Success/Failure—How Do We Measure It?

Two things inspired me to write a post on failure— or should say success? The first one was a post over at Unleash The Flying Monkeys Failure is Not an Option; It’s a Necessity, where Leah dismisses the notion that “we must succeed or else,” and the other arrived in the form of a little inspirational note in my inbox which read:

The standard of success in life isn’t the things. It isn’t the money or the stuff — it is absolutely the amount of joy you feel.”

I happen to agree with Leah in that failure is not the end of the world, nor is success a necessity for happiness. Her idea that many of us put ourselves under far too much pressure was spot on. We don’t want to end up sucking all the joy out of our lives which is exactly what can happen when we strive to reach certain goals and deadlines.

While Leah’s opinion is that failure isn’t the end of the world–which it isn’t– my little email message seemed to be saying that we should take a look at what success means. That got me thinking.

So, how does a writer measure success?

Some might say, that’s easy—publication is what all writers strive for, their way of measuring success, or perhaps the size of the advance they receive (not to mention royalty money, and possibly any awards that might come their way.)

I’m reminded of a post I wrote last November, So What’s it really about? that came about after a conversation with my daughter where I told her I didn’t want this experience of having a book published to be all about sales and money. I wanted to enjoy each precious moment, savour each pleasant memory along the way.

A writer’s life is filled with highs and lows. There is both disappointment and elation along the way. We feel disappointment when we receive yet another rejection and elation over some small bit of praise for our work.

But hopefully, as we create our stories we are doing it for the pure joy of it, and not for some measure of success that comes in the form of money or fame or awards. Hopefully, we are wrapped up in each word and syllable, sentence and paragraph that we put down on paper. Hopefully, as each day brings us further to an ending, we love the story we’re creating just as much at the end as we did in the very beginning. If there is no joy, no sense of fun, are we truly successful when and if that story is finally published?

How then, as writers, do we fail?

I thought about this question for a moment and the first thing that popped into my mind was quitting. For me, failure would come in the form of quitting. And then I wondered why would a writer quit? Failure to be published might be the answer. But if we quit, how can be sure that publication is not awaiting us further down the road? Lots of things to ponder.

We are often encouraged to set goals for ourselves and this can be helpful. It can motivate us to keep going or even serve as the catalyst to get us started. But what if we set a goal such as: I want to be published by a certain date and that date comes and goes. Are we then a failure for not reaching our goal by this self-imposed deadline?

I have occasionally set writing goals to help motivate myself, and only rarely do I set a deadline. Don’t get me wrong, for some writers deadlines are a way of life especially when an editor is waiting for you to get back to them with rewrites and all that other fun stuff. Missing such deadlines would not be wise. Earlier this year, I set a goal of having a first draft for another novel completed by the end of the summer. Guess what? Didn’t happen. Little did I know when I set this goal that I would become very busy with some revisions on a completely different story. Did I feel like a failure then for missing my deadline? Not for a moment. I felt like a complete success for bringing my revisions to a place where I am totally happy and confident with the story I was revising.

Sometimes we have to accept the fact that we don’t have control over everything. Sometimes we want to go in one direction while the Universe is guiding us someplace else. Sometimes we think we are ready when in fact we aren’t. But if we quit working at it I can guarantee this readiness will never find us, and yes we probably will feel like a failure.

So that’s lots to digest for one day. Thanks for making me think, Leah, and for inspiring me to write this very long-winded post…

As a writer what do you feel if your measure of success? Do you agree with the statement that “ The standard of success in life isn’t the things. It isn’t the money or the stuff — it is absolutely the amount of joy you feel?”

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  1. I write because it makes me, and hopefully, my readers, happy…if I get paid for it, it’s a bonus!


  2. Jan Coates

     /  October 17, 2010

    I have to say that the happiest part of many days for me is the time I spend writing. When I’m deeply engrossed in my manuscript, everything else, other than me and my story, disappears. I like that. When I do school visits, kids often ask what I do for fun – don’t think they believe me when I tell them I write! Maybe we should evaluate our lives on a scale based on fulfillment rather than “success” – whatever that is??

    • It made me smile that kids ask you what you do for fun. :) You’re probably right, many people don’t get that we write becasue we enjoy doing it. I certainly know some who think writers only write for the money.

      I absolutely think that fulfillment is far more important because, without fulfillment in our lives, we are simply going through the motions.

  3. My life is satisfying if I never get to write another word, but I plan to keep writing. It’s me. It’s what I do. No, it’s part of what I do and I enjoy it. Failure? Success? There is a blend there somehow in that one fosters the other. The odd couple. Ha! Blessings to you Laura. Great post!

