My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Ziglar and Success: Define It For Yourself

After you turn three,
success might be more complicated than a fist full of sand.
Zig Ziglar joins the ranks of a number of white, heterosexual, able bodied, rich, cis, thin, Christian American, male motivational speakers who I can't help but roll my eyes at every time they start talking about how positivism will take you anywhere.  I wish all motivational speakers would be more honest and say positivism can't help you do anything you dream.  I've been dreaming of groupie threesomes for YEARS now, and it hasn't happened. Positivism can't make anything possible.  For starters, at its most basic, it simply has a limited return on those whose lives exist at the less fortunate end of social inequality. Positivism also fails epically when it comes to defying physics.  And no matter how positive you are you won't sell your NaNo "novel" that hasn't been revised since December 1st. All positivism can really claim to do is take you further than negativity can. But "further" might just mean someone has only rolled their eyes instead of blacklisting you.

Still once you acknowledge the limitations of this kind of motivational advice, it's much easier to take the whole line of thinking more seriously.  Just bring your grains of salt and take three or four any time anyone says the word "anything."  To Zig's credit, he kept talking after a fall in 2007 left him with some memory problems and the "abled bodied" part was less true.  He recently passed away.

Ziglar was really good at the zingers.  Gems like:  "People often say that motivation doesn't last. Well, neither does bathing - that's why we recommend it daily," or "a lot of people quit looking for work as soon as they find a job," were often part of his speeches and got him quoted a lot which led to his continued success in motivational speaking.  Most people can't really remember his complex arguments about success.  They remember his zingers.

Failure is a detour, not a dead-end street.   -Zig Ziglar

One thing I have always remembered of his is a description of putting a blindfold on an archer and turning them round and round and round and then telling them to hit their target.   This scenario was written to illustrate a single point.  It is very, very difficult to hit a target that you can't see.  To this end most people struggle to get somewhere but they don't really have a sense of where or what that might be.  I'm pretty sure my archery instructor would have had an aneurysm from hearing this story--all those arrow safety rules...ignored.

I talk a lot about success being a vague concept.   Almost more than I talk about threesomes. That's because it is.  I usually put scare quotes around success or add the caveat "whatever that means" when I talk about it.  That's because success isn't just a concept that differs from person to person (though it is).  Success is a concept that most people don't even understand within themselves.

Success is dependent upon the glands - sweat glands.  
-Zig Ziglar

At first that question may seem absolutely simple.  It may even seem almost insulting.  "Success is....SUCCESS man!  Being successful!  Making it!" a friend of mine yelled at me once.  But the more you think about it, the more you will realize that it is actually probably a harder question to answer than you might think.  What does success even mean?  And more importantly, what does it mean to you?

Recently a friend of mine working in the game design industry asked everyone on her various social media how they defined success and got answers ranging from financial independence to making the world a better place to being approached for projects instead of having to look for them.  A lot of people think success is paying the bills, though you might be surprised how many have other answers.  One person told me (not on this page but somewhere else) that she defined success as not questioning every single day whether or not she was a real writer or just a faking imposer who no one had yet recognized.  She's on her eighth novel, and lives quite well off from her writing, but is still struggling with success in her mind.

Many of these answers were vague even when they were specific as well.  "Paying the bills" could possibly be broken down further.  Is that scraping out the rent on a crummy apartment, walking everywhere, eating Raman three or four times a week, and a health insurance plan that involves power crystals and prayer?  Or is that a townhome, private school for the kids, an economy car that still has a good stereo and airbags, a Kaiser insurance plan, and eating out three or four times a week.  Because I assure you, those two goals are very, very far apart even if they both might technically be "paying the bills."  Seriously just the Raman alone might mean hundreds of dollars.  That stuff is criminally cheap.

The point is there is a huge disparity about what success even means.  Not just between folks, but usually a painful ambiguity within each individual as well.

