Friday, May 7, 2010

The Different Meanings of Success

by Susan McBride

I had originally written a post about rejection that was set to go up today. But with all the disasters in the news of late, I decided that topic seemed too depressing! So I wanted to talk about something more positive, like how we define success. It's very subjective, I know, and means different things to different people. So I'll meander on about how the idea of "being successful" has changed for me through the years, and I'd love to hear what it means to you.

When I was growing up and moving about with my family, we always settled into a fixer-upper in an upper middle class neighborhood (my mom tried valiantly to place us in the best public school district available), where we'd rub shoulders with folks who often had a lot more than we did, materially anyway. I got a lot of insight into what it took to try to keep up with the Joneses, and for a time--probably through high school--I bought into the notion that having things with pricey labels proved to the outside world that you'd achieved something in life. Don't get me wrong: I also realized being smart, making good grades, and having responsibility was important. But having a Polo man on your pocket (and your socks, too) seemed like a popular way of letting people know you were worthy.

By my freshman year in college, after being around plenty of sorority girls, frat boys, and debutantes whose behavior made me question if money = worth after all, I understood it was a bunch of hooey. Even without a trust fund, anyone with a credit card could buy expensive cars and clothes. Although it made for a prettier facade, it didn't mean anything, not really. Some folks may define success as having more $$$--or at least borrowing more!--and showing it off, but I didn't want my adulthood to be all about accumulating stuff. I wanted to write books, and I knew I wasn't going to get rich off that (not anytime soon!). With that decision made, my idea of success changed. On the everyday front, it meant having a job that would allow me to write as much as possible and pay for postage to send off queries and manuscripts with SASEs. Being successful meant doing what I loved and being happy, regardless of how much (or how little) stuff I accumulated.

My goal initially was to be published by a traditional press--whether small or big, I didn't care--and I did that eventually. At 34, I won a small press contest where the grand prize was publication. When AND THEN SHE WAS GONE came out, I was thrilled. And so was everyone who'd ever known me who realized how hard I'd worked for over a decade to reach that point. I sold something like 150 books at my first-ever signing, and, holy cow, I felt like a million bucks! Then I signed with an agent, got a deal with a big NY publisher, and my idea of success shifted again. Sure, I wanted to hit the New York Times list as much as anyone (seriously, what writer doesn't?), but that wasn't a deciding factor in whether or not my career was successful. I dreamed of being able to support myself writing, and by age 40, I was doing that as well.

I remember saying to a friend back then, "You know, I have everything I could possibly want. I'm passionate about what I do, I can't wait to wake up every morning, I love my friends, I have a cozy condo, my car is paid off, what else could there be? I'm about as happy as they come!" I didn't have a lot, but I had all I needed. That seemed like the penultimate success to me. And then I met Ed, and I realized, "Ah, this is like the cherry atop the icing atop a really amazing cake!"

Ed is someone who also appreciates simple things over material things. His definition of success is much like mine: being able to do what you love for a living and sharing your life with someone who understands and appreciates you. He reminds me everyday of what's important, and I feel beyond fortunate to have him in my life.

When I was worrying about THE COUGAR CLUB and how it would do, since it was my debut in women's fiction, and wondering if I would get another contract for more women's fic books and what I would do if that didn't happen (well, with the economy the way it is, money is tight and publishers are being extra-careful). I thought about it and I thought some more, and I finally said to Ed, "No matter what happens, I will always write. No one can stop me from doing that, ever. And I will always have you. With those two things in my life, how could I not feel successful?" Yeah, that sounds terribly corny, but it made me feel so much better and less frantic to realize it.

Which reminds me of a gift-type book I wrote eons ago that one of my sister's long-gone artist boyfriends was going to illustrate. It was called YOU'RE NEVER A FAILURE IF YOUR SOCKS MATCH, and it listed a whole bunch of really simple things that make everyone "worthy:" You're never a failure if your dog loves you, your cat loves you, you love yourself...and so on. I wish I could find that danged manuscript. It's somewhere in a folder in a box in the basement. If I ever unearth it, I'll share it in a post. But the gist of the book was that being happy with who you are, wherever you are in your life = success. Truly.

So what makes you feel successful in your everyday life? Is it seeing the smile on your child's face? Watching the bulbs you planted last fall grow into gorgeous flowers? Is it volunteering? Completing a project at work? Inquiring minds want to know!


  1. I think success is being who you are, not who you or anyone else would like you to be. It's living YOUR life, not that of anyone else. Success is knowing that you help others earn and enjoy that exact success for themselves.

  2. Ultimately, we better have our own internal measures of what success is, whether we judge success by what the world says is success or use our own personal measuring stick. For some people success may be getting out of bed in the morning. For others it may mean winning the Pulitzer Prize. But to love and be loved is probably the most important achievement. Like you, I'm so grateful to be married to the right man. And having books published is a personal success. As for the Pulitzer or any other great awards, well, they're great, but don't keep you warm at night. Nice, thoughtful post, Susan.

  3. I feel the most successful when I implement an idea and it works. It's especially nice when it works just exactly the way I knew it would, but that doesn't always happen. Sometimes it actually works better, sometimes worse, but the thrill of watching something come together because of one of my ideas is huge, and I love it. It doesn't even matter that these ideas are in no way life-changing or ground-breaking--they are mine, I used them, and they worked!

  4. Vicky, Ellen, and Zita...wonderful stuff, ladies! I love everything you said. You made me smile on this Friday morning. :-)

  5. My whole life, I've received joy from accomplishing things--bit or little. Crossing off one chore at a time from my list for the day makes me happy.

    Pretty simple, eh? Of course my biggest joy is my family, but after that with my writing I'm happy that I'm published with two small independent publishers, both good who handle things differently. But I know when I write a book today, I don't have to go through the process of finding a publisher and that gives me joy too.


  6. Susan, beautiful post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject. Maggie xo

  7. Marilyn, simple is good! In fact, it's the best! If everyone could be happy with simple things, we'd all be in better shape.

    Aw, thanks, Maggie. :-)

  8. What an article and your outlook is the best. My mother used to say..material things are nice but you can't take them with you when you die. Another oldie from my's wiser to have what you can afford than be in debt and chance losing it all. I guess there is a lot of truth in those simple sayings. Now I am a senior citizen and my thoughts are more along the line that I want what I really need and as long as I have GOD in my life..I will be provided for and I feel I have tons of riches by way of true friends and love. These things money can not earn them. Have a great day and Happy Mother's Day. susan L.

  9. Happy Mother's Day, Susan! And Happy Mom's Day to everyone! :-)