    • I’d probably say it would be darn near impossible for me to never write another word. Years ago out of frustration I would vow to never write again but before I knew it I was both anxious and curious to get back to the page. Although writing isn’t the only thing that fills my life it certainly takes up a big part of it.

      Blessings to you as well, Carol Ann. :)

  4. I think it really is crazy to base our sense of success/failure on things outside our control, like a “get-published-by” deadline. And I totally agree that if we find joy in our storytelling, that’s a far wiser measure of success than whether or not we’re published.

    Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Laura!

    • I do think that there are those people out there who do set such deadlines for themselves. Perhaps they believe if they are steadfast in their thoughts that they can somehow make it happen. But without joy what would life be?

  5. I enjoy the challenge of trying to get some of my work published, and am pleased when it happens. When I get a rejection, though, it doesn’t make me feel like I’ve failed. It’s a part of the process, and as long as I am moving toward my personal goals, I’m happy.

    • A very healthy attitude, Carol. As writers, we learn to accept rejection and move on. Moving forward, regardless of the pace,is a good way to gage our accomplishments. No one wants to remain in one place for too long.

  6. I always considered myself to be a success or a failure by what I accomplished or failed to complete – which fueled the low opinion I had of myself – compared to what I saw in others. Bad combination. At times I still fight to silence that lying voice. But the difference is that now I can mostly accept myself as I am. Yes, there’s LOTS of room for improvement but I am learning to give myself the freedom to do just that .. keep trying OR leave it alone and move on.

    I know I keep mentioning NaNoWriMo, but for me that is a huge test of .. what can I really do? And I am telling myself before beginning that it is not failure should I not reach the goal in my first attempt, but I do believe that it is failure to not let myself even try because of fear of failing to reach it. I am learning to not be so hard on myself.

    Perhaps that all sounds silly or rather convoluted, but I am knocking down walls as I go. :)

    Great post. I like how you think.

    • Lynn, I’m proud of the way your attitude is changing this past while. Comparing our journey to others will only leave us feeling sulky and cranky and sometimes envious of what others have achieved.Accepting who we are is a very good place to be.

      I totally agree that should you not reach your goal with NaNoWriMo on your first attempt, it isn’t failure–not at all. It will mean you had the courage to give it a go. But for the record, Lynn, I feel confident that you will make it. :)

  7. I’ll be honest. I’ve had my heart set on getting published since I was twelve.

    But the road to publication, on which I still travel, is just that: a road. A journey. And every time I’ve tried and failed has taught me something. And so I’ve come to realize that now, what makes me feel happy and somewhat successful is not that I get published—though that remains a goal—it’s the fact that I am learning. And that I am quite happy to not *stop* learning or striving for improvement even after I reach that goal.

    As for deadlines … well, it would be *nice* to find an agent and *accepted* for publication before I’m thirty, but at this point, with less than two years to go and the fact that many books don’t get published until two years after acceptance these days, I’m more okay with that than I was at twenty-five. But at twenty-five, I thought I knew a lot more about writing than I actually did. Rejection and failure has oddly led to me being happier. I think I like the challenge of not being there yet, if only because it encourages me to learn how to make the story/characters/etc work better.

    • “at twenty-five, I thought I knew a lot more about writing than I actually did.” Oh Moira, you are becoming wise for someone so young. I used to laugh and say that when I was in my twenties I thought I knew it all, but once I hit my thirties I realized I had much, much more to learn. I wish you happiness and joy on your journey. I think you have a great attitude toward writing. :)

  8. Laura,

    I’m really glad you ran with the “success” train of thought.

    How we define and measure our success is directly related to our level of joy and fulfillment, I think. Perhaps this is why I’ve examined failure so often on my blog. That and I’m a recovering perfectionist. *grin*

    People tend to use the majority’s definition of success rather than one they’ve customized for their own wants, needs, desires, beliefs, etc.

    For many writers publication is the only way to validate their passion – to prove to outsiders it isn’t a “silly” hobby. And, I daresay, if writers hang their success on getting published, many will consider themselves failures.

    One of my goals is to be published, yes. If that never happens, then I will have failed my goal. However, I won’t stop writing and I won’t stop submitting my work for publication. So, ultimately, I won’t consider myself a failure; I just failed to meet a certain goal.

