How do you define success?
Or, more importantly: Do you define success?
So often, success is spelled out for us: It means attending an Ivy League, or getting some specific job, or taking your company public. But what if those commonly-agreed-upon signs of success are not actually that useful? What if, in fact, they’re distractions?
Too many of us allow outside forces to determine the parameters of our success. This, in turn, means we’re comparing ourselves against measures we didn’t set, and that we might not even be attached to.
What would happen if, instead, we simply worked toward whatever actually keeps us going? To see what that looks like, let me tell you about my friend Andrea Bartz.
Andi (as she’s known) just achieved most writers’ dreams: Her novel We Were Never Here became a Reese Witherspoon book club pick, hit the New York Times best-seller list, and is now being developed into a Netflix movie. By any standard measure, we’d call her successful. But Andi never set out to reach any of these goals. If she had, she told me, she would have been so daunted by the challenge that she’d never have achieved it.
Andi didn’t originally set out to write novels at all. She was a magazine editor until… well, we all know how print media is doing. After working at multiple magazines that folded, she decided to try her hand at writing mystery novels. Finding an agent was hard. Selling her first book was harder.
At the beginning, she defined success for herself this way: “My guiding principle is, I have just been trying to write a book that will allow me to write the next book,” she tells me on my podcast. “I want to keep writing books.”
That’s the simple goal: Write a book that will enable her to write another book.
So far that’s what she’s done. Her first book was hardly a best-seller, but it was well-received and earned her another book deal. Her second book had a similar fate. And her third — well, that’s the one that just hit big.
The validation is nice, of course, but it hasn’t changed her goals. “You can't pin your entire career on any one project, or on things that are outside of your hands,” she says. Her definition of success remains the same: She just wants to be able to write more books.
And in fact, that definition of success just helped her in an unexpected way. After achieving something big, many people struggle with how to follow it up. The pressure is just too big. How can they top — or even repeat — what they just accomplished?
But Andi saved herself the trouble. Before her best-selling book came out, she’d already written and sold the next one. The work is done. She’s on to the next. Because she’s focused on her version of success.
After having conversations like the one I had with Andi, I’ve found a new way to be helpful when people ask me for advice.
Many people ask me how they can be successful. How can their podcast be a success? How can they be more successful in their career? And I come back with a question: "What is success to you?”
Sometimes the person looks dumbfounded — as if they’d never considered whether there’s more than one way to succeed.
I think that’s because we often just adopt other people’s definitions of success, without considering the possibility that our needs and desires could be valid, even if they’re different from the cultural standard. If you write, it must be a best-seller. If you start a company, it must sell for a bazillion dollars. But that's not true— we have the power to define success however we'd like!
If I start a small business, and it feeds my family and serves my community, is that not success, if I choose to see it that way? Who cares if it doesn't become the next Instagram? That can be someone else's goal.
Here’s another thing we overlook when romanticizing someone else’s version of success: Even when we attain whatever metrics we most desire, life will still continue in all its messy normality.
The best-selling author Ryan Holiday once wrote a powerful essay about this. “How does it feel to have everything you ever wanted in life?” he wrote. “To have it earlier than you ever could have realistically expected? I can tell you: It feels like nothing.” He remembers mowing the lawn when he found out that one of his books hit #1 on the best-seller list. Did hitting #1 mean that he could stop mowing the lawn? No. So he just… kept mowing. “Nothing was different. Nothing changed,” he wrote.
Andi experienced something similar. “It is the most wonderful thing,” she says, “but like so many goals that feel unachievable, and like such a top of a mountain when you get there, it’s like, I’m still me, and we’re still arguing over who’s picking up the laundry. Things don’t automatically become perfect.”
If nothing’s going to be perfect anyway, we might as well enjoy the path we’re on.
The history of knitting is long and controversial — and includes many of today’s most hotly debated topics. (Sexism! Conspiracy theories! Fears of automation!) In the latest episode of my podcast, I explore knitting’s surprising past, and what happens when one knitter tries to make change today. Take a listen!
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