Chip MacGregor

August 14, 2012

What is success?


A while back, an author wrote with a simple question: “In your view, what is success?”

I have purposefully stayed away from this topic on my blog, figuring a lot of people would give nice, religious answers in the comments section (“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!”). My problem is that I’ve been in this business for years, and I don’t believe that sort of thing 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 — even for people writing in the religious market. No, that’s not 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” when most of us talk about our writing careers.

So… how do I define success as a writer?

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. If an author believes she deserves a $50,000 contract, but is only offered a $30,000 advance, she has a feeling of failure. 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crazy to you if you’re sitting out there waiting for somebody, ANYBODY to offer you a couple thousand bucks for your unpublished novel.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 wandered a lot, and some others didn’t appreciate your sense of humor, and at least one thought your tie was ugly. Suddenly you feel like a failure. (And it’s amazing how ONE BAD COMMENT can take away our feeling of success.) And that’s what makes “success” such an ethereal concept. Some days I feel like a successful father, since Patti and I have raised three kids who turned into very nice adults. (Um…that’s mostly because of Patti, 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 Kaitlin’s dance recital went. Success, more than anything else, is the feeling I get when I reach my 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 relationships 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.” 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 just in achieving the 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. In the church, 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 overlooked 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. Van Gogh felt himself an utter failure. So did Poe. Hawthorne never really felt successful. Their “success” (in terms of book 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, not for the most part.

But there have also been writers who have led significant lives, investing in the lives of other people. And I’ve found those people are almost always happier than the successful authors. (Case in point: Look at all the recently-successful authors who are suing everybody in sight.) 

You know, the guy who stepped in to help me after my dad’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. 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, chemical 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 no temporary feeling of success or failure, but 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, 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: 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 fear the organized church has focused a bit too much on judging people, worrying who’s making mistakes rather than how we all should be nice to each other. But if you read what people 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.) 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 done 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 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. 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. 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 no doubt longer than you wanted, but it’s my take on the notion of success for writers.


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  • Jeanette Morris says:

    Thanks for this honest, balanced approach to the concept of success. Very helpful to me personally (as I struggle to complete my first novel) and for the Bible study I am currently preparing for several presentations in Russia. Applying your ideas to the life and ministry of Jesus, I can surmise that he rarely felt successful – and perhaps is even waiting, as you say, for the final judgment to see the ultimate achievement of his goals. But there is no question he lived a life of significance, and that is our model.

  • Johny Fieddler says:

    Greatings from Hungary!!!

  • Avadhesh says:

    Dear Everybody,
    Everyone of us is concerned about success in “physical terms”. When we die then none our success goes to God and it is reduced to karma. For example one of my contact is a managing director of company which employs 800 or so people producing crockery. He claims that he has achieved excellence in his life and he looks down on other people. He has medical problem of ALS (see Mr. Sreven Hawkins on internet) and right arm is paralysed while his left arm in the same route. Is this success?
    Getting spiritual awakening and communication with divine can be a real success because these things will go with your soul and it is not common.Think about it.

  • Ange says:

    I heard someone at a conference say that there’s no use trying in “today’s publishing market,” there’s no chance of success, it’s better to just give up and write for themselves.

    This, this, and all of this. Success measured in terms of what we consider success – making money or making an impact?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Of course, I think whoever said that was offering terrible advice, Ange. (When was it ever easy to get published?) But you’re right — we can consider other aspects than market success as we evaluate our lives.

  • T Forkner says:

    I can’t think of anything more profound to say than what you wrote. 🙂 Great stuff, Chip. Thanks.

