How do you measure success? If you’re a writer, or in fact an artist of any kind, this is a treacherous question.

Tonight I glanced at a blog post by Derek Murphy. Derek is a very bright guy and a tireless self-promoter. He designs book covers, he writes his own fiction, he builds websites. I’m sure he does lots of other stuff too. I wish I had his energy! But I’m not sure I agree with his view of success.

Let’s look at a few quotes from his essay.

“If you can’t understand why a book was successful, you’ll never come close to matching its sales.”

“If you covet an author’s success, you need to understand and mimic their book enough to please the same audience.”

“They [authors who “made a product based completely on their assumptions about an ill-defined audience that doesn’t really want it”] won’t be able to get any reviews or even give it away for free. Nobody will ‘get it.’ Much of this could have been solved with excellent cover design and some basic research and author platform set up: but some authors eschew all advice and do it the way they want to. Because they think they know best. If you’re making gut decisions for your book about what you like, you’re probably doing something wrong. You need to focus on what sells….”

“There’s a lot of room at the top: you can make a lot of money with your writing. But you need to learn the rules of the game first.”

The assumption Derek is making here, and what got my hackles up, is the idea that success is measured by how many books you sell. I’m sure a lot of people think of it that way — but it’s wrong.

He’s certainly right that a lot of aspiring writers don’t want to hear suggestions about how they could improve their writing, but that’s a different topic altogether.

I dislike the word “spiritual,” and never use it, so I’m going to grope for an alternative here. Success is measured, or at least defined, internally — not on a spreadsheet. It’s defined by the feeling that you’ve done your best. That you’ve lived up to and perhaps exceeded your own expectations for yourself. That you have been skillful at each and every point in the work you’ve just completed. That you have accomplished what you set out to accomplish. That you have reached or perhaps surpassed the goals that you set for yourself when you began.

Success is when you feel good about your work. When you look at your work and judge that it is good — that it does what you want it to do. Everything else is just dust in the wind.

The danger in focusing on sales figures as a measure of success is that it warps the creative process. If you’re trying, as you write or paint or sing, to sell your work to the greatest number of people, you will make bad decisions. You will harm yourself, and you will harm your readers, viewers, or listeners. You will deprive them, and deprive yourself, of an entire dimension of experience that would otherwise be available. If you’re writing or painting with an invisible audience looking over your shoulder and judging your work, you’re in big trouble.

Of course, most people need to earn a living one way or another, and a great many artists would like to make a living by selling their art. Having a day job is no fun at all, and having to work full-time or even part-time at some menial or demeaning job will wreak havoc with your creativity too! Nobody said living on this planet would be easy. (Actually, Ira Gershwin did say that: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.” But you can’t trust a songwriter.)

I keep coming back to something that Ram Dass said in one of his books. Quoting from memory here, “The only thing you can really contribute to the world is the quality of your own consciousness at any given moment.” If your consciousness is polluted, whether by the need for money or by the fear that your self-esteem will be crushed if not enough people admire you, then that pollution will surely show up in your creative work.

There’s a Zen story — I think it’s a Zen story, anyway, it sounds like one. The young painter goes to the master painter and says, “Please, master — tell me how to paint the perfect painting.” The master replies, “Oh, that’s easy. Just become perfect, and then paint naturally.”

Becoming perfect — well, that’s not going to happen. But getting better can and does happen. Getting better is something that happens inside of you. You can’t measure it, you can only feel it and know it. What’s more, you get to define for yourself what “better” means.

My wish for you is that you become better; that, as you continually get better, you continue to write as well as you can; and that you find, as you do so, an inner reward that deeply satisfies you.

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