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.


Rosalyn said...

Shallee, I love this post--both your honesty and the answer you come up with. It's been interesting listening to more and more published authors to see how easy it can be to become discouraged. From my perspective, they all look successful (they have a book published!), but you're right: happiness and satisfaction come from more than mere numbers. This past week I had my students read JK Rowling's Harvard commencement talk on failure--and an old Ursula Le Guin commencement talk, also on failure. I think it's important to think about, partly so we can think past it. But I also loved Le Guin's idea that success (in the terms most often used) means someone else's failure, so she didn't wish the graduates success. She wished them contentment--interesting work, children (if they wanted them), basic things. And I'm slowly starting to learn that I have to take satisfaction in writing itself, because nothing else will ever be "enough."

Angie said...

Great post, Shallee. I have been struggling with this for two years or more. I love your insights. And I love you!

Stefanie Gaither said...

Great post! And I love that first handwritten line! Makes me want to read the rest-- you know, if you eventually need a beta ;) I do so love strange, mythical fantasy, marketability be damned.

Anna said...

I loved this post. I have been thinking, lately, about how I have become addicted to affirmation, so this post is very timely for me.

You are not failure; I hope you are really able to feel that. Sometimes when we know things, we still don't FEEL them.

You are wonderful. On the scale of awesome, you are winning at life. You are a wonderful human being, and everyone who knows you comes away a better person because of YOU.

And your book is awesome, it's not just me! I haven't heard anyone say otherwise.

Saumya said...

I love this. We focus way too much on success and the numbers and it's so important to just step away from all of that. Best of luck with your new project!

Neurotic Workaholic said...

This post comes at a good time for me, especially since I just got a rejection notice for a job that I applied for. As a workaholic, I've always focused on success, and I freak out when I fail. But you're right that it's important to focus on other things, like writing and your own creativity.

AM Woods: said...

Love this! Thank you.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Great post! The sheer availability of numbers to measure all the things in our life -- yes, from our Amazon ranking to the number of likes on the clever thing we posted on Facebook. Was life any simpler before we had a way to "measure" who "liked" us? I don't know if it was, but watching the numbers all the time can be very detrimental to our self-worth and mental health!

Traci Kenworth said...

I think we all think in these terms, if we don't reach such and such an objective, we're failures. That's not true. Failure is NOT trying. The rest is success!!

LisaAnn said...

Okay, I know I have said this a million times already, but I really think our souls have somehow merged into two people, because every single thing you've said hits such a perfect chord for me. You're right. You're brave. You're brilliant. I am so thankful I can call you a friend. <3

Brett said...

I feel so blessed that such an insight full woman is my daughter. Does that count as success? I love you so much sweetie!

alexia said...

I'm popping around to say hello and happy new year! I totally feel you on this post. I'm very type A and like to measure my success and cross things off my list. Luckily though, it doesn't make me stress too much, and I don't have a fear of failure (at least too often). But despite this I completely agree that we need to just BE sometimes. I spent a lot of time doing that in 2014.

A Literary Anthology said...

A wonderful blog post, Shallee.

For me one aspect of "to fail" means to conform to another entity' standard for my writing endeavors.
This does not mean, of course, learning, gleaning, adjusting, perfecting over time, etc. studying other authors' techniques and practices.

Thinking to a Donald Trump book I read and his mention of an artist friend's few-minute work of laying a large canvas on the floor and slopping paint on it for thousands and thousands of US dollars - to me that can be an example of failure if one desires recognition for their work rather than their name. But... not failure if the individual is after only 'Big Bucks'.

Another "fail" point for me would involve not writing what I desire, what I have a passion for - whether it is a "Write What You Know" or a "Research and Write" piece. As you put it "I wanted to focus on something else instead, like how much fun I was having."
At least one famous author wrote that he hates writing, now that is a might bit strange to me, unless that is all he knows to do.

Some of my books have a target audience that may well be one in a million, but if the 'one' is touched/helped one day... that is success.

Bottom line for me:
Am I enjoying my project?
Do I maintain a passion for that project?
Is my avenue of artistic expression flowing freely?

We all experience some type of 'failure' at times, but pressing through that and marching onward, pen in hand (keyboard in lap), is the pathway to our own version of personal success.

Angel17 said...

Failure is okay. The important thing is you still have plans and goals even after you fail. Commercial Painter Schaumburg

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