Is It Success If Nobody Knows About It?

There is a type of person I run into once in a while.  They’re a rare breed, but I’ve met six or seven of them in my life.  I don’t know how to classify them, but they have some things in common.  They’re all extremely capable people who seem indifferent to the traditional trappings of success.

For a couple years in college and a few years afterwards I got into Role Playing games to a minor extent.  A local group met at a used book and record shop in a slightly seedy part of town.  One of the guys who worked at the shop played in some of the games.  There was nothing about him that drew attention to him—just a skinny guy in his late twenties who wore blue jeans and a little beard.  Gradually, over a period of six months I accidentally stumbled across this guy’s accomplishments.  He was a world class chess player.  He was also world class at half a dozen other things, some of them intellectual, some of them involving athletics of some kind.  I never found out anything about this from him.  The only time he talked about himself was to say that he had taught math at the high school level until he ran out of students who wanted to learn.  He worked quietly at the record shop for a year or two, then moved on.

A few months ago I stumbled upon a website full of very powerful writing, very thoughtful and very well written.  The guy behind it apparently isn’t a professional writer.  He has a disclaimer on the site that says that as far as he’s concerned, when he puts something on the website it’s published.  He makes no effort to reach a wider audience.  He has a small body of fans, some of whom have created a forum to discuss his stuff, but he seems totally uninterested in promoting himself or his writing.

A few years ago I had a couple of students who were exceptionally accomplished.  One would come in just before class started and create simple but beautiful computer art, then delete it.  She showed other signs of an exceptional level of talent.  The other was just exceptional skilled with computers—everything about them, hardware and software.  He could have easily put together a thriving little business helping people with their computers even as a high school student, but for the most part he didn’t.  He was quite willing to help if the issue interested him, but was unwilling to be tied down in the role of a computer person.

I’ve been thinking about those people.  What do they have in common?  What, if anything do they say about life and success?  I see some common themes in their lives.  First, they accomplished things because they wanted to, not because it gave them the traditional trapping of success.  Second, they guarded their time jealously.  They did what they wanted to with as much of their time as possible, in some cases sacrificing money and publicity to do that, and avoiding having their talents or time exploited in ways they didn’t find enjoyable.  Third, and to some extent overlapping with the first two, they were deliberately fame indifferent.

Is that a rational set of behaviors and priorities?  Can a person be a success when only a small circle of friends knows about their accomplishments?  I think so, and in some ways I think it’s a rational way to deal with the world.  Seeking fame can be giving other people control over whether or not your accomplishments are considered worthwhile.  If you accomplish for yourself you only have to satisfy yourself.  All of these people set high standards for themselves, but they control the standards and outside opinions aren’t really the point of the exercise.



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About the author

Dale lives near Chicago with his wife, daughter, three cats, and a lot of books. Dale is a computer programmer and teacher as well as a long-time science fiction fan. He has a huge and diverse range of interests, ranging from computers and history to martial arts. He loves animals and did a stint as a foster home for orphan Samoyeds. He has spent his last two summers improving his writing under instructors like science fiction grand master James Gunn and Nebula winner Kij Johnson.

»» 17 Responses to “Is It Success If Nobody Knows About It?” »»
  1. Kat Sheridan says:

    What a great article, Dale. I don’t know if I have exceptional talents in any area, and there have been times in my life when I really worked for what I thought would be success, but I’ve come to realize it doesn’t really mean much. I don’t think I’d want to be famous. I admire the guy who just writes what he wants and doesn’t care about the rest. I’ve lived with those who worked at being famous–who craved that attention the way people crave air and water. In neither case did it bring them happiness. Their talents and subsequent successes became a yoke around their necks. I’m learning contentment and the joy that comes from entertaining a few friends. Money would be nice, but I’m happier just doing what I want, with no deadlines, no bad reviews, no criticism, no stress over promotion or sales numbers or any of the other things that suck the joy out of my writing.

  2. sy says:

    Hi Dale. this is my first time on this blob, so Im nervous. Lets see if it works. If it does I will post a real comment.

