Writer: Beth Hallman | A few years ago, I was driving and talking to a friend on the phone. She’s the kind of friend who’s really good at acting as a sounding board, only asking leading questions which encourage you to explore for yourself what it is you want or need. My friend asked me how I defined success. I had to pull over and sit in a parking lot. Her question crowded my car, my mind. It required all of my attention, because it tripped me up, caught me off guard, and left me scrambling for words.
We’d been discussing my writing. Specifically, we were discussing the direction my writing was taking. I was gaining recognition as a blogger. I’d just published my first book. I was promoting my brand well and the money was finally coming in from the sale of books, wine, all manner of merchandise, and corporate sponsorships. I thought once I started making a living as a writer, I’d feel successful. Earning money from doing something I love should have been the hallmark of success. But it wasn’t.
I wrote funny stories about my life with a growing readership. People were reading my book and my online work as well. I shared my struggles openly and honestly on social media and my blog. People told me those stories mattered to them, were helping them in their own journeys. People liked my words. I was motivating positive change, building close relationships with my readers. Those things had to be an indication of my success. But still, I didn’t feel successful. I ended the conversation without an answer to that simply put complex question. How do I define success?
I knew I needed to answer that question for myself. The money, acceptance of others, changes brought about in the world, and personal growth weren’t making me feel successful. I was hollow inside no matter how many stories I shared. I struggled, clinging to the website hits, likes, and comments as tangible proof I was doing well. The response (or lack of response) of others would simply have to measure my success until I figured out that answer.
I didn’t have an epiphany one night as I tapped away on my keyboard, pumping out another story about the absurd glory of life in the deep South or the complexities of having a mental illness. The process was ongoing. The truth revealed itself slowly over time, culminating in a beautiful, scary decision I made about what I wanted out of life.
First came the unyielding idea I must write only for myself. If people liked what they read or walked away, I must write my words for me. Second came the truth I could no longer use anyone else’s response to my words as a marker for what, when, and how I write. This was all terrifying. I was a writer riddled with self-doubt, someone who needed validation, but didn’t want anyone to know I needed it. I made the decision to drop a persona, a moniker I’d used for nearly seven years (One Fabulous Mama) and have a go at doing what I always wanted to do- write fiction. After that decision was made, my personal definition of success was clear.
If readers walked away, if the social media response to my work dropped off in great numbers, if no one thought my work was any good, if I never landed another freelance gig, I’d still have that warm glow of success in my gut. The money would have to be irrelevant. The response would as well. Would I crave those things or waver in my need of them? Absolutely. Who doesn’t want to support themselves financially and know other people love what they do? But would money and other people define my success? Not if I could help it.
My definition of success was a trifold concept sharing a beautiful common theme. I grew to understand being successful meant I love myself, what I do, and how I do it. Everything else was irrelevant in the process. While accolades are wonderful and money was necessary, my words were more important than that. As I stepped into who I am and began working on the stories I’ve longed to tell, I felt truly successful.