Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Success Part Two

Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing


The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Success Part Two

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Last week, I teased you, and said we’d talk some more about success. I promised to reveal the information that I withheld in last week’s section.

And I might. But I might not.

Because success is as vast a topic as failure. Maybe more vast, if you’ll allow me that grammatical exaggeration. There’s good stuff and bad stuff in success. We think there are only good things, but if you recognize that success can lead to problems, then you’re halfway to solving them before they even arise.

So let’s continue with the definitions of success.

Last week, I discussed the dictionary definitions of success as well as the fact that your definition and reality may contradict each other.

But let’s look at the toughest three definitions of success. To aid the clarity in this section, I’ll list them now.

They are:

1. The world’s definition of success

2. Other people’s definition of success

3. Your definition of success

And those three things are all different.

Why is this important? Because you might seem successful to “the world,” but not to you. Go back and read last week’s post for the Henry James example and the Frederick Faust example. You’ll start catching my point.

As I started this section, I first typed “the culture” instead of “the world,” but even that’s not accurate.

Let’s define “the world” before we go any further.

The world is, for purposes of this section, your world. That includes the culture in which you live, the friends and family that you have, the things that you read, everything and everyone around you who have meaning.

So if you come from an athletic world where your father played college football, your brother played baseball in the minors, and your sister has a shot at making the Olympic Swim Team in 2012, you’re probably going to define success in win-and-lose terms. You might even feel pressure to perform well athletically yourself.

Success in your world might mean a starting position in a professional basketball team or a coaching position at a Pac 10 school. If you, the tall budding athlete, lead your college team but never make it to the bigs, by your family’s standards, you’ve failed.

If you end up coaching high school, your family might also think you’ve failed. Or even if you end up coaching a Big Sky team, your family might think you’ve failed.

Think of it: the pinnacle of success for so many people might be, because of the culture/world/family you came from, a failure.

This works in reverse as well.

Thanks to the handy dandy dictionaries I combed through last week, we now know that success includes fame, wealth, status, and power. If you’re missing any of those, by real world dictionary standards, you’re not a success.

We can all accept that. We know how harsh the real world can be.

But what about the flip side?

What if you have fame, wealth, status, and power, but it comes from the catering business you started in the off-season when you weren’t playing ball? The catering business grew enough so that people wanted your recipes. You wrote a cookbook, got on a local talk show and demonstrated your cooking, and then the cookbook started to sell. Or you opened a restaurant that quickly became a franchise. That franchise made you famous, wealthy, and powerful—in the world of cooking.

Basketball has never heard of you. When people talk about your athletic family, they mention your sister first because she’s almost to the bigs in swimming, your brother second because he has a shot at the majors if he plays lights-out minor league baseball, and your father who had a legendary college football career. If you get mentioned at all, it’s in one line: their sibling is well-known chef So N So. Mostly, though, you won’t get mentioned.

I noticed this phenomenon last summer when Eunice Kennedy Shriver died. For those of you who don’t know, Eunice Kennedy Shriver was the younger sister of President John F. Kennedy. Her grandfather Fitzgerald (Honey Fitz) was the legendary mayor of Boston. Her father was Ambassador to England in the late 1930s. Her brother John became President of the United States, her brother Robert was Attorney General of the United States and then became the senator from New York, and her younger brother Ted became one of the most powerful members of the United States Senate (ever). Her husband, Sargent Shriver, headed and ran the Peace Corps. Her daughter, Maria Shriver, was a well-known journalist who married movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who went on to become the Governor of California.

You probably heard some, if not all of that, when Eunice Kennedy Shriver died. A woman defined by her more famous family. Mentioned in passing was the fact that she started the Special Olympics. The Special Olympics, played year in and year out by 3 million differently abled people, was such a revolution in its day that it proved that people with disabilities weren’t disabled, they were, in fact, more able than the rest of us—in courage, in strength, and in stick-to-itiveness.

