Sunday, August 10, 2008

Redefining Success

It’s interesting that helping students at the Writing Center has turned out to be one of the most useful tools in my own development as a writer and my experience this week was no exception.

A Sports Psychology teacher (I know, right? That’s a real thing?) assigned her students to write a paper on their definition of success, what goes into becoming a successful athlete, and how these characteristics can lead to success in life outside of sports. Almost every paper that I looked over talked about the importance of setting goals.

These young athletes discussed the value of motivating yourself by setting attainable goals, by constantly reminding yourself what these goals are so that you can never let yourself get off track, and by putting in the practice and hard work necessary to reach these goals. That, most of the students agreed, is what true success is. Not winning the big game. Not getting drafted into the NFL. Not becoming the most well respected and famous athlete around. Success means setting goals that you could conceivably reach and then reaching them.

The same is true of writing. I think a lot of us, when we first started thinking we could translate this obsession with writing into becoming a “writer,” had this image of becoming the next Stephen King or J. D. Salinger or whoever, being rich and famous and world renowned for our brilliance and wit. Or perhaps your image of success has always been making it onto a bestseller list or someday making it into the canon.

If you haven’t already realized this, I have to break some possibly painful news to you. Those are not realistic goals. There’s a good chance you will never achieve any of them, just like most of the young athletes (all of them?) that I worked with this week at the Writing Center will not become the next Tiger Woods. And even if you do reach these goals, it’s probably based as much (and perhaps even more) on luck as it is skill. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a successful writer, it just means you may have to redefine your definition of success.

I set small writing goals for myself every month and while I do have a running hope that the things I write will get published, my actual goals are simply to write, to revise, and to submit. At the beginning of each month, I consider all of my other engagements and responsibilities for that month and I set them against what projects I’m currently working on or what I would like to work on. This way I come up with a goal that will push me just enough, but no harder than I can comfortably go. I don’t believe in setting goals that are ridiculously high because even if I get a lot done that month, I end the month feeling down because I didn’t reach my goals.

I usually meet each goal by the end of the month because I’ve set goals that are appropriate for me for that specific month and also, because I know that if I don’t meet the goals, I’ll feel like a failure. Sure, I’ll get right back into it the next month, but there’ll be a moment when I have to face the fact that I didn’t succeed and it’s discouraging. So I push myself that extra bit to avoid that end of the month slump. But if I do meet those goals, even though nobody else really cares and even though it doesn’t mean anything in the bigger picture, I feel like I succeeded (and it feels damn good!).

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