On Success, ‘Success’, and SUCCESS!!

Something that I suspect a lot of people think about, especially people who do something like releasing their work out into the world, is what success means.

A man in a suit floats on a cloud looking awfully pleased with himself.
Not this guy, though. This guy clearly knows exactly what success looks like, and he’s made it. (Thanks, Google Image search for ‘stock photos of success’.)

The struggle to work out exactly where I want to be in life has been… well, lifelong, and is still ongoing. Some people just seem to know exactly what it is they want to do, so they take all the steps to get there – a cousin of mine decided when she was about five, or something, that she wanted to be a marine biologist, so she worked hard in science at school and then went to college and university to study relevant things and then got useful experience and then ended up making a living diving off the coast of Australia or somewhere like that. Not bad. This is a sort of destination-first planning, a working-backwards approach to making decisions in pursuit of an ultimate goal.

The other approach is of course to not know what the goal is and to hope that doing things that seem interesting and enjoyable at the time ought to naturally lead to a destination that’s also interesting and enjoyable. Which is… great, in theory, but doesn’t always work. There comes a point where you realise that you’ve done most of the stuff that seemed as if it were the path and the destination is no nearer (and you still don’t really know what it is).

I’m of the latter persuasion, as you’ve probably guessed. I picked activities, hobbies, a degree, on the grounds that they seemed like things I would find fulfilling and enjoyable, but didn’t really look too far ahead to wonder what they might lead to. Now I’m, like, a full-on adult or something, supposedly, and I find that I really don’t know what I would consider succeeding in my life.

About a month and a half ago, I published Each Little Universe, which was… awesome. I finally did this thing that I’d been meaning to do for ages, and I think I was hoping that just doing that would be enough to make me go ‘ah, cool, I’ve achieved something’.

What I don’t think I realised is that success, if you don’t feel like you’re earning or achieving it, is a really hard mental state to get into – at least for me. I had a few thoughts before ELU launched about what I would consider a ‘successful’ publication, but I didn’t want to make them too concrete or get too attached to them. If I defined success as a certain number of sales, I’d be setting myself up not to reach that number, and then I’d feel bad. If I said I’d think it was a success if the book got a five-star review on Goodreads (it has had multiple, in fact, and I’m grateful for all of them!), would I think I’d failed if that didn’t happen?

The only thing I could really settle on, in the end, was a single, simple criterion: If I publish this book – at all, regardless of whatever does or doesn’t happen after that – then I have achieved a success.

Problem is, I don’t think I believed that.

Here’s the issue.

It’s all well and good rationalising a definition of success, but unless you internalise it and actually believe it, it doesn’t mean much. What ended up happening immediately after ELU launched was that I tried to tell myself that I’d done it, I’d got this work out into the world and that was the only important thing, but in fact I was (unwillingly) tied to a definition of success that was always a bit better than where I was. Got ten sales? OK, well, fifty would be a success. Get to fifty? I mean, not bad, but a hundred would be the real win… and so on.

I was moving my own goalposts constantly, in a way that was so clearly and undeniably unhelpful. Like, I can think of no benefit to doing that to myself. It didn’t make me more motivated to take steps to reach those next milestones, it just made me feel increasingly terrible about this thing that I’d done, this thing I was supposed to be really proud of.

And what sucked, really sucked, was that I’ve written stuff on the Internet for ages, most of which nobody really paid much attention to, and I was totally fine with never having any real traction as a games blogger or whatever because in my head that was part of the journey. I think some fantasy world where I released a book and then immediately somehow got unbelievably lucky and successful was the destination in my head, although I didn’t want to admit that to myself. I forgot to do it just because I love it, and thought instead that I had to live up to some standard.

Why am I saying all this, anyway? Why am I ranting about how bad I felt? What’s the point of that?

Well, I wanna say that it did in fact get better. After a little while, I was far enough removed from the immediate post-launch pressure that I could in fact just enjoy the fact that I’d done it, and now I just really really really wanna write and publish more stuff. So that’s good, and I’m feeling really good about the stuff that’s in the works at the moment (vague information about that can be found here, and more concrete details may well be coming shortly).

I also just wanted to let anyone who might be experiencing something similar know that what you’re feeling is totally understandable. I won’t say ‘normal’ because I don’t know everyone’s experience and I can’t generalise like that, but if you find yourself feeling not-so-great even when you think you should be feeling accomplished… I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, and perhaps just knowing that will help to some extent.

I don’t know that I have anything to teach here, though. I doubt I’ll learn my own lesson for next time, but perhaps I’ll be a little bit more able to relinquish any harmful (‘cos they are, there was no benefit to them at all) conceptions of what I have to do in order not to have failed, and instead just be able to enjoy doing it.

Maybe the moral of the story, if there is one, is something like ‘don’t confuse journey with destination’, because if you start thinking that some step you’re taking (publishing a book, in my case) is The Final Goal and then it turns out not to be impossibly brilliant, that can be difficult. Heck, perhaps just accepting that there might not be a destination is much more freeing, allowing you to enjoy every bit of the journey rather than fail to appreciate it because you’re too hung up on where it’s going, or might already have gone.

