Rewriting the Rules of Success

For many, many, many years nothing I wrote was published. This was a very difficult period of writing in my life. I am a naturally happy person. I look for excuses to be happy. But I am also an ambitious person. An ex-athlete, I expected to be successful at whatever I applied myself to. Writing success, namely publication, felt every bit like those trophies I trained and ran for as a schoolboy, only more valuable. Publication seemed to carry not just the glittering public triumph of victory, but also a financial security tied to something beyond my dull, daily labor - the freedom of being paid for what I would do for free. Writing success was a portal to life as I wished to lead it.

But I could not open that portal. Or that portal would not open for me. Or I couldn't find the portal. It was hard to tell which it was. All I knew is I was where I was and not where I thought I should be. And so I was unhappy. I had to be. That was the rule: to be happy I had to be successful. I could not imagine myself both happy and unsuccessful. Trying to imagine a happy life without success was like trying to imagine a happy life without food or shelter or friends. So I was unhappy. Unless I forgot the rule, and got interested something, which always makes me happy - until I'd remember that I wasn't successful, and I'd be unhappy once more.

By and by, little successes began trickling in. I was glad for them, but I still felt more or less as I always had. Clearly, these successes were too small to open that portal. Then one day, I learned that a publisher had offered me a contract for a book. I stood for a moment after hearing this news, surrounded in a strange silence. It was like the fresh peacefulness after a thunderstorm. Thunderstorms don't create that peacefulness, though they do remind me what it sounds like.

So this is what life feels like without the noise of failure, I thought. How easy it would have been at that moment to attribute the peace of success to my contract. Yet to do so would have merely assured the noise would return if I didn't like how many copies my book sold, or if I didn't sell my next book, or if I didn't win some award. The rules of success can always be rewritten so that happiness remains something to be desired and attained rather than something I own and express.

I didn't actually have to be unhappy during those long dry years. In fact, what brought me the most happiness was also my path toward those acceptance letters I so desired. But I couldn't have been convinced of that then. The rules were the rules were the rules, and I was certain I hadn't written them. I had just been following orders and dreaming of the freedom I already had.

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