October 12, 2017

How Do You Define Success?

Silhouette of figure on a hilltop with text: What Does Success Look Like to Us?

We all probably define success differently. Depending on our point in our publishing journey, we might focus on anything from words written or queries sent to books published or quitting our day job.

To some extent, there’s no wrong answer. Our definition is whatever works for us.

However, to reach our chosen success-goals, our goals also have to be realistic and within our control. So let’s walk through how we might define our success—as well as what it means for us if we haven’t yet “succeeded.”

Why Is It Important to Know Our Definition of Success?

I talk a lot about goals here on my blog, but I’m not sure I’ve ever truly expressed why they’re so important:

Our goals drive not only our writing career—what we’re trying to accomplish—but also our satisfaction and experience with that career.

How do we measure success? If we don't know, we're more likely to be unhappy. Click To TweetIf we have the wrong goals for us—say, for self-publishing because we’ve chosen to follow a virtual mentor with a different definition of success—we’re not going to be happy with our experience. We might feel like a failure or feel pressured to stick to a publishing schedule or to use marketing techniques that stress us out.

The same risks—unhappiness, disappointment, feeling like a failure, or suffering from unnecessary stress—could apply to any part of our writing career if we’re focusing on the wrong (for us) goals:

  • If we haven’t thought about what a successful first draft is—such as completing it at all—we might be unhappy with the fact it’s messy and needs work.
  • If we haven’t defined our goals for entering a contest, we might feel like a failure even if we final, simply because we didn’t win.
  • If we haven’t decided that our version of a successful debut equals happy readers, we might allow ourselves to be stressed out by sales reports. Etc., etc.

In other words, if we haven’t defined success, how will we know when we’ve succeeded? And if we think we haven’t yet succeeded, how will that make us feel?

6 Steps to Defining Our Success

Step 1: List Possible Success Measurements

No matter our path and point in our journey, our goals and measures of success won’t look like others’ measurements. For any point in our career, we could probably come up at least 10-20 possibilities.

For example, if we’re published, we might first think only of the usual goals of maximizing income or readership. But a deeper examination might lead us to also define success in any of the following ways:

  • Landing on a bestseller list or reaching a high Amazon ranking
  • Seeing high-star reviews or receiving a professional review
  • Collecting x-number of reviews or reaching a sales milestone (1000 copies, etc.)
  • Sticking around for the long haul
  • Being invited to participate in an anthology (especially with a favorite author)
  • Writing and releasing as many books as possible
  • Releasing only the best quality books
  • Seeing our books on a recommendation list
  • Receiving fan mail
  • Reaching other success measurements without doing something we hate (having to promo all the time, etc.)
  • Having our book available in as many places or formats (audio, translated, etc.) as possible
  • Being able to hold a print version of our book
  • Receiving an award
  • Being invited to an event (speak to a group, booksigning, etc.)
  • Seeing our book on a bookstore shelf or witnessing someone reading our book “in the wild”

Obviously, some of those measurements are within our control and some aren’t, but we’ll get to that issue in a minute…

Step 2: Check If Measurements Are Appropriate

We shouldn’t define success only by the “end” of our publishing journey, such as listing: “I want to be as rich and famous as JK Rowling.” *rolls eyes*

For one thing, we don’t want to think of ourselves as “failures” every day until that unlikely outcome. For another, our journey won’t really ever end. Even JKR has new goals and wants to learn new things.

Instead, our success measurements should be appropriate for our point on our publishing journey:

  • a newbie wants to learn writing craft,
  • an unpublished author wants to investigate publishing options,
  • a published author wants positive reviews on a new book, etc.

In other words, while it’s fine to have long-term goals, we also want to create measures of success for milestones along our journey.

Step 3: Check If Measurements Are Realistic

Fear of failure shouldn’t hold us back, but most of us also don’t want to experience it if we can avoid it. Part of avoiding failure—the part that’s in our control—is to make sure our goals and other definitions of success are realistic.

Many of us have heard of SMART goals—ensuring they’re Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. But that’s only a start.

Here are more sanity-check questions to verify our expectations are realistic:


  • Are the goals we’ve set for ourselves doable? Are they really? How?
  • Do we know others who have succeeded in meeting similar goals? Or do we think we’ll be the special snowflake who can bend the space-time continuum to change reality?
  • Are our goals based on wishes? Or facts of what’s possible?
  • Have we successfully met similar goals like these before?
  • Are we willing to do what it will take to meet those goals (changing behavior, sacrificing time, etc.)?
  • If we fail to achieve our goal, what will we do? Give up or try again?


  • If we overreach and can’t complete everything by a deadline, what are our priorities for the time we have left? Which activities are a better step toward our goals?
  • Create a ranked to-do list. (Saying “I’ll get it all done” doesn’t count. We can give the most important things Priority A, but we still should rank them for Priority A1, A2, A3, etc.)
  • Think about why we have our goals or expectations. Where did they come from? What purpose do they serve?


