Creativity Lesson: Success
Most of us start our creative work for similar reasons. For writers, words swirled in our minds while showering, full sentences (sometimes paragraphs) formulated in our heads while driving, and the most banal of situations crystalized into perfect metaphors to explain life, motherhood, or whatever idea we’d been thinking of just a few days earlier. We started on this creative journey because there was something inside of us longing to come out.
Yet most of us, after we’ve written (or done any kind of creative work) for any length of time, eventually end up tied up in some form of an angsty frustrated knot. We want to be better, we want to grow, we want to have a clear purpose. We want someone else to acknowledge our work and its worth.
My personal angst-knot came when I started to write and people began asking, “So, what are you … doing with your writing?”
The question is innocent, I know.
Yet it feels accusatory, doesn’t it? Like I’ve been caught staring out a window when really, I said I’d be folding the load of laundry. Or maybe I don’t like it because it gives me the impression that what I am doing, in and of itself, isn’t purposeful enough. It implies that there needs to be more. The question seems like a heavy-handed hint to have some sort of goal or clearly defined purpose—one that will justify the time, effort, energy, and enjoyment of my creative work.
As if I need to be “successful” to make it worthwhile.
But what am I trying to prove? And who am I proving it to?
It’s hard not to get sucked in, though, isn’t it?
Before too long, we begin to look at page views, likes, followers. We plan content created for the sole purpose of reaching more people. We count submission acceptances and shares, downloads and e-mail list subscribers. The word ‘analytics’ is part of our everyday vocabulary. We can’t help but measure ourselves based in numbers, like we’re a kid standing with our back against the kitchen wall, ruler in hand, asking our mom to check if we’ve grown in the last month.
None of that is bad.
Except for what happens in our heart when the ruler shows us numbers we don’t like, or don’t expect, or when we haven’t grown as much as our sister did.
When I started to write online, I had some early “success” (essays featured and published beyond my blog). Sure enough, the question came: “So, what are you … doing with your writing?”
I’d usually answer, “I don’t really know,” but felt funny saying it—like how you feel when you get the right answer but aren’t really sure how you solved the problem. I wanted to be confident. I wanted to have an answer that felt less like water and more like a ball of packed ice. Yet from the beginning, writing was less about knowing an end goal and more about taking one trusting step in the direction I felt so strongly called to.
It didn’t take long, though, for me to make some benchmarks for myself. I mean, how could I not?
My bottom line? I’d keep writing if I had a certain number of followers after a year.
I quickly learned I could write the way I wanted to write, which took time and energy—more time than I often had—and see zero change in my numbers (or, more often, I’d actually see unfollowing—that’s always fun). I also learned I could write what people wanted to read, and get a few more clicks or likes or page views, but that didn’t sit right with me. Authenticity is one of the pillars on which I wanted my writing to stand.
After a year, I didn’t have the number of followers I arbitrarily picked. I didn’t continue to have a successful acceptance rate (in fact, the rejections started to have community meetings to discuss the terrible conditions in which they were living). Life pulled at my time and growing responsibilities crowded out all those formerly free-flowing ideas in the shower.
I wasn’t successful.
But I liked writing.
Is that enough?
Success is considered the achievement of measurable goals. Which is great, because many of us (myself included) just got done making a bunch of new goals for the year. But what happens if we can’t, or don’t, meet those goals? How will we feel or think about our creative work (and ourselves) in twelve months if we aren’t “successful”?
Every creative gets discouraged. I think that’s part of the deal. But is there a way to fortify ourselves against it? To preemptively change the narrative about what success looks like? Can we learn to measure ourselves by our own standards, instead of someone else’s?
I believe the answer is yes.
Grab Your Notebook
// WHAT IS SUCCESS? //
Look up and write out the definition you find for Success: _________________________
Journaling Prompt: What are your thoughts about success based on this definition? Compare/contrast it to what success currently means to you and looks like for you.
// MAKE IT PERSONAL //
Answer the following questions:
Why did I start this creative work? ____________________________________________________________
Why am I doing it now? _____________________________________________________________________
If my creative work was displayed on an elevated platform, held up by four foundational pillars, what do I want those pillars to be? (i.e. What must always be present and structurally sound in order for your creative work to be worthwhile to you? If you have trouble with this, see the Core Values exercise.)
Who do I want to reach (audience) and why? ___________________________________________________
What do I want my creative work to communicate? _____________________________________________
How do I want someone to think/feel, or what do I want them to know after encountering my work?
What are the characteristics I’d want someone to use to describe my creative work? ________________
// TRADE-OFFS //
Oh, it stinks, I know. But there are always trade-offs in life. It’s best we admit this now and deal with it like adults. Whether it’s time, energy, enjoyment, money, attention—we only have so much of it to go around. We need to ask where we can make room and what areas we will fiercely protect.
This year, I’m willing to trade _______________________ in order to ______________________________.
This year, I am not willing to trade _____________________________________________________ in order to __________________________________________________________________________________.
I will protect these things because ___________________________________________________________.
// BUT STILL, LET’S DREAM A LITTLE //
In my dreamiest, most private wish, success in my creative work would look like:
(Define who you are, who you reach, how you reach them, and why you want to reach them. Write out what this looks like from a family, monetary, and time perspective.)
// CHANGING THE NARRATIVE: OUR OWN METRICS OF SUCCESS //
Numbers, numbers, numbers. We’re done with you. We’re changing the narrative. We are now measuring success based on quality not quantity.
Using answers from the above sections and from your journaling, list the qualitative characteristics of your personal definition of success:
List what success won't be for you at the end of the year:
*Please go back and circle the most important words in this section.
// THE PLAN //
Keeping in mind what I will and will not trade-off, these are things I can do each day, to be creatively successful (by my own definition). List up to three.
// WRITE IT OUT //
Each day, I commit to _____________, _____________, or ___________ to nurture my creative work and lead me into feeling/knowing I am successful.
(Put it on a notecard, use it as a reminder.)
If, at the end of this week, I could only accomplish one thing to feel creatively “successful” it would be
If, at the end of this month, I could only accomplish one thing to feel creatively “successful” it would be
If, at the end of the year, I could only accomplish one thing to feel creatively “successful”it would be
Please write out your own personal SUCCESS STATEMENT using keywords from all of your answers above:
This year for me, creative success will be defined as: ____________________________________________.
Whether your creative pursuits take a back seat to a new baby, a move, or just a season of life that needs your time and attention a little more than you thought—or—you’re at a place to give more than you ever have to your creative work before, we want you to know we’re forever in your corner. We’re cheering you on as you pursue your passion at your own pace, in your own way, for your own reasons.
After you complete this exercise, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the Exhale Facebook group!