Rewriting my Definition of Success
Figuring out what it really looks like, and knowing when it has been achieved
Between June of 2020 and July of 2022, I published a four-book eco-thriller series, the Call of the Crow Quartet. I’d always wanted them to be available in audio as well, so I went about producing an audiobook for the first installment. With each release, I hoped the series would start taking off. Alas, it remains less like a snowball rolling down a hill, and more like a boulder being pushed up.
One of the ways I coped with the uncertainty of the pandemic was to PRODUCE. To ACHIEVE. I kept my head down, getting things done, focused on the thousand details that had to be dealt with. But after the audiobook came out this past March, I finally looked up and thought, where am I?
Early on in my publishing journey, I attempted to define success for myself. “The writing has to be its own reward,” I wrote back in 2017. “You can't go into this field looking for external validation, because it may never come. Because when I think about it… I am living exactly the life I want to live right now. I have the luxury of writing whatever weird stuff I want, whenever I want, with no contracts or deadlines. I have a part-time job I enjoy that pays the bills and allows me to use a different side of my brain and—importantly—reminds me that I am competent at many things. I have plenty of time to hang out with my family and read and do volunteer work and pursue other interests. I'm already living the dream.”
Oddly enough, when I paused recently to re-assess, I came to more or less the same conclusion. It’s odd to go on a life-altering journey, only to find yourself right back where you started.
It feels different this time, though. Back in 2017, I wasn’t totally honest with myself (or even aware that there was a subconscious friction between what I was saying and what I actually felt). While it was true on the surface that I had already achieved a life I wanted, some important things were missing.
I didn’t WANT external validation to matter to me. But it DOES matter to me. I can say, “I’m past that now” or “I don’t need anyone to tell me it’s great,” but I’ve spent most of my life craving the sweet, tantalizing reward that is praise. As much as I’d like to, I couldn’t just flip a switch and make that go away.
In order to afford living in Seattle on two part-time salaries (I’m a research dietitian and my spouse is a cook at a local cafe), we’ve always had to be very, very careful about what we spend money on. I wanted to ease up on penny-pinching, even just a little bit! I wanted to be able to travel more, to eat out when I didn’t feel like cooking dinner, to see something I liked in a store and be able to buy it for myself, just because. If I could actually make money for my family doing this thing that I love—now that would really be a dream come true.
I felt that these books were important. That they were going to be the mark I left on the world. That they would prove me worthy of existing.
So, what changed between then and now? Let’s dig in…
Writing these books was hard. I put tons of time, thought, love, rage, heartache, and joy into each one. Then there was the publishing aspect—a gigantic challenge in itself! Is it any wonder that I wanted a bit of recognition and appreciation for that work? I kept telling myself that I didn’t care about the money or fame that goes along with traditional success, and in a lot of ways I didn’t, but I did want a sense that what I was doing mattered to people.
To be fair, I did receive a steady trickle of positive feedback—but found myself brushing off every compliment. “Oh, they’re just saying that to be nice,” was how I usually framed it. I was a champion at invalidating the validation I did get, probably because I was lost deep in the jungles of self-hate-land at the time. It simply did not compute that others could actually appreciate the work of such a flawed, unworthy person (me!).
It was a weird loop to be stuck in: craving more and more praise to prove my worth, but not being able to believe it whenever it came my way. I had hoped that once the sales started rolling in, once I amassed some thoughtful and glowing reviews, once some big-named author raved about my work and therefore demonstrated that I was a legitimate writer—then I would be satisfied. But even when good things happened, I still felt empty (and vaguely embarrassed, for some inexplicable reason). Any rewards I got just flowed right on through me, never sticking around, never enough to fill me up.
Turns out that what I really needed to work on was my “unlovable wound,” as my therapist calls it. Eventually I started to understand that what I really craved was internal validation—I had been desperately looking outward for something that I could actually give to myself. This was a powerful realization, but omg it takes a lot of practice to re-wire those deeply ingrained (and strangely comforting) mental pathways.
