We’re doing “Ask the Agent” all this month — your chance to ask that question you’ve always wanted to discuss with a literary agent. A lot of the questions have focused on the details of writing and publishing, but one person last week asked a profound question about the big stuff: “How would you define success?”
I have stayed away from talking about this topic on my blog a lot, figuring too many people would give nice, religious answers in the comments section that would make me want to barf (“Success is just doing the right thing” or “It doesn’t matter if I have success, as long as I feel like I’m serving God!”). I think it’s easy to give a spiritual-sounding response. My problem is that I’ve been in this business for decades, and I don’t believe that sort of answer is honest for most writers. We were all born with a desire for power, attention, and success. This is a business filled with egos. To most writers, “success” is defined simply by book sales. You sell a lot of books, you’re a success. You don’t, you’re a failure. That’s how most of us feel. Sure, writers are artists, and we want to express our creativity, but so much of the business of writing is based on sales that we tend to default to that answer. No, it may not be the BEST thing for a writer to focus on, but I have to be honest and say that “sales” tends to outweigh “obedience” or “calling” or “creative freedom” when most of us talk about our writing careers.
So how do I define success as a writer? Let me tell you a story…
Years ago, I used to teach a workshop on creating a plan for your life. (Remember, I’m the guy who went through a doctoral program in organizational development.) In that workshop, I used to tell people that “success is the feeling you get when you reach your goals.” I still stand by that definition. (And that wording is not original to me – it’s a bit of wisdom from management guru Bobb Biehl.) If you set a goal of getting one book contract this year, when you actually sign the deal, that wonderful feeling you have is the feeling of success.
That, of course, is why some people never feel successful, even if they’ve sold a boatload of books. If an author wants to sell 250,000 copies, but only sells 100,000, she doesn’t feel successful, even though she made a pile of money. If an author believes she deserves a $50,000 contract, but is only offered a $30,000 advance, she feels she hasn’t lived up to her expectations, so she’s not successful. That might seem crazy to you if you’re sitting out there waiting for somebody, ANYBODY, to offer you a couple thousand bucks for your unpublished novel. But that’s my point: success is more than anything else a “feeling” — an internal take on our external work. If you teach a writing seminar and everybody pats you on the back and tells you you’re the second coming of John Grisham, you feel successful… until you read the participant comments, and discover a couple people thought you meandered a lot, and some others didn’t appreciate your sense of humor, and at least one thought your outfit was ugly. Suddenly you feel like a failure. (And it’s amazing how ONE BAD COMMENT can take away your feeling of success.) And that’s what makes “success” such an ethereal concept. Some days I feel like a successful dad, since we raised three kids who turned into very nice adults. (Um…that’s mostly because of their mother, by the way. She did all the hard work. I more or less stood around and tried to look well groomed.) Other days, I feel like a complete failure as a father, since I remember I missed too many of Molly’s lacrosse games, and forgot to check and see how Kate’s dance recital went, and didn’t spend enough time talking with Colin when he was facing a hard time in school. You see? Success, more than anything else, is a feeling you get when you reach your goals.
As a writer, you have goals — to complete a book, to get a contract for a book, to land an agent, to hit the bestseller list, to sell 30,000 copies, to make $40,000 per year through your writing… whatever it is. If you reach those goals, you feel successful. If you don’t reach those goals, you feel like you’re not really all that successful.
Is that shallow? Of course it is! Who wants to live his or her life solely on the feelings of the moment? I don’t. I want my kids to know I love them, whether I’m feeling like a successful dad or not. I want my friendships to be permanent, whether I’m currently feeling like a nice guy or not. Success as a feeling is awfully fleeting — as soon as your one successful book starts to wane, you have to go do another one to regain the feeling of being “a successful author.” Every author who’s had a book on the New York Times list is worried when the next book fails to launch. So that’s why I remind myself that there is something more important than “success” in my life — there is the concept of “significance.”
Again, going back twenty years ago to the workshop I used to teach, I always encouraged people to consider “significance” over “success.” Significant people are those who made a difference in our world, whether they attained success or not. In fact, I defined “significance” as “making a difference in the lives of people over time.” And I still encourage people to make a commitment to be significant. Why? Because I think true meaning in life is not found in just achieving that good feeling of success, but in living with the knowledge that we made a difference in the lives of others. Maybe that’s why “service” is so important to living a good life. If you were raised in the church, you know none of the saints ever achieved greatness by exalting themselves — instead, it was usually earned by giving themselves up for others. I still think one of the most important messages in my Anglican faith is the notion that true joy is found in giving, not in getting.
