How Do You Measure Success?

Damn New Year’s resolutions. Damn those ubiquitous ads for personal improvements. Damn fresh starts, reaffirmations, good intentions. Damn everyone pushing those annual bookended reflections: What have you done so far? What do you want to achieve?

Awards and Writing

At last night’s Golden Globes award ceremony, Glenn Close gave a tearful acceptance speech that tore at me. This, in particular:

I’m thinking of my mom, who really sublimated herself to my father her whole life, and in her 80s, she said to me, “I feel I haven’t accomplished anything.” And it was so not right. I feel what I’ve learned through this whole experience is that women–we’re nurturers; that’s what’s expected of us. We have our children; we have our husbands, if we’re lucky enough, and our partners–whoever. But we have to find personal fulfillment. We have to follow our dreams. We have to say, “I can do that” and “I should be allowed to do that.”

Close has been an actor for 45 years, so I don’t know whether this whole process refers to bringing “The Wife” to screen and developing her award-worthy role as Joan Castleman or Close’s career in summation.

While I haven’t yet seen “The Wife,” a line in the trailer is a real whopper. With a world-weary and pitying expression, actor Elizabeth McGovern looks into the camera and says, “A writer has to be read, honey.”

Indeed.

Define Accomplishment

At the intersection of reflection, at the crossroads of last year and next year, sits evaluation. How, exactly, to measure “success”?

Americans put so much emphasis on employment salaries and titles. Those of us who’ve pursued and followed a career without accepted, ascending steps don’t necessarily have clear, external validation. We have to figure out just what accomplishments define progression.

What, for example, transforms an aspiring writer into a successful writer?

  • Publication? Would that be print or digital? Popular magazines or scholarly journals? How about screenplays? And did you use a traditional or independent publisher? Self publish? Wait–what about ad content, PR work, website text?
  • Readership? How many people are reading your work (and how do you know)? Is that measured by clicks, shares, subscriptions, or book sales?
  • Recognition? Have you made it when asked to write for a publication? Given a public appearance? Accrued a certain number of blog, website, and social media followers? Sold advance copies? Nailed a recurring column? What if you’re a ghost writer–how does that count, recognition-wise?
  • Business? Do you have a dedicated office? Assistant(s)? Got any traffic from LinkedIn? Does your website have a store? Are you under contract?
  • Money? Exactly how much do you make, and is that based on an annual salary or what you charge per word or job?

Everything can be argued; absolutes are few and far between. Take money. A look at this article from today’s New York Times (“Does It Pay to Be a Writer?”) reveals there’s essentially no salary standardization among writers and a variety of factors–decline in freelance journalism, for one–have lead to lower and less frequent remittance. Since 2009, part-time writers’ median pay has dropped 42 percent; published full-time writers’ book advances and royalties have decreased by almost 30 percent. (Here’s where I give a strangled, maniacal laugh and respond, Whatever! Like that matters for someone who hasn’t published a book.)

I often feel like Close’s mother: I haven’t accomplished anything. Those hours spent alone, invisible, working on projects that could take years in the finishing and, when–if–completed, still never amount to anything, feel so very, very futile. So desperate and silly and unrecognized.

So unsuccessful.

While Close’s message about finding personal fulfillment is uplifting and powerful, a question remains. Is following a dream worth it if I can’t realize success?

Author Chuck Wendig knew dark days were around the corner because on December 31, he posted a blog that could’ve been crafted specifically for me. He wrote about these depleting times, an era of political ugh that zaps creative energy like an evil ray gun. He wrote about writing, about the constant fear, struggle, and need to put fingers and pens to keyboards and paper. Wendig told me to persist:

“You can do it. You belong as much as anybody. You’re an impostor, sure, because we’re all impostors, we’re all here unasked for, unbidden, uninvited, wearing our masks.

Persist anyway.”

Yes, I’m grateful to know that others are, just like me, alone and adrift, and I’m thankful for Wendig’s comfort. I’m thrilled to hear Close’s encouragement to push beyond limits. But I’m still struggling in the dark hole of self-doubt. How can I claim some success?

Achieving–at the least, achieving a sense of accomplishment for following my writing dreams and passions–feels very distant and soul-suckingly elusive.

Yeah, it’s all a mystery. And I despair a lot. Nevertheless, I persist.

Checklist titled Writer's Evaluation with "feelings of inadequacy" checked

More Good Stuff

Glenn Close’s 2019 Golden Globes Speech (Best Actress for Drama)

Trailer for “The Wife”

“Alone and Adrift in the Unpublished Sea” (thoughts on writing)

 “Author Incomes: Not Great, Now or Then” by John Scalzi (a rebuttal to that Authors Guild Survey)

“In 2019: Persist, Persist, Persist” by Chuck Wendig

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Published by Leah Nyfeler

I'm a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I've come to learn it. In addition to my blog "Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life" at www.leahruns100.com, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

2 thoughts on “How Do You Measure Success?

  1. I look at how loved you are, how kind you are, how much fun you are. So – in my book, you are hugely successful!

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