From senokulvitre.

Someone asked me recently how I would measure success as a writer. After a brief digression on the futility of “measuring” dimensionless variables with no units, I decided to reflect on what success might look like.

A few years ago, Wayne Chang was invited to speak several times by my employer. He had recently sold his start-up to Twitter for $100 million and was being extensively courted to donate. His talks were interesting, focused on encouraging students to be introspective about their goals and values and pursue their interests:

“Real founders are driven by purpose. All the other [motives], including the money itself, are byproducts of this purpose.”

After his talk, he was surrounded by students who kept asking him about how to make a lot of money and who almost seemed to be trying to brush up against him, as though some magic pixie dust might rub off on them. It was pretty embarrassing, to be honest: the guy already answered that.

That said, money isn’t irrelevant to success either.

But it’s not the most important thing either, like the classic joke:

A farmer wins the lottery and a reporter asks him: “What are you going to do with all that money?” The farmer answers, “I’m just gonna keep on farming ’til the money runs out.”

Around the time John Hodgman wrote Vacationland, he did a show in Northampton that was wonderful. One of the questions he was struggling with (in the book and the show) was the ineffable quality of success. Because people kept asking the secret to his success and he was stumped. He’d been working on stuff right along and, at some point, some things got traction and he became a celebrity. But what was different about those things and all the other stuff he’d been doing? He couldn’t tell. He was utterly unable to guess why these five things got traction, while 10 before/during and the 10 during/after did not. And so his best answer was to just keep putting stuff out there. Because although you can’t predict which thing might become successful, if you’re not putting anything out there, you can’t be successful.

For me, success has always been about being able to pursue my own work and do what I think is right. And, in that regard, I’ve been pretty successful. My occupation has allowed me great latitude to choose the projects I want to work on. Or, at least, it did. Recently, I’ve become quite unhappy at work. All of public higher education has been distorted because the oligarchs would like to see it destroyed. And it was crushing to realize, after 25 years, that my work was being used as a come-on by the rentier class to get young people to indenture themselves at high interest rates to the money economy. So what now?

I started writing more seriously only quite recently primarily as a displacement activity. It was a way to get my thoughts away from topics that were making me panicked and sad and onto something safe. And, with my satisfying career not quite so satisfying lately, I was looking for something more.

Jane McGonigal, in her book Reality is Broken, identified four qualities that make for a happy life: (1) Satisfying work to do, (2) The experience of being good at something, (3) Time spent with people we like, and (4) The chance to be a part of something bigger. She was talking in the context of gamification: using games to give people a more satisfactory life experience. To me — someone who despises gamification — it was always about trying to fix the world so it would provide more satisfactory life experiences, rather than just pasting a band aid over the sucking chest wound of life. But I digress.

Those principles are a good guide to what I’m looking for from my writing career. Writing is very satisfying. I love going back and reading what what I’ve written — and feeling like I’m getting better at it. And especially since getting involved with Water Dragon Publishing, I love the small, quirky community I’ve become immersed in: I joke that it’s like the Island of Misfit Toys, but nobody belongs there more than I. And especially treasure the opportunity to feel like we’re a community working together on satisfying projects. Like writing this blog post.

So, that’s what I’m looking for. The money isn’t nothing. But it’s certainly not everything — and not even the most important thing for me. I’m very lucky in that regard. Finding a way to channel my activity toward something fulfilling is my reason for writing. And I think I’ve been pretty successful already.

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