  • What can we really accomplish during X amount of time?
  • If our usual word count is 800 words per hour, we shouldn’t set a goal for 2000 words an hour without first making changes and working up to that amount.
  • Will we really be able to set aside the amount of time we think we will?
  • What other aspects of our life might suffer from that prioritization? Are we willing to make that trade-off?


  • The goals we make should be within our control. Otherwise, we might “punish” ourselves for things beyond what we could do.
  • Even if we self-publish, we won’t be in control of whether our editor or cover artist meets their deadlines.
  • Do we have a Plan B? Or do we have extra time built into our schedule for dropped balls?
  • If we traditionally publish, we’ll have even less under our control, everything from choosing our editor or cover artist to publisher marketing support, etc. That eliminates whole facets of our career from our goal-making ability.


  • Would we have to push ourselves to the point of sickness or no sleep to meet those goals?
  • What if work-life or family-life has an emergency and takes up more of our time or energy?
  • Do we have extra time built into our schedule for if we do get sick or have to deal with personal emergencies?

Life Balance:

  • Can we meet those goals and still have the life balance we want?
  • Will we still have the time for family, friends, TV shows, and hobbies that we want?
  • If not, will reaching our goals really make us happy? Or will we feel that we’re missing out on the rest of our life?
  • Do our family and friends support us in our goals? Or do we need to set aside extra energy to deal with a lack of support or any interpersonal issues we create by pursuing our goals?


  • Have we added goals we know we’ll succeed at to give us a few wins? Being kind to our mental health is important too.
  • Have we added “fun” goals that will remind us why we’re doing what we’re doing? For example, reading our story for enjoyment, or spending a day imagining scenes or characters that excite us.
  • Have we built in time/expectations to revisit the big picture of our goals if emergencies crop up? Pushing back deadlines that we’ll miss again if the emergencies aren’t solved yet can just lead to a series of “failures.”
  • Have we analyzed our goals for which ones will require more mental energy? Have we built in time to replenish our mental energy after those tasks?
  • If we decide we’ve sacrificed too much or are asking too much of ourselves, have we given ourselves permission to adjust our expectations?

Step 4: Check If Measurements Are Challenging

At the same that we want to be realistic, we also want to include some stretch goals. We’re allowed to dream big. We’ll likely get bored if we don’t feel challenged, and we won’t improve if we’re too easy on ourselves.

Figuring out the balance between “too hard” that we risk our mental health and “too easy” that we’re not growing and improving can be difficult. That’s one reason we need to give ourselves permission to adjust our measurements—harder or easier—if need be.

Step 5: Allow for Influence of “Good” Delusions

Going along with the concept of stretch goals, we’re allowed to create success measurements that are a teeny bit delusional. Part of reaching success is expecting that we will be successful—after all, we probably wouldn’t have started writing if we didn’t think we could be successful—and those expectations can be a little bit delusional.

But there’s a difference between good delusions and bad delusions:

  • Good Delusions: Good delusions are ones that help us make progress toward our goals. Good delusions serve a purpose, such as pushing us closer to what we want—growing and improving and getting closer to our measure of success.
  • Bad Delusions: Bad delusions are harmful or get in the way of our improvement. They’re not grounded in reality at all (i.e., the extreme unlikeliness of us being the next JKR) or will lead to negative thoughts that might prevent us from making progress.

Step 6: Define the Opposite of Success

Okay, we have our measures of success that are specific to us, appropriate to our point in our publishing journey, meet the guidelines for being realistic, even though they might be a bit of a stretch or even delusional. Now, we have to define what falling short of those measures really means.

Here’s a trick question:

What’s the opposite of success?

Did you say failure? Many, if not most, people would. Whenever we fall short of a goal, we say we failed.

Failure isn't the opposite of success. It's part of the journey to success. Click To TweetHowever, failure is simply part of the journey to success. The only way we’ll reach success is by trying and failing and trying again, as we get closer and closer to our goals.

“Real” failure—the opposite of success—is when we give up or stop trying to reach our goals. It’s when we’ve decided to settle for the status quo, no longer trying to improve or grow or get closer to our goals.

Success vs. Failure vs. the Opposite of Success

Let’s compare an example of a success measurement, failure, and “real” failure:

  • Success Measurement: Win NaNoWriMo (write 50K words in November)
  • “Failure”: Write only 36K words, but have ideas to improve
  • Opposite of Success: Give up when fall behind on word count and shrug or let negative thoughts take over

The Not-Failure:

If we struggle to write 500 words a day, the 1667 words a day required for NaNo is a stretch goal and might even be a bit delusional. However, as long as we’re getting in more than 500 words a day, the experience will still be a “win.”

Writing “only” 36K words still serves our goals. It’s still 36K words more than we had before, and it’s more than we would have at our usual output.

