It's a tired cliche: success is hard to define. It's also a truth universally acknowledged that everyone has an idea of what success means. Money, relationships, personal fulfillment, product, promotion, and a host of other things usually go into it. Generally, growth is tied up in success as well-- "getting a boyfriend" becomes "getting a husband" becomes "having kids" becomes "sending them to college;" promotions never stop; there's never too much money (for most of us).
As a real kicker, success is still an off/on switch for most of us. Successful people exist, and unsuccessful people, though we talk about them much less, do by default. Not-success might not be the same thing as failure, but it often feels like a fixed category. There's not much getting around the feeling of needing to become successful and, as someone who wants to succeed in a field with what might be called an invisible ladder that sometimes evaporates (imagine playing Super Mario Bros. with your entire future), this feeling sucks.
Around the time I finished grad school, I realized I would have to define success in a way that would allow me to go to sleep at night, that wouldn't be some kind of dog-chasing-its-tail fantasy, and that would still have clear markers. I need checklists, even if the items themselves are nebulous. Here's a list (almost certainly incomplete) of questions that steer me in the direction I need to go, and that let me feel successful at the start of what I am almost certain will be a long climb.
- Do I know what I was made to do? Thankfully, this has an answer: Yes. I was made to worship. I was made to write. I was made to love and be loved. I know what kind of thing (because all of us are things, objects occupying space) I am. Everything else flowed out of finding this answer. The world needs all of us. By knowing what you were made to do, you also know what need you were made to fill and what wound you can heal.
- Did I verb the thing that I noun? I'm a writer, first and foremost, although to the chagrin/amusement of my mentors I won't settle on a genre. If I am a writer (a noun) than I need to do writer-things (verb). Writer-things (for me and my many genres) includes reading fiction, non-fiction, plays, and poetry; listening to and learning music; thoughtfully consuming stage and screen productions; and learning about art and enjoying it. It also includes -- wait for it -- writing. It does not include tweeting about how hard it is to be a writer (although I do that too). It includes getting feedback from other writers and readers and implementing it.
- Did I act sustainably? If I spent money, was it an amount that is sustainable for the frequency of the expense? If I did something extra, I need to acknowledge it is what it is, and be honest when something Extra is turning into an unsustainable routine. Right now, my finances aren't where I would like them, but they are stable in the sense that they don't drive the car, and I can make decisions that don't keep me up. Also, I pay off my credit card every month and pay all my bills. Those are, for me, the only two benchmarks I can afford to care about. As time goes on, I'll add more. Right now, this works.
- Did I try today? Did I push something forward (which often includes trashing the previous day's work in favor of something else)? It's just not possible to finish something every day. It can't be done. What can be done is an attempt. Hope, like happiness, is often a product of pretending it exists. Trying to move a project forward every single day refills the little Hope-tank inside me that says doing the thing is worth it.
- Do I see growth? Not every poem will be my best. However, if I was making better work a year ago on a consistent basis, I need to stop and ask myself what happened. This is about making sure that I am trying new things that stretch my abilities and getting better at the things I'm good at. One project I'm working on now is really making me dust off an old skillset and use it again; another is requiring even more rigorous examination, because it leans into my strongest art-muscles. In both, I'm tracking for general improvement.
- Did I take a day off this week? If I don't have time to rest, I don't have time to create. Those are the rules.
- Did I get help and help myself? This includes talking to friends and family, going to therapy, eating right, sleeping, and all the other legitimate self-care stuff that is usually the first to go when it comes to "success." If I have to be tortured to get it, I don't want it. Working hard, and even sacrifice, are not the same things as Attempted Death by Neglect.
- Did I give back? "Did I find a way to distill what I've learned into something someone else can learn" is one of the most important questions I ask myself, because it also forces me to keep learning things. Also, helping other people make their things gets me even more excited about making my own.
- Did I write my poem and did I post my blog? I spent years waiting for inspiration until I learned that it doesn't really exist, and that it shows up when you need it, and that you only need it when you are sitting faithfully in front of a blank screen. "Inspire" means (etymologically) "to fill with breath." I won't be filled with breath until I start moving and exercising. Of course it's sometimes painful. That's why doctors used to spank babies upon birth. I said earlier trying is the most important thing, and it is, but for me, posting a poem on Monday and a blog on Friday is the kick I need to make sure I am in the habit of finishing projects.
- Did I pursue joy? Being in nature brings me joy. Cleaning up my space brings me joy. Reading and writing bring me joy. Drinking tea and eating chocolate while watching Queer Eye brings me joy. My faith brings me joy. Doing what I was made to do brings me joy. If I can find a way to pursue something that marries pleasure and meaning and turns need into abundance, I have done my job for the day.
Right now, I'm feeling successful. And it seemed like a good idea to post this blog before I change my mind.