A lot of aspiring writers (and artists in general) talk about "making it" or "success" but they don't really take the time to think about what that means to them.  They struggle, but don't seem to know exactly what they're struggling for.  And Ziglar has at least one part of achieving your dreams dead-on right--if you don't know what success even IS, what is the chance you're going to stumble across it.  I mean I guess if everything in your life simply explodes into awesomeness, then you will reach your equally undefined sense of having "made it."  But if you had to work toward one vision (and really...you do), what would it be?

Publication?  A published novel?  Three published novels?  A published novel every year without fail?  "Paying the bills" with writing even if it means renting a room and learning to love rice?  Paying the bills with writing and making a middle class income?  $53,500--for no particular reason?  Chairing a panel at Wondercon?  A good home life?  Raising a decent kid?  A fish tank with exotic fish and a male whore who you call "fish guy"?  Asian cheerleader threesomes?  If you cannot define success for yourself, no one else is going to be able to define it for you.  How will you know if you're getting close.   How will you even know if you're working in the right direction.  How will you know you aren't wasting time doing something that has some aspects of what you want (I'm writing!) but not others (but it's tech writing, not fiction, and I'm miserable) if you don't have a sense yourself of what you want?

When we struggle for nebulous goals, we often have nebulous struggles.  Leaving the world a better place might be noble, but it lacks the concreteness of "publish one critically acclaimed game."  The latter is, ironically, an easier goal to work toward and a goal one could be satisfied in achieving.  With the first we could satisfy ourself of success if we smile at a stranger one day, or we could spend a lifetime working for Greenpeace and still convince ourselves we'd never quite made it.  This is why any major goal setting effort involves specific and measurable results.  And the biggest goals of your life--the all pervasive idea of success with your most meaningful endeavor--should be no different.

A lot of writers feel liberated when they consider what success means to them.  They don't feel so pinned by a dream, but almost like "Fuck now I can actually figure out how to GET there and start working."  They find that "making it" was just too big.  But "one published novel" seems like it's actually manageable.   Or "financial independence" is just too open.  But "contribute 25,000 to the household expenses annually" gives them something tangible and reachable to work toward.  By defining success, they not only figure out where to go and how to get there, but that it's closer than they think.

So....what would success look like to you?


  1. Very interesting food for thought, Chris. In fact, I may scratch out some thoughts on this subject in my own blog later on.

    I think I've defined what my own would-be success looks like more thoroughly than some, but probably still not enough. To me, it has to include the following or it won't feel like success to me:

    - Yes, "paying the bills" with writing, but not just barely getting by. Making a solid and reliable middle to upper middle class living that can pay for at least a modest house, two good cars, more or less whatever I want to eat, and a modest vacation at least once a year.

    - Doing the above without having to put in a lot of hours nickel-and-diming my way there like I do now. I feel like success for me involves being paid more because the value of my writing is higher, not because I spend more hours a day than other people doing grunt work.

    - Doing the above writing my own stories and creative material via a book deal, a major column, or something similar -- not writing advertisements, content for other people's websites, and other such things.

    Or something like that, anyway. Suffice it to say, this is something I've definitely thought at least a little bit about.

    1. Yeah, you definitely have a better sense than many others! But then I already knew that because you've been writing about this a LOT lately. :-)

  2. Can we define success as getting a poem published in a literary review.

    1. Absolutely! That seems more like a goal that someone might achieve and then immediately set another on their WAY to whatever their vision of success is, but if that is literally the only thing a writer wants to do ever--get a single poem published in a literary review--then defining success for themselves is exactly what this article is about.

  3. (don't mind me, just rummaging through your back catalogue)

    I think I have different tiers of success
    Tier 1: 1 Self published eBook
    Tier 2: 1 Traditionally published book
    (not that I think self publishing or eBooks are inferior, but I've had this dream of being a writer since I was a kid and it always involved holding a physical copy in my hands)
    Tier 2: Multiple self published eBooks
    Tier 3: Multiple traditionally published books
    And so on and so forth
    Tier 20: Can live a comfortable life as a writer alone, has my own expanded universe, fans write bad fanfiction and draw good fanart and ship couples who were never meant to be...

    To be honest I've already achieved my earliest definition of success (Tier 0?) of being able to type "The End", it's just now all about the editing and revisions...