When I was in college and graduate school, one of my favorite times of the year was the end of the semester. I’d take my exams and hand in those last big papers, then a few short weeks later I’d get a transcript spelling out my success in ABC’s. Even after I graduated and started work in the “real world” measuring success was fairly straightforward. Not only did we have end-of-year evaluations at the company where I worked, but you could also gauge your performance based on the opportunities and responsibilities that the boss gave you. For years, it was easy to track my progress because I always had someone else grading me and evaluating my work, but now as a writer and entrepreneur, things are not so simple.
What is Creative Success?
Measuring success as a writer (or as any artist) is a challenge because there’s no cut-and-dry scale for creative output. Yes, you can measure your creative success in word count, completed drafts or number of publications, but a lot of creative progress is too subjective to be measured in such quantitative terms.
Word count or number of pages can be a great measure of progress when you’re hammering out a first draft, but what about when you’re in that last tinker-and-tweak phase of a project? Or how do you track the progress that happens during that incubation period when a story is marinating but not yet ready for the page? A lot of writing progress happens off the page so it’s often hard to keep track of how far you’ve come.
How Do You Measure Creative Success?
Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about metrics and the difference between numbers that sound nice and results that actually mean something. It’s very easy to get caught up in the data, to obsessively check your sales numbers, analytics or word count, but how do you make sense of it all? How do you know when something demonstrates real progress versus numbers that pump up your ego but don’t mean anything? Or on the flip side, how do you identify concrete evidence of progress despite humble numbers? Here are a few tips that have helped me.
1) Use concrete evidence.
When tracking your success, it’s great to have ambitious goals, but try to tally up your accomplishments in concrete terms. Don’t just say “I wrote a draft this year.” Be specific and concrete: “This year I wrote 75,000 words for my novel, 82 blog posts and three short stories.”
The more specific you can be about your success, the more real it will feel to you. This is very important because in my experience, I’ve found that many writers and creative people are plagued with imposter syndrome. Writers often have a hard time giving themselves credit for their accomplishments, discounting these achievements as luck or a fluke. This leads to a constant feeling that sooner or later the world will “see through them” and realize that they’re not all that talented after all.
You finish a draft and think “no agent will ever want this.” Then when an agent signs you, you think “yeah, but I’ll never get a publisher.” Then you get a three-book deal but your first thought is “I bet my fourth book will never get picked up…” And so it goes. If you’ve ever felt this way, you’re in good company because many writers go through this and believe me, I’ve been there too. That’s why, when you measure your success, it’s important to have concrete evidence.
When I look back on this year, it’s easy for me to discount accomplishments if they’re vague but it’s hard to argue with concrete, specific evidence. For instance, when I think back to launching the DIY MFA website in October it’s easy to shrug it off saying that people launch websites every day and it’s no big deal. But if I look at the specific articles in the archive, they form a record of what I’ve produced this last year and it’s hard to argue with that no matter how hard I try to put myself down.
2) Give the numbers context.
Numbers don’t mean much without context. You need to know what the numbers represent in order to make sense of them. Remember back in middle school, when your math teacher would make you label your answers? There’s a reason for that: without the labels, the numbers don’t mean anything. The answer to the math problem isn’t just “2,” it’s “2 apples” or “2 inches” or “2 alien-zombies.” The same concept applies here.
What if I asked you which is better: 2 or 7? Your answer would most likely be “it depends.” That’s because those numbers by themselves don’t tell us very much. If we’re talking about the number of revisions your editor made you do before your book was ready to go, then clearly two sounds better than seven. On the other hand, if we’re talking about the number of zeros on your advance check then seven sure sounds a whole lot better two. Unless we have context, we have no idea what the numbers mean, which brings me to the next point.
3) Avoid vanity metrics.
Some numbers look good on the surface but don’t mean much in terms of results. These are called vanity metrics because the only thing they’re good for is pumping up our egos.
Web analytics can often be misinterpreted as vanity metrics so it’s important to make sense of what those numbers mean. For instance, suppose your author website gets 100,000 hits per day but only ten of those people click through to the page where they can purchase your book. All that traffic is well and good but only .01% of that traffic is converting into actual book sales. On the other hand, if you get 100 hits on your site per day and ten of them sign up for your mailing list, you’re getting a 10% conversion rate. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather have 10% of the visitors to my site become loyal readers than .01%, don’t you agree?
Word count can be another vanity metric for many writers. I’ve known a few writers–extremely talented writers–who produce story after story, always coming up with a “great new project” but rarely following through and submitting a piece. Yes, it’s great to squelch your inner critic and write drafts with abandon, but part of being a writer is also seeing a project through to the end. If year after year your word count and number of unfinished projects keeps increasing but your number of queries and submissions stays dangerously close to zero, you may be using word count as a vanity metric. If that’s the case, it may be time to have a heart-to-heart with yourself so you can figure out what’s holding you back from following through on a project.
4) Focus on progress and process.
In our culture, there’s a tendency to go through life always wanting more. More money. More vacation time. More gadgets. More stuff. More.
No matter how much you achieve, there is always going to be “more” you can do, and that’s a good thing. After all, if there was a finish line, a point where we could say we’ve done everything we wanted to do, it might seem nice for about five minutes, but after a while most of us would become extremely bored. “More” is great at keeping us moving forward, giving us a purpose or a goal. It’s great to keep striving for more, pushing yourself to improve and grow. Just don’t let “more” become the end-goal because that’s a battle you’re never going to win.
It’s easy to focus on the things you haven’t done, the goals you haven’t yet reached, but every so often you need to take time to look back on the progress that you’ve made. Progress may not always be obvious, especially if you’re comparing where you are now to where you were five minutes ago. Track your progress periodically but also make sure you allow time between each “check-point” so you can actually see the improvements.
Also, make sure you consider not just the things you’ve accomplished, but also the mistakes you avoided or missteps you recovered from. Sometimes we focus so much on achievements, but bouncing back from failure is as important, if not more so. Creative success is not just about achieving better, it’s about failing better as well.
Remember: You Are Enough.
Most people (particularly those who are highly motivated and self-driven) tend to obsess over doing “enough.” As with the quest for that ever-elusive “more,” it’s easy to obsess about being good “enough” or strong “enough” or talented “enough” to find success. Remember: you are enough. And I don’t mean you’ll be enough once you finish that draft, or once you’ve published your book, or whatever. You are enough. Right here, right now, and exactly the way you are.