    To outsiders, though, I will remain one of those wanna-be writers not a “real author.” But caring what other people think about me has never deterred me from my goals; although, I have family members and friends who probably wished it did/would. ;)

    • Leah, you are another lady wise beyond your years even for one who is a self-proclaimed perfectionist or should I say a recovering perfectionist? ;)

      Being published is a great goal to have and I know people often tell others, “if I can do it, so can you,” but I’m really here to say that it is SO true in my case. There is really nothing about my life that would indicate to others that I would ever be able to write anything publishable but I have. I’m one of the most ordinary people there are. I have not travelled, and no I do not have an English degree as I have been asked on several occasions, in fact I have no degree. But I had a goal of being published and I continued to work at it until it happened.

      It makes me happy to hear you say that you won’t stop writing and you won’t stop submitting your work for publication. I hope that your journey will bring you an immeasurable about of joy!

      I know one day you’ll reach that goal!

  9. I’ve definitely missed my publication deadlines. I didn’t beat Gordon Korman’s record of age 14. I also didn’t make it by age 20. Or 30. I’m hoping 40 will be the deadline I hit!

    But when it comes to the smaller deadlines, for novel projects, articles, and rewrites, I find they’re helpful for keeping me on track. If I miss one, I try not to beat myself up. Like you said – we only have a certain amount of control over our lives, so as long as I know I tried my best, I’m happy.

    As someone who is currently clawing her way out of debt and is just now seeing the light at the end of a very long tunnel, I can say from experience that happiness is not about things. Stuff is just stuff. And too much stuff leads to misery – please take my word for it!

    • It interesting what you say about “stuff.” I find that as I age, I have been wanting to rid my life of a lot of unwanted stuff. It’s a bit ridiculous the way we, as a society, want to acquire more “stuff.” I’ve been trying to donate some of my “stuff” to good causes, and I’ve asked my friends to please not buy me birthday presents, because I’d rather spend time with them. (Unless that stuff is a new book. ;)

      Here’s hoping you hit your 40 deadline and even if you don’t I bet you’ll still be writing. You have a great attitude, Holli!

  10. Well said as always, Laura. You’re so good at describing what so many of us feel.

    I love it when I’m immersed in my writing and it’s flowing well. That’s where I find the joy. Having people like it and getting it published is secondary.

    I must admit I am up and down moodwise and menopause isn’t helping. I’m either really up and motivated about my writing or really down and feeling low that it’s not happening.

    I’m in a small slump at the moment so hopefully I can get back up there and not give up which is what I feel like doing sometimes. I need to remember why I write in the first place and the joy I get from being creative. It’s soul nurturing and if I don’t do creative things, I end up feeling robotic and drudgelike, just enduring life.

    Thanks for letting me vent!

    • Ah thanks, Cathy. Good to hear that you have found joy in your writing. That really is the most important part.

      Feel free to vent any time. Cathy! It’s something we all need to do from time to time, even after we’ve been published. Because no matter how many times we are published there will always be that next project, won’t there?

      I think accepting the fact that we all get into slumps helps us to understand and accept that those slumps are just that. It will pass. :)

  11. Measuring success and failure by other people’s standards is bound to suck the joy out of our endeavours. When I first started writing, publication wasn’t a consideration. Getting words on paper was a method of self-expression and I had no desire for others to read it. The direction of my writing changed, and when I began writing novels my idea about publication changed, too. Writing still brings me fulfillment, and I don’t think that will change whether I’m ever published or not. It’s the words that excite me most, not what people think about them. Mind you, I’m not so altruistic that the joy wouldn’t ramp up to new levels if someone waved a contract at me. ;)

    • When I think WAY back to when I started writing, I’m pretty sure that publication was my goal right from the start. Yes, I has a need to communicate and write things out, but in the beginning I felt a stronger need to have some validation for my work/my life. This attitude did change over time. Aging has a wonderful way of helping us put things into perspective.

      Writing does bring me joy, not just the publication part, but the jumping- into-a- pool-of-words-and-not-caring about-getting-my-feet-wet part as well.. ;)

  12. Laura, wonderful post. I suppose I think using the word “failure” is somewhat limiting, though I absolutely understand feeling like a failure ;). “Failure” carries SUCH a heavy connotation, and if we could only move away from it, and maintain the attitude, “life is busy these days” or “I’m just not ready to write … yet,” then I think we would return to our writing with a much more positive and willing attitude. But once we start labeling ourselves as successful or unsuccessful, then we move away from writing as an art to be treasured, if that makes any sense.

    Thanks for making me think about this!


    • “But once we start labeling ourselves as successful or unsuccessful, then we move away from writing as an art to be treasured” —–that makes perfect sense to me. Often time we do limit ourselves by using these kind of labels, and I most definitely think it can interfere with our art. Instead of allowing ourselves to self express, we try too hard NOT to be a failure or to BE successful instead of creating to our heart’s content.


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