Not only did the Special Olympics change the way that differently abled children and adults saw themselves, it changed the way that the world saw them as well. And it directly led to changes from better care for institutionalized patients to things such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and other anti-discrimination lawsuits.

Only one of the major network news anchors pointed out that, in terms of lives touched by the Kennedy family, the person who touched the most lives (and in the best possible way, by improving those lives) was Eunice Kennedy Shriver, someone who held no public office at all. She wasn’t president or senator or governor or mayor. She was a woman who got angry at her father for the way he had treated her sister Rosemary who was considered, at the time “retarded,” a word we don’t use any longer, thanks to Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Rosemary had a frontal lobotomy to “control” her behavior and went from a functional human being with a future to someone who could not function and had to be institutionalized for the rest of her long life.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver couldn’t change what happened to her sister, but she could change what happened to other people just like Rosemary. And she did.

Most obituaries mentioned this in passing. Mostly they noted her death as another death in JFK’s generation of Kennedys.

The obituaries also slighted her children. The only one who got mentioned much was Maria Shriver, who has continued her mother’s work in many areas, and has done much as First Lady of California to work with all kinds of charities. But Maria Shriver is not the most impressive one of her siblings. Every one of Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s children work in public service in one way or another. Bobby Shriver has co-founded three organizations to “help eliminate the financial and health emergencies threatening the people of Africa.” Timothy Shriver now heads the Special Olympics. Mark Shriver is the vice president and managing director of Save The Children USA. And Anthony Shriver founded and chairs Best Buddies International which “fosters one-to-one relationships between people with and without intellectual disabilities.”

It seems to me—from my perspective and attitude toward success—that the Shriver family is infinitely more successful than any other branch of the Kennedy family. Eunice and Sargent Shriver helped millions of people by, for example, guaranteeing good treatment for the differently abled, educating the poor in the Third World, and feeding hungry children here at home. What a legacy of service.

And in our fame/wealth/status/power-obsessed American culture, what did our fame/wealth/status/power-obsessed media focus on? Son-in-law, movie star governator Arnold Schwarzenegger, famous daughter former journalist Maria, the brothers—president, senator, and senator, and of course, their famous and manipulative father who made the Kennedy family—all of them—into multimillionaires during the Great Depression.

I found the focus on what the other members of her generation did, rather than on Eunice herself and the amazing children she and Sargeant Shriver raised, disheartening at best.

But it is a prime example of the way the world—the world I see, the American culture and media—the way that world defines success.

You all live in different worlds. The Freelancer’s Guide has had support from people all over the world, from Norway and Germany and England and Canada. And you all are somewhat familiar with the American culture (how can you not be? We export it obnoxiously—I couldn’t get away from CNN or David Letterman the last time I was in Europe), but you all live in your own cultures as well. With different definitions of success.

Even within the United States, the definitions of success differ. I grew up in a middle class professor’s family. Success in my nuclear family was about academics. We were expected to get a bachelors degree, the way that most families expect their kids to finish high school. We weren’t successful until we got our PhDs.

I don’t have one. In fact, I am the only one of my siblings who doesn’t even have at least some credits toward a masters degree. One of my sisters never got her masters, and she is the wealthiest of all of us, through her savvy business choices over the years.

But money, past its ability to sustain a middle class life, had no value in my immediate family. My parents weren’t even envious of their wealthier friends, so far as I could tell. We didn’t discuss money much.

We discussed education all the time.

When I gave up my full scholarship to get married, the only thing that saved me from my father’s wrath was the fact that I left my “little Ivy” school and went to his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I think he figured I’d go on from there and get my advanced degrees. I thought about it, and decided against it. As I said at the time, I’d spent 22 years in college. I needed a break.

By the academic standards of my family in the world I grew up in, I am not a success. Yet by the other standards of my family, a family of readers, I am an amazing success. My brother has published books. So has my brother-in-law (in fact, in his field—history—he’s a much more successful writer than I am). But I’m the only one who has published fiction. And I know of at least four close family members who also wanted to publish fiction and have not yet done so (my father, who was one of them, can’t since he died in 1990).

