The Definition of Success
How it can help, and how it can hurt.
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My evolving definition of success
My goal for a long time was — and on some level still is — my novel becoming a New York Times bestseller. But what does that really mean?
Well, it would give me financial independence, and ergo provide me with the freedom to be a full-time writer — a real writer (We writers love to gatekeep ourselves).
The reality, however, is that, depending on the sales of the current crop of books, you could make the list on any given week with as few as 5,000 copies sold. In other words, you’re not quitting your day job.
My sister, who inked a fantastic book deal for her second and third novels, has other streams of revenue, since payment hinges on certain contractual obligations, which can take years to trigger.
All of which is to say I defined success by something (a New York Times bestseller) that I mistakenly believed would deliver what I actually wanted: a flexible lifestyle.
This is what I really wanted: to write full-time. More specifically, I wanted to work on creative writing - novels, short stories, memoirs, essays, etc. — full-time. When I frame it that way, I realize that what I’d been chasing isn’t what I actually wanted. I wanted what I thought it would deliver: freedom to write.
Plus, you still have to keep the lights on and put food on the table, right? I can’t just declare, “I’m a full-time novelist,” as the utility company shuts off our water. Still, it clarifies what I’m actually looking for: independence and flexibility.
Daniela and I often talk about achieving financial independence and cultivating a flexible lifestyle. Though we don’t have a comprehensive plan yet, there is one piece of the puzzle that’s made itself clear: our mortgage.
Our mortgage is by far our biggest expense, as is the case with most Americans. It keeps us from exploring other options, from traveling more, from saving more, from investing more, so on and so forth. It’s the most limiting phenomenon in our lives. As such, our chief financial objective is paying off the mortgage as soon as we can.
Understanding the underlying motivation
I still want my work in progress to become a New York Times bestseller, but now I better understand my deeper motivations. That’s the key to focusing your efforts.
You can lose years of your life aiming at a moving target that wasn’t really what you wanted in the first place.
Sure, you want that promotion. But why? Because you want more money. But why? Because you want to buy a house. But why? Because you want to build equity. But why? Because you want to be able to eventually sell and make a profit. But why? Because your current career path can’t deliver what you want financially, so you pin your hopes on your property value skyrocketing so that you can experience a windfall. But if that’s what you really want, you may be in for a rude awakening. It’s likely not the best path for achieving your actual goal.
That’s not to say that buying a home or making more money aren’t worthwhile goals. They usually are. Money is often part of the solution, but your true motivation is usually more fundamental. Being honest with yourself and clear on what that is will at the very least set you on the right path.
After closing our business (and several other slate-clearing situations that followed) my husband and I started doing this exercise a lot. We check in often as we’re actively designing and rebuilding our lives. It’s so empowering when you realize what’s at the heart of certain goals because, not only can you start to find new ways or alternative paths to the real thing, oftentimes a version of it already exists or is far more accessible than the monster goal that represented it!
Really well said, building a life that affords that kind of independence is certainly something I value as successful too.