Measures of Success
A major job hazard in my line of work as a novelist is an occasional looming sense of futility. Futility because, well, how does a writer know whether or not he or she is what they call A Success?
This quandary is on my mind these days because I’m proceeding headlong into a holiday season replete with innumerable parties. You know what I’m talking about. Every year, inevitably, these seasonal engagements require you justify your existence — er, give multiple updates on the status of your “career.”
Oh, what does a midlist author say? How summarize one’s attainments? Come to think of it, how does anyone know how successful they’ve become? Let’s admit that American culture refers to some rather limited criteria to define “success.”
For a novelist or other artist, credits in the elite media seem to be regarded as the main measures. If you can say you’ve made a movie with DreamWorks, been featured on network TV, performed at Carnegie Hall, or been listed as a New York Times Bestseller, you’re in good shape. Your work is out there, it’s being recognized by the trend-setters.
This can be hard on a toiling novelist whose books are not featured on Oprah, who can boast no lofty advance or runaway bestseller, and who spends most days in solitude struggling to make a page or a paragraph as good as it can be. You can’t just come out and say, “I wrote several hundred really excellent paragraphs this year,” or, “my novel is selling like hotcakes at Betsy’s Books in Duluth,” and expect to elicit an impressed smile. (God bless our independent booksellers, though!)
Did I become a writer in order to win money, fame, social acceptance? Of course not. Still, the culture of money and fame is everywhere — and yes, it’s frequently a shortcut to social acceptance. Its influence is felt most painfully, of course, when making a new acquaintance. How wearying it can be, let me tell you, to have to engage in a conversation like the following:
-Stranger: And what do you do?
-Me: I’m a writer.
-Stranger: Oh really? What do you write?
-Me: Novels mostly. I’ve published some.
-Stranger: What are the titles?
(I say the titles)
-Stranger: Sorry, what?
(I say the titles again)
-Stranger: Are they for sale at Barnes & Noble?
-Me: Yes. Well, sometimes. I mean, they’re not always right there on the shelf. I guess it depends which Barnes & Noble….
-Stranger: Hey, wouldn’t you love to be on Oprah? Wouldn’t that be great?
-Me: Enough about me. What do you do?
Naturally, narrow American measures of success are not only hard on artists. Your success as a parent, for instance, isn’t likely to wow folks at a holiday party—unless maybe you happen to be rich or famous as well. And what about success as a spouse? Success as a religious leader? As a math tutor or camp counselor or dog trainer?
Perhaps it’s for the sake of social expediency, perhaps it’s a function of the evolutionary mating-impulse, or perhaps it’s due to plain shallowness, but in our culture, if you can demonstrate wealth, fame, or political eminence you’ve made it. Whereas if you pursue success that’s less demonstrable, or less “impressive,” you may find yourself lacking social traction.
Of course, on a conscious level most of us know it’s not the end of the world to feel awkward and outranked at a party. But such experiences still have subtle and insidious effects, and in the long term they can wear down a person’s confidence and self-worth. So how do we avoid becoming infected with our culture’s measures of success?
For starters, we ought to try to recognize and value others’ achievements, big and small, vocational and personal. And most importantly, if we want to be happy and self-confident and continue wholeheartedly doing the work we love—however underpaid or undervalued—we must learn to rely on the measures of success that mean the most to us personally, and strive not to lose sight of them.
Maybe this means focusing on the profound, everyday moments that make us more human, whether they occur within the realm of our work or beyond. Maybe it means playing with our children, kissing our spouse, calling our parents to chat, listening to a friend, thanking a waiter or waitress with a smile, reaching a gratifying consensus with coworkers, or, perhaps, writing and re-writing a paragraph in a novel until a luminous human truth comes through (i.e. “I’m not writing this for The New York Times. I’m writing it because it makes me a more empathetic person and deepens my own humanity.”)
If we simply strive to be openhearted human beings, then our humanity is bound to permeate our work and improve it beyond measure. Surely, that’s success by any standard: to be fully human, all the time.
And should a more worldly success eventually arrive, we’ll always have this invaluable perspective to hold onto: we’ll know exactly what makes our work worth doing.
(On a related note, if you’ve got eighteen minutes and thirty-four seconds, consider listening to novelist Cynthia Ozick’s recent speech about the all-important invisibility of writers. Says the astute Ms. Ozick: “Writers are what they genuinely are only when they are at work in the silent and instinctual cell of ghostly solitude, and never when they are out industriously chatting on the terrace.”)