  3. sy says:

    YAY!! It worked. (I know I am a throwback).

    I know exactly what you are talking about. At one point during my career I realized that I had become a little famous. That felt good. But it didnt last. (neither the fame nor the feeling). Years later, I worked on something totally different, and published a paper that got absolutely no attention at all. But it was the best thing I ever did, and Im glad about the time I spent on it.

    I do wish though, that I were more like the folks you talk about. When I published my book, I again got seduced by the attraction of potential fame, only to be disappointed when it didnt happen. I got over that too. Now, I find myself writing and posting stuff that I really care about, and not even knowing where it goes, or how many people see it, and of course, I dont get paid. But I prefer that. So maybe I am making progress.

    I might have mentioned before, (eons ago, on some Wombat thread) that one of my favorite film scenes is of Nick Nolte in New York Stories, when he tells the young art student, that it doesnt matter if she is any good or not. “You paint because you cant not do it” he says “if you are an artist”. I guess that goes for us writers too.

  4. I don’t know, Dale. I’m working on that fame thing right now. It’s a heady experience, even in small doses (which is what I experience – lol!). People read my book and they talk about it. I see it and seek more of the same. It’s kind of like an addiction, I think. I’ll get back to you in a couple years, hopefully wiser and more able to cope with failure and obscurity. Or famous. The former is much more likely.

  5. Dale says:

    I think that the key to all of these people is that they are driven to great accomplishments by their own inner motivations and interest in something.

    I’ve been able to get into that mode to a lesser extent from time-to-time and I’m always amazed at how fast I can master skills when it’s just for something I want to do for my own reasons–no fame or money or often any practical purpose involved. I’m just playing and the creativity comes out. Often I’ll use the skills I learned that way for practical things, but I didn’t have that in mind when I started playing.

  6. Mark A. York says:

    I think the definition of “great accomplishment” is subjective. It could mean denial of failure to try at industry level standards. Practice is good. Professionalism, regardless of craft, has a whole different set of requirements. I don’t call slapping some text on a Web site in who-knows-what-condition, a great accomplishment. Chimps can do it.

    http://www.amazon.com/Outliers-Story-Success-Malcolm-Gladwell/dp/0316017922

  7. Dale says:

    Olivia: I agree that fame (even little bits of it) can be addictive. It is also necessary to sell books, which is why I’m raising my profile every way I can, even though I’m an introvert and go away from in person forums and book signings totally exhausted. I love having people read my words and say they couldn’t put the book down.

    At the same time I’ve been around long enough to realize that fame doesn’t last long in our culture. I mention the Marx Brothers to my students. Blank stare. I mention the Beatles. Groan. Old people music. I look at authors who were big in science fiction in the late 70’s and early 80’s. A lot of them are nearly forgotten. “Fifteen minutes of fame” exaggerates the process a bit, but fame rarely transmits from one generation to another, rarely crosses our increasingly tiny demographic categories, and rarely survives very long without ‘having done something lately’.

    There is a unique quality, a joy that comes through when someone talented does something just because they want to, a labor of love with no concern for commercial viability. Writing for publication and to make a career of it is certainly not to be sneered at. It’s a worthy goal, and one I am committed to. At the same time, there are extremely talented people out there who chose not to pursue that goal, and certainly nobody has the right to tell them they have to pursue it.

  8. Mark A. York says:

    They don’t. But at the same time shouldn’t pretend they are and want that level of credit for “playing.” They can’t have it both ways.

  9. Other Lisa says:

    Hmmm…

    I think that people who honestly don’t care about “success” as we generally define it, are not going to be people who “want it both ways.” They aren’t the “misunderstood genius” types who claim that the world is too crass/stupid to recognize their brilliance. They are people who do their work because they are self-motivated and don’t need external reinforcement to motivate them to do their work, or to tell them whether their work is a success or a failure.

    Ideally, this is the kind of state in which we should create, at least for that first pass. If you try to write a book with the weight of others’ expectations, it can be really really hard. Heavy. Not fun. That doesn’t mean ignoring commercial considerations or being utterly undisciplined in your work, but it does mean suspending the inner critic (and blocking out the outer critic) so that you are free enough to actually create without second-guessing yourself every step of the way.