My unlovable wound still flares up from time to time. But I am a lot closer to accepting myself, flaws and all, and I’m learning how to give myself validation when I need it. This has changed my outlook in a lot of ways, and praise now sinks in more deeply than ever before. All it takes is a kind word from one person, and I’ll float through my entire week knowing that I made an impact on someone—proving that all the hard work was worth it.
$$ Money $$
I would love to be financially compensated for my writing! It’s the hardest work I do, but our society doesn’t tend to place a lot of value on art. (Of course, there are artists who do quite well, but they’re the exception—most are compensated intermittently, if at all, and it’s rare for that compensation to actually cover the time it took to create the work.)
When I first started writing, I hoped that I’d be able to bring in extra income for the family so we didn’t have to feel so limited by our finances all the time. But that has not come to pass. My royalty statements are often hilariously sad!
You know what else is sad? Because I have to pinch my pennies (and nickels) so hard, I rarely get to share them with other artists and writers. If I’m not able to support artists even if I want to, how can I expect others to do the same for me?
All of this, of course, speaks to much larger societal issues. Sure would be great if collectively we could be like, “Wow, there’s a huge imbalance here between the types of jobs that are well-compensated and the ones that actually do the most good for society, such as educators, caregivers, and artists of all kinds. We need to change that.”
That’s not gonna happen anytime soon, obviously. In my own case, I’ve grown to realize that I’m unlikely to see steady income from the books unless I hustle really hard. But my strengths do not lie in book marketing, and I’m not interested in investing the time and mental resources it would take to get better at it, so I’m not putting much energy into it anymore. Perhaps in the past I would have seen this as a “failure” or as giving up, but now it feels… like freedom.
(Important side note: a big reason that I’m able to step away is because I have many other privileges, including stable housing and a part-time job with benefits. Our family has enough to make ends meet, so side incomes are not critical. Many other people don’t have this luxury, and I am not okay with that! In my version of an ideal world, everyone would have their basic needs taken care of, so we could all hustle less and enjoy life more.)
These days, I have come to accept that most of the compensation for my writing work comes in forms other than money. Yet here I am on Substack with a paid subscription option for those who have the means to support my writing, because every little bit helps take the edge off (and helps me know my work is valued)!
Upgrade to paid so I can spend more $$ on art! Or go buy stuff from your favorite artists & writers directly, if you can :)
Making My Mark
I used to be pretty focused on the idea that my work had to make a mark on the world. I needed to do something of great importance, like create a masterpiece that would outlast me, in order to prove that my existence was valuable.
But this is what I know now: we all make important marks on the world just by existing. None of us have to produce or achieve anything in order to be worthwhile. We are not required to create staggering works of genius that have profound effects on society in order to matter. Our worth is intrinsic. We are valuable just for being here.
This was a hard lesson for me to learn. I used to believe that the more I achieved, the greater my worth would be. But then depression came along, and with it a crash course in life with chronic illness. For a long time my only achievement was getting through each day, which didn’t exactly feel medal-worthy. So I had to face this “achievement → worth” myth head-on, and to recognize it as an ableist construct that really isn’t doing anyone any good. This made it easier for me to separate from this idea—oh, that isn’t “mine”, it’s just one of those things I absorbed by living in this society, and I don’t have to buy into it.
Now, I’m finding more peace in just coexisting with my work and thinking of the books more as an offering, instead of putting tons of pressure on them to be THE mark I leave on the world. I can also zoom out more easily, and understand that they are just one piece of my larger work in the world. My day-to-day actions—the choices I make, the way I treat other people—may feel insignificant, but they are powerful all on their own. Knowing this has made it a whole lot easier to let the books go.
And that brings us to the definition of success I’m currently working with.
I am successful if I:
Protect the time and mental space I need for creative projects, and use this time/space to work on things that excite and intrigue me
Share my work generously, without any expectation of specific outcomes
Recognize—and celebrate!—every reward that comes my way
Actively work on a personal, family, and community level to build a world where everyone is able to live a fulfilling life
Have you grappled with the idea of “success”? How do you define it for yourself? Feel free to chime in by adding a comment!