What’s your definition of success?

Let’s say you’ve been working on a project. It’s been a long road, but you’ve kept your head down and kept gutting it out, moving forward. You’re primary goal is to make progress and you’re doing that, but…

Have you asked yourself this question: What does success look like?

What happens when the work is done? Maybe it’s a garden or a plan to be debt-free. How does that work into your plan for long-term success?

But wait…

I was talking to my son about the publication of my first novel on May 31. It’s a big win for me. I thought, “Yep. That’s success for me.” (See The finish line and other wondrous moments)

Then he asked, “What’s your goal? How many books do you want to sell?”

I was like a deer in headlights.

Hmm. I hadn’t actually thought about it.

Do X number of books sold equal success for me? I didn’t think so, but if that doesn’t what does?

It got me thinking: How do I measure success?

One story of success

You may have heard of Stephen King, author of horror/suspense books, many of which have been made into movies, like It and The Dark Tower. Well last week, he posted a short story on Instagram in advance of his new book, The Outsider. In 4 days he had 63,760 likes and 1,448 comments.

Whoa. I don’t know much about marketing and such, but I’d say he’s a successful guy and that was a successful post.

Even though I’m not a fan of his fiction, I love his book On Writing. It’s part memoir, part writing lesson and I recommend it even if you aren’t interested in writing.

A little bit of what he covers in the book: He’s

  • been writing since he was a kid
  • written and published dozens of books
  • been married since right out of college
  • a recovering alcoholic
  • was a high school English teacher when he sold his breakout novel, Carrie. He says of that time, “If I ever came close to despairing about my future as a writer, it was then.”

And here’s something else about Stephen King:

  • Legend has it that he writes every day. Still. Every day. His birthday. Christmas.
  • He’s a generous guy. The Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation helps writers and various organizations in their home state of Maine.
  • You’d never know he’s wealthy by looking at him. He looks like a regular guy, doing appearances in a t-shirt and jeans.

So, sure, his is the far-out, wildest dreams kind of vision of success even he couldn’t have dreamed of.

It doesn’t happen for everyone.

A different story

When I was in Italy, my daughter and I took a trip to Nove, a town known for ceramics and home of the famous La Ceramica VBC.

I was looking for pottery, the hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind stuff. We wandered into a dusty, unpolished ceramics shop that looked promising. The owner’s name was Giovanni and he spoke English. He had the kind of pottery I was looking for.

It turns out Giovanni is an artist. His work is beautiful, but it was hard to tell because it was lost in a mix of other styles he said most people looked for.

Ceramic bowl. Photo by Ruby Montalvo published on rubymontalvo.com

Unfortunately, health and money problems have made it difficult for him to stay in business. When I asked if he sold his work online, he waved off the idea and shook his head, like it was out of the question.

Giovanni’s work is extraordinary, but no one knows about it. He’s a gifted artist, but not a good businessman.

Ceramic bowl. Photo by Ruby Montalvo published on rubymontalvo.com

My takeaways from these contrasting stories of success:

Adapt, but don’t quit. Work through the rough periods.

Stephen King has had his struggles, including alcoholism and suffering life-threatening injuries when he was hit by a speeding van. He kept going.

Even if Giovanni closes his shop, I hope he figures out a way to keep going. There may be a better way.

Find your style, then focus on that.

Early on, Stephen King had to ignore people, including teachers, who told him he was wasting his talent writing his brand of horror/suspense.

Giovanni had what I was looking for and I thought the other more commercial stuff distracted from his amazing work.

Be authentic.

It’s exhausting trying to fit some one else’s mold of who you are and what you should be doing. No, there’s only one Stephen King and I’m not him. And there’s only one me and he’s not me, and there’s only one you and we’re not…. You get the idea.

But the question remains: How do you define success?

You may have heard the phrase: “Do what you love and the money will follow.”

As you can see from these contrasting stories of success, it’s not that simple.

We each have to decide for ourselves and it’s an important question, even though there’s no easy answer.

What’s my definition of success?

  • Keep writing and publishing.
  • Find my audience.
  • Be authentic and honest.
  • Keep things in perspective. My work is important, but it’s meant to support life, not the other way around. (Insight by Stephen King)