I am currently reading the biography of Ted Kennedy, The Last Lion, and have thought, repeatedly, of the pressure of growing up in that family. The oldest son Joe Jr. was expected—expected—to become President of the United States. Not to try. But to succeed at it. When he died in World War 2, that expectation fell to Jack Kennedy. When he was assassinated, it fell to Bobby. And when he was assassinated, it fell to Ted.

Imagine that: Ted Kennedy’s success in the Senate (whether you like his political points of view or not) would not have impressed his father, had he lived to see them. Ted never achieved the presidency, so Ted was not successful by his father’s definition. Ouch.

But by the definition in all of my dictionaries, Ted Kennedy was a success. He was wealthy, powerful, famous, and he had a lot of status. I have no idea—and will never know—if he considered himself a success.

Are you beginning to see how tricky success can be?

As I’ve discussed this first point—the world—I’ve slid between the culture, the environment around you, and your family.

I mention your family because, as a child, your family is the world. In fact, growing up is a continual process of expanding your world. First it grows to include your family, then your school, then your community, then other communities, and so on. Some people never understand the worldviews of others; some live in them.

Only you know what your world/environment/culture is. Strive to understand it, and the expectations it has put upon you from your earliest years. That world, that culture, gave you your earliest definitions of success. Maybe you have achieved those. Maybe, as our fictional tall businessperson example shows, you never will.

2. Other people’s definitions of success.

For the sake of this section, other people are the people you encounter throughout your daily life. Friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances and, if you’re at all well known in your field, people you’ve never met.

These people all have opinions about you and everything you have achieved. These people also have their own definitions of success.

For example, the day I told my writing workshop that I had just been hired as the new editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, the man standing next to me moved away from me. Literally. He was a writer, a longtime friend and colleague, and my status change—a success, as far as he was concerned—altered our relationship forever. Suddenly I was “above” him and closeness became impossible.

Other people judge success using different criteria. Let’s go back to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver example. The news coverage of her death says more about the people covering her death than it does about her. Her true success, helping millions of people, mattered less to them than her personal wealth, her famous daughter and son-in-law, and her powerful relatives. How sad.

There are three really tough aspects to other people’s definitions of success. First, you won’t know what their definitions are until they tell you. Second, once you have achieved their definition of success, they believe you will remain a success. And, finally, they will have a reaction to that success.

Some will become jealous. They’ll do everything they can to tear you down. Sometimes they’ll go from being good friends to reacting out of jealousy. It’s destructive and scary and there’s nothing you can do about it—except to walk away from that toxic person. I have a lot of stories about this from my first novel sale through my editing days and beyond. All of those stories are painful to me, so painful that I rarely discuss them, and then only with trusted friends. I can’t even write about them in general terms because I get too angry at the treatment I received from someone I once trusted.

Some people will be in awe of what you’ve done. Others will believe that you have been touched by good fortune or God or had some kind of lucky break when, really, you had the kind of lucky break that comes from extremely hard work.

A few people will ask you for your secret, and when you tell them that the secret is hard work, they won’t believe you.

And many, many people, particularly those inside your field, will want to become your friend because of your success. You hear about this all the time with lottery winners—how relatives and “close” friends come out of the woodwork the day after the win. But it happens in business as well.

When I became editor of F&SF, dozens of people assumed they were on a first name basis with me. One writer, who shall remain nameless, put his arm around me at the next convention I went to and introduced me as his friend Kathy to everyone he saw. My close friends call me Kris, not Kathy. People who really knew me found that moment exceedingly funny. I was astonishingly uncomfortable—and remained wary of my new “friends” from the beginning.

Most of those friends vanished when I retired from editing seven years later. They ran after Gordon Van Gelder, the new editor of F&SF, and I was happy to see them go.