This stuff is easy to say and hard to do, though. Just knowing that I probably shouldn’t put pressure on myself, that I should just enjoy the ride, is unlikely to mean that I actually follow that advice and never feel this way again, but… eh. What else are we supposed to do but learn and keep trying?

Here’s my commitment to you, though. If you have something that you’ve created – whether you’ve published a book, written a blog post, uploaded a video – or indeed something that you’re currently working on, let me know in the comments here and tell me what would help you to feel that you’ve succeeded with it. If there’s something I can do to help you with that, I will do my best to do so.

Much love!

Published by Chris Durston

Writer of stuff. Y'know. Words and that.

11 thoughts on “On Success, ‘Success’, and SUCCESS!!

  1. This is a really interesting topic and something I certainly have many thoughts on (but no answers).

    I’m really glad you’ve reached a point where you can enjoy that you’ve got your first book published – you deserve to enjoy it without letting numerical goals get in the way. I mean, those kind of goals have a place, but if they stop you enjoying the moment then they seem a bit counter-productive.

    I have real issues with the idea of success in relation to myself. Firstly, I always find ways to invalidate my successes by thinking I only achieved things because of a set of circumstances that is outwith my control. Secondly, that I constantly compare myself to others, so even if I do something really well, it is never going to be as big a deal or as good as what someone else has done.

    Very occasionally though I do feel as though I’ve been successful and, although I don’t really like saying this, the thing that makes me feel that I’ve achieved something is other people vindicating what I’ve done. Occasionally someone will go out of their way to really engage with what I’m doing and then I feel an overwhelming sense of having succeeded in something. Its kinda like a feeling that what I’ve done has connected with someone else and isn’t just lost in the internet ocean. I don’t know if that makes any sense, and possibly makes me sound like an attention seeking weirdo, but I think that is the thing that gives me a sense of success. This is a bit problematic because it depends on their being other people in the world who see things the same way you do, but then maybe that is what I’m aiming for, even if it can only happen occasionally. Who knows!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pretty much everything you’ve said there I agree with and totally feel. Thoughts but no answers is basically my MO, and… yeah, I think others validating that something is good is one of the most surefire ways to feel like I’ve accomplished something, but it’s not a sustainable definition. Ya gotta find some way of feeling success on your own and regardless of what other people think, even though that’s hard and I still don’t know how to do it.

      FWIW I think you’re pretty great.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hehe, thanks! I think you are pretty great too you know!

        I do wonder though if it is necessary (for me at least, I can’t speak for anyone else) to find a way of feeling success without the validation of others. I mean, we might all define success in different ways and if someone’s definition of success is to be recognized by someone else then maybe that is valid. Of course it means that you may go long periods of time without feeling success, but then success isn’t something you just get to have by right – it is a big deal and you have to work hard for it and sometimes you achieve it and sometimes you don’t and that will be true however you define it. I dunno though, I think I might just have reached a point where I’ve given up trying to find a proper answer!!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Y’know what, I agree with you again. It’s a really tricky one and there probably is no right answer, but I don’t see why someone can’t decide that their own measure of success is in fact based on other people. I do think, though, that you’ve gotta be aware that if you do decide that that’s what you want… it might not always come when you need it. For me, I think I have to really work on being able to appreciate stuff I’ve achieved totally independently of others’ perspectives because… well, I don’t do enough out in the open to get validation on a lot of the stuff that’s important to me.

        It’s one of these really big things that, really annoyingly, there is probably a different answer to for each individual person, and most of us might not ever get it quite right.

        That feels like a weirdly negative way to end that train of thought, but I actually don’t feel all that negative about it. I just hope as many people as possible do find whatever is the right way to make themselves feel happy and good and OK!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Totally agree with what you’ve said here and I too hope as many people as possible can work out what their ‘thing’ that gives them a sense of success and happiness is. It can be hard to know where to start but having a conversation about it can definitely help, so thank you 😊


  2. I went through a similar feeling last September. I finished my Masters dissertation after 4 years of medical leave. I developed ME/CFS which is a debilitating neurological condition just as I started my Masters degree, and it took several years to even get a diagnosis. At my lowest point, I couldn’t even write 10 words a day for my dissertation, and just about managing to keep my blog going. I had to watch as everyone from my class moved on to careers that I began to realise I could never have.

    Finishing my dissertation was bittersweet. I had done something I thought I could never do, that I almost gave up on. I graduated with Merit which I didn’t think was even a possibility. And then I realised how much my blog had suffered, how many things I had to let go and put on the back burner because of it (and still have, to be honest, I’m still playing catch up because something happened directly after I’d finished). I felt like such a massive failure. It took some time for me to get over that, to recognise my success and to stop feeling so guilty for everything else.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds like you do appreciate the successes now, though? I think there’ll always be stuff to dwell on, but hopefully getting a bit better at appreciating the good stuff when it happens instead of in hindsight is something we might be able to get better at..!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Honestly, until I read your post and thought about it I don’t think I had realised that I had. I think I was still feeling that guilt. I was still stuck in the moment of not being able to do anything to stop that guilt, but now I’m out of a rough patch that was preventing me from working on my blog and I’m able to actively do something again, yeah I can appreciate that success. So thank you for this post Chris, it offered me a nice bit of self-realisation there ❤

        Liked by 1 person

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