  • Cindy M. Jones says:

    I’ve never thought of judgement this way. Thank you. Success for me is a life free of regret, to take hold of an opportunity before it fades, to live fearlessly and expectantly, and always taking the time to enjoy the moment. High expectations, but you only live once, why not live excellence?
    Carpe diem,

  • Raj says:

    Where’s the “love” button!?! 🙂 -Raj

  • Write Bonnie Rose says:

    Thank you for helping me answer a question I have harbored for several years. When I started out as an author, though the idea of becoming successful by the way the world defines it seemed far-off and unlikely, a fear crept in. What if I was successful? I looked for a book on that question that would give Biblical advice on how a Christian should handle success. I may have missed something, but I couldn’t find one. Every book focused on giving advice on how to achieve it. But, your post negates that fear. Significance will not appear on a stats page, but is an ongoing discussion between God and myself.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think there’s a lot on the topic of “success” — words about pride going before a fall, etc. There’s not much on “failure,” so maybe we put too much stock into success.

  • CarriePadgett says:

    Very profound, Chip. Thank you.

  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    Thanks, Chip, for a well thought and well written answer to the success question.
    Sometimes, when I am seeking success-it is success as other people perceive it – so that I will finally be affirmed.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You’re welcome, Cherry. And you’re right — sometimes others don’t know how to judge our success.

  • Michael Ehret says:

    Chip, what a priceless post. I’ve never put it in the same words, but I have always striven for significance rather than success. Thanks for articulating these important thoughts.

  • shirleyjump says:

    Well said, Chip. After years in this business, I have realized “success” is as elusive and unquantifiable as vapor. To know a book has had meaning in someone’s life, or to leave a legacy of helping other writers achieve their dreams, that to me is true success.
    When you wake up in the morning, I think it is far better to think about achieving those goals, rather than achieving some new ranking or sales list or whatever. Those things are fleeting. Impact on others–priceless and lasting. And kudos to Jim Peabody, who was clearly a great man, in the most important ways.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks. And yes, Jim was great. My memories of him still stand out as highlights in my life.

  • Beth Pensinger says:

    Wow. Never thought about judgement being at the end of time and the reasoning behind it. Thanks for something meaty to chew on.

  • Josh Kelley says:

    It is sad Christians are so suspicious of pursuing excellence and success when the Bible encourages it:

    “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men.” (Proverbs 22:29)

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s a fascinating verse, Josh. I’m not telling people to shun success, by the way. I’d prefer to be successful than to not be successful, of course. I just think we can focus on that to the exclusion of other things that may be more important — especially when “success” can be hard to pin down in this industry.

    • Josh Kelley says:

      I really appreciated the post by the way, Someone (it might have been you) said that if we are in it for the money, we are in the wrong profession. In the end, I write because I want people to be impacted by what I have to offer them, I want lasting significance.

  • Vicki Hinze says:

    Chip, this is a wonderful article. I’ve defined success as it attaches to purpose which dovetails perfectly with your significance. If there is no purpose there can be no contentment. Like you, I know many authors. Money never does it for them. It impresses some, annoys others but money can’t touch a reader telling an author that his/her book made a difference in the reader’s life.

  • Natasha says:

    This really touched me this morning. I’ve never considered success as feeling-oriented, but it’s so true and poignant. I will always remember that! Thank you so much for this powerful post.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      My definition may not fit everyone, or every situation, but it works in this context. Thanks Natasha.

  • Meghan Carver says:

    Thank you so much for these wonderful thoughts. I’m storing your post away in my “Encouragement” file. I’m sure I’ll need it later as I battle success vs. significance.

  • Wasn’t sure where you were headed with this, but I’m truly touched that you shared about Jim Peabody. Rather than let the masses of needy kids overwhelm and paralyze him, he obviously focused on the ones he could help…one at a time.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I started writing because I sometimes get fatigued by the constant demands for success in this business — when success is usually measured in only one way (unit sales), and it is sometimes out of our hands.

  • Best of your insightful posts yet, Chip. Thank you for sharing!

  • Tiffany Amber Stockton says:

    Chip, you will undoubtedly hear it many times over, but just like Jim Peabody took those teen boys under his wing, you take many under yours as the president of a fantastic literary agency. You and your team steer so many authors down paths we might never have considered on our own. You mold, shape, encourage, inspire, and have great influence. So, looks like Jim’s significance and influence (as you said) is still going strong!

