personal record

regaining (or losing) weight

acquiring formal education, gaining enough credentials to get and keep well-paid work

helping someone else achieve their dream(s) through your mentoring and volunteer efforts

If you’re ill, it can simply mean being able to get out of bed, stand upright and complete a lucid sentence.

Some people consider me a successful writer — which is flattering, but which I also tend to shrug off, having accomplished less than I’m capable of, and with peers who have published many more books, won the fellowships I’ve lost out on, etc.

But I do feel satisfied and successful in other ways: I own a home; have a lasting and happy (second) marriage; have deep and lasting friendships, to name a few. I am very grateful for good health and some savings.


Success can be an ever-receding horizon line, one that’s forever maddeningly elusive — or one more easily claimed and enjoyed


If we don’t allow ourselves to savor, enjoy and share our smaller “wins” we can end up frustrated and enraged, neither healthy nor attractive choices.


How do you measure and define success in your life?



31 thoughts on “How do you define success?

  1. Jan Jasper

    This is a moving, thought-provoking, and disturbing post. Of course I was aware of this issue, but you have put it all together in a really powerful way. And I would add that not everyone who is employed has health insurance. Increasingly these days, people have jobs , even full-time jobs, that don’t provide health insurance.

    1. Thanks.

      I see a lot of unhappiness around me among people who never seen able to climb that greasy pole.

      Health insurance is an American obscenity. Really sick of corporate greed.

  2. A thought provoking question, I consider myself successful however not a feel good about myself type, at seventy years of age I am starting to and would define success as liking yourself. . . . .just saying, Claudia

  3. I would define success as having a happy marriage and enough income to cover the bills with some extra left over for travel and good food and wine. 🙂

    Heath care (or should I say the lack of it) is a scandal, a tragedy, in the US. It has really caused many attendant problems.

  4. My definition is similar to Lynette’s (with a slight difference): having a happy, single relationship with myself. And enough income to cover the bills with some extra left over for travel, good food and wine.

    Acquiring money or a certain standing was never a goal of mine. What really defines success in my life is freedom, specifically personal freedom. Freedom to travel and go wherever I want (or not). Freedom to do what I want and create my own self-styled way of life.

    Also, to have plans/dreams/projects and realize them. If extra money appears, that’s a plus, but not the driving force.

    Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson said this about success – “Too many people measure how successful they are by how much money they make or the people they associate with. In my opinion, true success should be measured by how happy you are.”

    1. Thanks.

      I agree that personal freedom — however one defines it — matters a great deal to me as well. It’s definitely cost me financially (insecure freelance income and one that goes up and down) but I have had too many truly heinous experiences in NYC workplaces to feel sad that I’ve missed more than more $$$$$.

  5. I measure success by what I can accomplish through my own will. By that token, getting into college, getting my degree, landing a job with a great organization, and getting raises that have allowed me to have my own apartment and stock it with all my own stuff are marks of success. Also, the fact that I’ve published stories, and that I’m publishing a novel with an actual company, is a mark of success.
    That last one is going through a number of rewrites, which makes me a little nervous, but I still mark it as a form of success. And I hope I can continue to gain successes as time goes on. I recently paid off all my college debt, so there’s a success. And I think I could get my license (and a car) very soon, so those will be successes. I just have to strive for them, and they may very well happen. With some luck and help from the people around me, of course.
    I’m rambling a little, but you get the idea, right?

      1. Tell me about it. Hopefully my next book, whatever that turns out to be, won’t require so many. In any case, I’m making good progress, so there’s that. I just hope the publisher likes my changes.

  6. I read your entry this morning before heading out. I then read Alexander Chee’s excerpt tonight. That was a tough read and I felt both inspired but also sad about the unfairness of life.

    My definition of success changes with each phase of my life. And it will be different for each part of your life (professional, personal). It’s not easy trying to be successful in all facets of one’s life. For me, I think it will be understanding what my talents and potential are and trying to maximize those; being a good, supportive person to the people in my life and being independent.

    1. I think you make a good point — success at 15 or 25 or 45 can look very different as you start out in life or raise a family.

      Later in life, health issues are so much more essential — and often beyond our control.

      I like your definition. 🙂

  7. I am very much of a mind that the accomplishment is worth more than the reward. I wrote a song once about the time shortly before my wife and I were married. It spoke of “Running scared from the ghost of every chance I’ve ever blown” They haven’t made enough Grammys yet to equal the feeling of her tears on my face as she kissed me.
    I have often said “Any singer can do one good song and, if it is good enough, one is enough.”
    I wrote a comment recently on a blog post authored by a writer I admire and respect. Her reply began with the words “This made me cry.”. I have been sitting here for fifteen minutes trying to think of the right words to convey just how that statement makes me feel. I guess validated is a pretty good word, but I kind of like to think of myself as already valid. No matter, though. It was a real big thing to say and I recognize its value. I’ll never earn a dime from that bit, or probably any other bit and I’m okay with that. I just like writing a good bit.
    I try to spread this way of thinking around to other areas of my life, like baking a really good loaf of bread or getting that greasy spot out of my favorite t-shirt (10 super genius points if you know what it is). Basically I guess I’m building a large success out of many small ones. It seems to be working okay so far, I’ll keep you posted.
    For all of you who write to earn a living, God bless you all, even the hacks and trashmongers. Hey, even if the public is reading trash, at least they’re reading. The next book they read may be your own…

    1. Thanks for this…

      NO idea of your favorite T-shirt! 🙂

      I think a series of small wins is the best way to get through this crazy life. If we wait for, and insist upon, only the BIG ONES, we can stew in frustration and misery.

      I’ve been spinning my wheels AGAIN on another book project. The hell with it. Have begin pitching much smaller things this week to get some damn hits!

      Better a few singles than waiting for a triple…

  8. This is a really beautiful post, although i live in Nigeria, i think we all face the same challenges everywhere, one thing is certain, comparing your life to that of our friends would only lead to us feeling inadequate, success to me is fulfilling my dreams and most importantly being happy. Its not easy being a writer, but if i can achieve a set goal, then i have succeeded.

    1. Thank you!

      I’m honored you’ve found my blog and made time to leave a comment…I agree that comparisons are a quick route to unhappiness. Someone is always doing better — but then, someone is looking at us and thinking that about us as well.

  9. I’ve prioritised home owning because it gives me some stability and security, and radically reduced my overheads! Which with a household with 2 adults working freelance and on our own creative projects, makes a lot of odds. Most of the time, surviving alone is all the success I dare to hope for. We survive.

    1. I get it! I have been fortunate to own my home (even with a mortgage STILL) for those very reasons — in the chaos of my industry, especially freelance, you really need to feel safe and secure in your home. Knowing no one can suddenly boost your rent is a big factor in this.

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