Robert Louis Stevenson and Ralph Waldo Emerson and the New York Stock Exchange all define “success” differently. I’ve been asked to write about my answer from the perspective of the writer that I have become. That last statement is part of my answer—I now refer to myself as a “Writer.” It took decades for that aspect of who I am to bubble to the surface. Even as a person who wielded the pen in powerful ways throughout my adult years (e.g., a well-worded letter about bad customer service led to free brunch for four at a fancy restaurant, another letter led to a free night at a resort…you get the picture), even as I put words in the mouths of others by writing speeches and letters I never signed, it took a magical spark to push me toward where I’m at today. What began seven years ago as a fervent desire to match words to my thoughts, to say what I wanted to say to the person I wanted to say it to, led to…a book. When my fingers started slamming into my laptop keys, little did I know a New York City agent would be interested in the text that flowed from my fingertips. Nor did I envision that my little book would garner an international award. I was lucky. I received support and the courage to move forward. And here I am, years after the first pounding out of my ponderings, and I have a second book in the works. A very different book than the first, with words that are just as necessary to share. But here’s the thing—and there’s no getting around it—I do not feel like a success. Partly because my essays and poems have been rejected by countless venues. And partly because my checkbook mocks me. Then I took up the book, Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, and I found myself within its pages. The uncertainty. The pretending that I know what I’m doing. Feeling a bit like a fraud. Still, I keep at it. Don’t we all? We keep at the things that call out to us. We push that boulder up that hill, hoping we’ll find a plateau midway up the mountain, not daring to dream that we’ll make it to the top. We want to make headway, we don’t want the boulder to roll back down again, Sisyphean-style. We don’t want to find ourselves at the bottom again, looking up. But it happens, doesn’t it? To all of us. In one way or another.
To me, success is more like a roller coaster than a hill with built-in plateaus. Success is accepting that life includes boulders that roll back down; it means we lose our foothold from time to time but we continue to climb. Success is in the striving and the smiling and the crying—and finding a way to be okay. It means we look in the mirror and feel that that person is trying their best. Emily Dickinson wrote, “If your nerve deny you, go above your nerve.” So my fellow humans, please keep climbing. Only then will you find out what “success” means to you.