    I can tell you that the experience of writing the second book (and by that I mean the book that comes after the first one you publish) feels pretty different than the writing of the first. Even though I wrote my first book with the intention of finding an agent and, I hoped, selling it, I was still writing pretty much in my own creative bubble.

    With the second book, I had the agent. I had the publisher. I had expectations. I tried to put all of those things out of my mind when I was actually writing, but I don’t know how well I succeeded. I do know that the process, particularly the editorial feedback, was absolutely grueling and very very painful. And right now it’s still too soon for me to say whether I ended up with a good book out of the ordeal.

    Which is a long and roundabout way of saying that I think “success” is largely how you define it. No one should feel compelled to pursue a profession that they don’t want to pursue, even if they enjoy performing the act that is the core of that profession.

    Not pursuing said profession because you are afraid of failing at it is a different proposition. I think this is can be damaging to the artist, because I think one’s confidence is undermined in a very fundamental way, and it discourages any kind of really deep work.

    Er, I’m not sure if any of that made any sense. Carry on…

    • Mark A. York says:

      I think that’s true, Lisa. There has to be some semblance of validation, though, and this usually comes from clearing a commercial hurdle. I know if my two novels just sit in the publishing pipeline forever, I won’t be happy about it. There’s no validation in that, but at least they’re in the fray.

  10. Beth says:

    There are multiple ways to rate success. If you learn a new skill, you’ve met with success, whether or not anyone else knows about it. You may be a success at your job without outsiders ever knowing what you’ve contributed to your company. If you complete a novel, you have achieved success.

    Public success, however? That’s different. You could achieve it even if you didn’t pursue it–that is, you may discover something the world is clamoring for and either market that product or license it or give it away. Or, you could pursue success in some marketplace, where success is objectively (or subjectively) measured in a way that participants recognize. If you don’t meet the criteria of that market, you’ve not achieved success in that one area.

    As I said, success can be measured in many ways.

  11. Other Lisa says:

    Mark, I think the decision about what form of validation you need to consider your work successful is one of those individual things. I mean, in a way I completely agree with you — I’m writing for publication, after all. But the thing is, once you go down that road, there is always another marker to achieve — if I “succeeded” once, do I have to publish again to still be successful? Does my second book need to be bigger than the first? Which is more important, critical or popular success?

    Success, I think, is pretty much bound up in your goals.

    i know lots of writers at this point, and most of them are pursuing publication. But if there’s a writer out there who writes for herself and her own satisfaction, without any other goal in mind, and she derives pleasure from the process, then by those particular goals, she’s a success.

    I don’t know, in some way this all comes down to the larger philosophical question of how to lead a good life. What does it take to achieve a baseline of “happiness” and contentment?

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  12. Mark A. York says:

    I think it’s important to have increasing goals but of course this could easily go too far and one could wind up miserable no matter how much they achieve. You have to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em if things get to be too much. It varies.

  13. James says:

    Dale, very interesting post. I also find the comments have added a lot of color on this. I think every person has to figure out for themselves what they value and how they define success. There are markers out there for the conventional milestones — promotions, recognition by 3rd parties via awards or for writers, publication and so on — but not everybody subscribes to them.

    For those people who get more personal joy out of doing something than the recognition, that’s fine with me. If you like what they are doing and would like to see more, they need to decide whether that’s what they’re after.

    Lisa’s comment about the pressures of doing that next book after an initial success is also telling. If you succeed in a particular area, the bar does tend to get raised. In turn, you may need a different set of motivations to meet those new goals, particularly if the benchmarks are external rather than internal.

    I think a lot of writers are internally driven, so it must be a strange experience to suddenly have a set of goals being set for you by editors and agents.

  14. Vivian A says:

    I personally think finding joy in what you do far exceeds any external factors. Being great at something you hate is just as much a prison as failing at what you wish you could do. One pushes you further down a path you loathe and the other blocks the one you want.

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