Look, some of the best writers and artists of all time have not achieved success. Hawthorne never really felt successful in his lifetime. Van Gogh believed himself an utter failure. So did Poe. Their “success” (in terms of sales) came after their deaths. And some of the best American writers achieved great success, but died unhappy because they couldn’t retain the feeling (and probably because they were so focused on themselves that they never figured out how to be significant in the lives of others). Don’t believe me? Take a look at the lives of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. For that matter, take a look at any of the Lost Generation writers. Successful? Sure. Significant? Um, a mixed bag.
But just so you know, there have also been writers who have led significant lives, investing in other people, and I’ve found they are almost always happier than the successful authors. (Need evidence for this? Look at all the recently-successful authors who are suing everybody in sight.)
Okay, so a personal story: the guy who stepped in to help me after my father’s suicide was no success. I was 12, and I needed a mature guy in my life. Jim Peabody pushed a broom in a steel mill and probably never made more than $25,000 a year. He died at age 40 of liver cancer, proving once again that life ain’t fair. You’ve never heard his name before — he didn’t write any books or get on television or run for office. He wasn’t a celebrity, or gain any national attention. But Jim is one of the most significant men I ever met. He took a bunch of teenage boys who didn’t have fathers, or who were from rough homes, or who were living in the thriving town of Witch Hazel, Oregon, and showed us all how to be men. Today I can point to writers, teachers, engineers, US Navy officers, pastors, and solid husbands and fathers who are all at least partially the result of Jim’s work in their lives. I’m proud to be one of them. I’d like to be more like Jim. I wouldn’t be the guy I am if it hadn’t been for him. AND I can point to dozens of other lives that were changed because the guys Jim helped turned around and helped others. There have been hundreds of people influenced because of Jim’s life — a more-or-less “unsuccessful” guy who ended up living a significant life. I’ve always thought that was something Jim could take with him. There was perhaps no temporary feeling of success, but there was a firm belief that the world is a different place because of his work in the lives of a bunch of dopey, small-town guys.
You know, I’ve frequently had people ask me, “Why didn’t you make your living as a writer?” The fact is, I did for years. But I was basically a collaborative writer, and that was because of a simple reason: I didn’t really have anything to say. To do a great book, you need to share a great truth, have a profound message, and the fact is, I’ve only had one significant thought my entire life. But, since it relates to today’s topic, I’ll share it here: No matter what your spiritual beliefs, most everyone thinks that judgment happens at the end of time.
I don’t know how you feel about the concept of judgment, and no, it’s not a popular topic. I think the organized church has focused a bit too much on judging people, worrying who’s making mistakes rather than how we should all be nice to each other. But if you read what scholars and priests actually say about judgment, it seems that judgment doesn’t happen the day we die. (And I don’t care if you believe in all this religious stuff or not — just stay with me for a minute.) In nearly every faith, judgment happens at the end of time. Why? Because it won’t be until the end of time that the full influence of a life can be measured. The people Jim Peabody impacted are still making a difference in the world, so the full effect of Jim’s life isn’t complete yet. Therefore God (however you perceive him to be) is going to wait until the end of time, when we can all appreciate the influence Jim had on the world. Conversely, this is why Hitler hasn’t been judged by God yet. His thinking and writings still influence people for evil, and the full extent of his evil won’t be able to be completely evaluated until the end of time, after every life has been lived. Whether you believe in this same sort of thing doesn’t matter to me – we all want to believe in an eternal justice of some kind, so most of us assume something like this is what awaits people — that at the end of their life, we’ll see and evaluate the impact they had on others, whether for good or evil. And that’s why significance matters more than success.
As a writer and agent, I want to live a life of significance. I keep seeing “success” as a necessary part of earning a living, but I worry about throwing my life away in trying to achieve it. I don’t want to spend all my life answering emails and doing deals, and never having made friends, or fed the hungry, or helped a friend achieve something great. And that requires me to focus on someone else. Maybe this is why Saint Paul encourages all of us to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life,” so that we’ll have a mind focused on significance instead of mere success.
This is probably longer than you wanted, and no doubt much more philosophical than you were expecting, but it’s my take on the notion of success for writers. Would love to know what you think.