If we come away with a better understanding of how we can improve our word count—such as productivity hacks, knowing our best hours, what level of story planning helps us draft faster, etc.—that’s an even more important win. This “failure” is not the opposite of success.

The Real Failure:

Real failure—the opposite of success kind of failure—is a result that works against our goals. In our example, giving up, deciding we can’t hack it, or letting negative thoughts get in the way of trying would all prevent us from learning from the experience and coming away with ideas to improve.

Bad delusions can create these real failures. For example, we could be deluded about how winning NaNo would be easy for us. Then when it’s not easy, we might think that means we’re not a “real” writer and give up.

Bad delusions get in the way of us trying again. That’s failure.

Is Success a Future Possibility? Then We Win

If we have ideas for how to improve, we haven’t failed. Failure is a learning experienceAs long as the results don’t impede our chances for future success, falling short of our goals is not a failure.

The only real failure is one that impedes our chances for future success. Click To TweetThat’s the only measurement that matters in the long term. Of course we’re going to fail along the way, but that doesn’t mean we can’t succeed in the future.

Real failure is only when we’ve talked ourselves out of trying again. Then the problem is not that we can’t succeed in the future—but that we won’t. We won’t try, we won’t take our chances, and we won’t learn from our failures to improve for next time.

It’s easy to doubt ourselves and feel like a failure. But failure isn’t something to be ashamed of. It means we’re trying. We’re challenging ourselves, pushing ourselves to improve and learn new things. On some level, failing is its own measure of success.

So when we’re trying to figure out our goals and how we define success, don’t think of destinations where we either win or lose. Instead, think of our goals and success measurements as journeys, where as long as we’re making progress, we win. *smile*

Want to write faster? Or finish NaNoWriMo?

Join Jami in a workshop to learn how to do just enough story development to write faster, even if we write by the seat of our pants.
Click here to learn more!

Have you defined what it means to you to succeed? If yes, what’s your definition? Does it work with the steps in this post? If no, has this post helped you figure out a definition that works for you? Do you disagree with anything in this post?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Kassandra Lamb

So much great stuff in this post, Jami. My two favorite gems are giving yourself permission to adjust expectation, and that the opposite of success, true failure, is giving up.

I started my first novel over 20 years ago, then started and stopped so many times I lost count over the next 15 years. So many mini-failures because I didn’t keep going. When I finally finished it, and then saw it “in print,” that was one of the top five best days of my life! I’ve met a lot of the other goals you mentioned now as well.

But I’m not making huge bucks like JK Rowling and I doubt I ever will. That was never my goal. Now my goals are: (1) enjoy my writing and improve my craft; (2) make a decent supplemental income from it that I can use for extras we couldn’t otherwise afford; (3) use some of that income to farm out as much promotional work as possible so I can focus on writing and editing.

Glynis Jolly

Many of these aspects are things I have not considered.. I have bookmarked this post so I can study it periodically. Thank you, Jami

June Randolph
June Randolph

Good thinking. Interesting. I agree with Kassandra Lamb that a particularly potent piece of advice is giving oneself permission to adjust expectations and not count that as a failure. It is so easy to call myself a failure. Much better to define my approach to writing in all its aspects.


Hey Jami! I would like to add that even if someone has had a “real failure” and given up, that may not be the end of the story. They may have “given up” on writing, and then a number of years later, they get inspired again and return to writing. 🙂 That’s what happened to me with the visual arts (drawing). I “gave up” on drawing for three years due to discouragement from school, but for some reason, I picked it up again and have been drawing since. Ha, yes, the thing about whether you would still be happy if you sacrificed other things in your life in order to achieve your writing goals. I can relate to this a lot. Though I took much pride in being a “productive writer” in the past, I actually feel happier in life now that I’m allowing myself time to do things that are wholly unrelated to writing. It feels so nice that because I’m playing Pokemon games again, I feel more connected with the Pokemon fan community—I’m in a Facebook group for Pokemon fans. I really enjoy this sense of connection with fellow fans! Due to my health issues, I had to gradually accept that I will be less prolific. I used to be able to write an average of 1,000 words/ day during the school semester, and at least 2,000 words a day during holidays. But now, as my eyes need help, I can’t type my stories directly on the computer…  — Read More »

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks, very practical and positive.
I would add that it’s great to have one big goal, but the smaller goals should be decided on by breaking the big goal into a series of smaller goals, taken in logical order. Some you can do in any order, like taking a photography course if you want to make your own covers. But the writing has to come before the editing. Research at various points before the final edit. That way every goal should be attainable and on target.


[…] We’ve talked about that perspective here many times: The only way we fail is if we give up—if we stop “swimming.” As I’ve said before: […]


[…] the case of long-term burnout—in addition to prioritizing self-care, changing our definition of success, and touching base with our passions as much as possible—we likely need to make permanent (or […]

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