Failure and Success: On the Quantifiability of Life and Writing

Dec 9, 2014

Failure is a concept I've been thinking a lot about lately. What does it mean to fail? Is it just...not to succeed? If that's the case, what does it mean to succeed?

"Succeeding" at something has become a paramount virtue in society over I-don't-even-know-how many years. The ultimate goal of life is to lead a successful one-- and we have numerous ways to quantify it. It's usually in terms of size: "how many/how much/how big/how fast." We're really bad at this in publishing. How long did you query? How many did you send? How many offers of rep did you get? How much money did your book sell for? How many copies did you sell in X amount of time? How high on the best-seller lists is your book?

It's a general thing too, in big and small terms. How much money do you have? How big is your house? How many people will cry at your funeral because you touched their lives? How many "likes" did the picture of your kid get on Facebook?

And in asking how many/how much/how big/how fast, we always have an idea in our heads of what that number should be in order to have succeeded. These questions and our need for the number to hit that "succeed" threshold is why we go back to Facebook three times a day to check on our "like" stats. We want the validation that we're doing it right, whatever "it" is, and whatever "right" means.

Here's the thing about this when it comes to publishing. There are very few, and very biased, metrics for determining quantifiable success. And so, for the past several months, I've felt like I've been failing a lot because I have so few numbers telling me I've succeeded. And somehow, my self-worth became tied to my book's numbers.

I've obsessively checked Goodreads stats, Amazon rankings, and BookScan numbers-- but those are varying and inconclusive. I came to realize they gave me so few pieces of a puzzle that I was getting a skewed view of what the big picture was. I've desperately scoured for information on how to do things "right," from setting up school visits to arranging book signings to hosting the perfect launch party to selling more books. It's so hard to find details on those kinds of things-- believe me. So I stumble along, but no one is patting my head so I can count how many pats I get to determine if I'm doing it "right."

So much of the time, I feel like a failure simply because I don't know what I'm doing.

Honestly, I don't know what "right" means. I'm not sure how I define my own success-- or should I say, the success of my book. Sure, I have a detailed marketing plan where I specified goals and ways to reach them. But somehow, in my head, I have this vague idea of success that I can't quite define and therefore can never reach-- because it isn't quantifiable.

And if I haven't reached it yet, I've failed. There is no sliding scale; it is either-or. If it's not something that breaches that numeric threshold, it's not success-- and therefore it doesn't matter. I don't matter.

At first, I thought to fix this constant feeling of failure, I just needed to redefine my vision of "success." I succeeded simply by having a book published! I succeeded because people I love have supported me so much and shown me they love me! Every single book sold is its own success!

You know what? It didn't help. I decided that I didn't want to focus on success. I wanted to focus on something else instead, like how much fun I was having, or how much-- wait. How much. All I was looking for was a different measurement system to take the place of elusive "success."

I don't want to measure my life. I want to live it. I want to experience.

So I tried something new. I started a new book-- a strange, mythical kind of YA fantasy that's been tugging at me, but that I'm not entirely sure is marketable (aka quantifiable). And I started writing it by hand in a fancy notebook. I'm not counting how many words I write per hour or day. I'm not making sure I write at such-and-such a time for so-many minutes. It's slow, writing by hand, but it's funny how it's more active, somehow. I'm participating more fully in the process of creation, allowing my brain to spin and delve and play while I'm in the midst of actually forming the words, watching ink change the paper into a story.

And something has happened. I'm relaxing. I'm enjoying. I'm experiencing not just the story, but the act of writing it. I'm feeling not just the joy of writing, but the joy of being. I've been able to experience being me. Not judging or measuring who I am, but just existing and finding joy in myself.

Some things will always require measurement. I still need to make plans and goals for selling my books, and there will still be a lot of quantifiable and important data in connection with that. But I don't want my worth as a person to be determined by the numbers attached to my book. I am so much more than a collection of stats.

I hope I keep finding ways to remind myself of that.

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