    Thank you for these thoughts on eternity and the end of time. Same for the musings on significance vs. success. I agree with MaryAnn, you’ve got the makings a great book with this post. Power-packed potential!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s very nice of you to say, Tiffany. Thanks. And yes, we have a great team here.

    • Cameron Bane says:

      Powerful stuff, Chip. Like you, I believe every person should have a Jim Peabody in their lives.
      Mine was my grandfather, a humble man with a small paint and hardware store in an insignificant Kentucky town. But the wisdom he imparted, and the affirmation he gave me and others, lives on.
      A great, great post today.

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    Love this! I took a test to determine my top strengths and one of them was a desire for significance. I had always thought that was a negative–wanting to be the center of attention, wanting to be important, etc. But Significance is about making a difference. That test gave me a whole new perspective. Thanks for reinforcing it!

  • Mel Lawrenz says:

    What a great word. This perspective is an antidote to one of our most serious pathologies.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Appreciate that, Mel. As a man who has had a significant impact on the lives of others, you’re one of the people I look up to. (And for those who don’t know Mel, check out his new book, SPIRITUAL LEADERSHIP.)

  • Robin Patchen says:

    What a powerful post. The difference between success and significance is staggering and reminds me where I need to be focusing my time. To very loosely paraphrase 1 Cor 13, if I sell 200,000 Christian books but don’t have love, what’s the point?

    And your philosophy about judgment is fascinating. I’d never thought of it that way. I’m going to have to mull that one over a bit.

    Thanks for getting my mind onto the eternal this morning.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah… on the judgment thing, I could be all wet. And not everybody believes in judgment. But I think we all expect to see some sort of accounting at the end of our lives, so that’s my interpretation on why Christians believe it happens at the end of time. I’ve never heard that preached anywhere, so no doubt some theologian will tell me I’m wrong, but it’s the only thing that makes sense to me — and I like the fact that it’s an idea that can be shared no matter what one’s faith is.

  • J.A.Marx says:

    Well said. (And you believed you only had “one significant thought your entire life.” LOL)

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Oh yeah, it’s true. I was a collaborative writer because I really didn’t have my own message. I appreciate great writers who have much to say, and make me think.

  • Barb Winters says:

    Excellent! Best blog post I’ve read in a while! I think I will incorporate this teaching into our homeschool lessons today.

  • Jerry Eckert says:

    Stunning piece, Chip. Thanks so much. (and this appreciation is from an agnostic,. but a philosophic thoughtful agnostic)

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I appreciate that very much, Jerry. We don’t have to agree on everything about God and eternity and faith, but I think we can agree on the notion that “making our lives count” is an important, shared human desire that offers us some meaning in a screwed up world.

  • Chip, I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes as I read your powerful post. As a Life Coach, I see so many people chasing after empty success when what they’re really looking for is significance. Undoubtedly, you’ve heard of Robert McGee’s outstanding book, The Search for Significance. It’s a must-read, I think, for those who want to understand the true meaning of a “successful” life. I totally agree with your belief that “judgment happens at the end time.” Only then can all accounts be fully settled. As for your not having written a book because you don’t have anything to say, I think you have the seeds of a great book in your post today. Thanks for sharing your heart. You’ve made a big difference in my life.
    MaryAnn Diorio

  • V.V. Denman says:

    I never thought of judgment in that way, but it makes so much sense, and it accents success v. significance. When I view my goals with that in mind, I feel less get-published pressure bearing down on me. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, and thanks for sharing Jim Peabody.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, this tends to lift a bit of the pressure off, doesn’t it? Thanks. Jim deserves to be remembered.

  • I love reading your posts. You probably never knew that because this is the first time I commented. But this post right here…is significant as it is successful. This post is clearly a home run and earns a gold medal. Thank you for writing a deeply moving and inspiring post. So good!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Very nice to have you join the conversation, Pilar. I appreciate anytime someone makes the effort to leave a comment. All best to you.

  • Laura McMom says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I really needed it this morning.

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