But…I’ve seen a lot of people achieve success and become happy with their new-found popularity, not realizing that the “friends” aren’t friends at all, but opportunists. Those opportunists leave when the successful person’s status declines or some new hot young thing shows up.

Most people, however, don’t pay much attention to your success. It doesn’t have much to do with them, so they have little or no opinion about it. They also think that success is a static condition. They believe that once you have become a success, you will remain a success.

And that isn’t always true. Just look at what happened to hundreds of thousands of wealthy successful people in this economic meltdown.

They lost everything. There are stories all over the press about families who drive to the food bank in an Lexus SUV, people who earned $500,000 per year, saved none of it, and now can’t find work and can’t sustain their lifestyle.

The sad thing about this, I think, is not just the situation, but the lack of sympathy these people receive. Others say these newly impoverished people “deserve” to be brought down to size. They “deserve” to suffer like everyone else. They “deserve” what happened to them.

Unless they were greedy and helped cause the meltdown, they don’t deserve it at all. They might have made some bad decisions, but they don’t deserve the lack of sympathy coming their way.

The Germans have a word for this. It’s “schadenfreude” which means pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. And as much as we love success in America, success as defined by our dictionaries, we often love the comeuppance more.

I think that’s quite sad, and again, it reflects more on the person who revels in the pain of someone who has lost the success. But tell that to the person who can’t get food at the food bank because she “clearly doesn’t need it” since she’s driving an expensive car (that she might no longer be able to fill with gas).

We intellectually know that the successful fall, and we enjoy that downfall, but if their downfall isn’t public—or if they don’t have a downfall—then we assume that their success never changes. We assume that famous people remain famous. But they don’t.

Anyone reading this ever hear of Beverly Garland, Julie Newmar, or Sheree North? All were major television actresses in the 1960s, all were famous and successful (although not superstar successful). Garland and North were also movie starlets in the 1950s. In 1970, had you said any of their names, most people would have known who they are. Now, only film/tv geeks and some of us with a memory for names remember them at all.

They’re still successes if you look at what they achieved. But in terms of fame, that success has faded.

Which it usually does. Edward Bulwer-Lytton was the most famous writer of his day. He had a style that suited Victorian era. Victorians loved his books.

Now we use the poor man’s name for a contest to find the year’s worst sentence. Because his prose style went out of fashion nearly a hundred years ago. People still read Dickens. They still read Mark Twain. They don’t read Bulwer-Lytton.

Fame, success, power are not static things. Fortunes rise and fall with taste and memory. Over time, wealth, the only real measurable sign of success, becomes “inherited” wealth.

These are public examples. There are many private examples—people in your community, former mayors or local celebrities now out of the public eye, maybe even the guy with the mansion who used to live on the biggest hill in town. Is he still a success? Or has the bank foreclosed on that house in the past year?

But in this subheading, I’ve been discussing people’s reaction to a clear success as they define it.

There’s a flip side to this, which I mentioned in the previous part of this post. Sometimes you can be extremely successful and your friends and family won’t recognize that success.

Dean’s family are very practical people. Readers, yes, but not involved in academia or publishing or any form of the entertainment industry except as consumers. For years, after Dean had achieved international success as a writer and publisher, his family kept asking him when he would get a “real” job.

I’ve seen that sort of thing happen many times. Sometimes, something that is so important to you means nothing to everyone around you. Explaining the success doesn’t make it understandable. Often, all you’re doing is making the people around you uncomfortable.

Personal achievements are just that—they’re personal. They’re unique to you.

Which gets us to our last subheading.

But since this post is getting long, I’ll save that subheading for next week.

“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Success Part Two” copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
You can now order either an e-book copy of the Guide or a trade paper copy of the Guide. It’s in slightly different format and has been organized, so that related topics are in an easily accessible place.

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5 thoughts on “Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Success Part Two

  1. For those who love Kennedy books, check out “The Last Brother” by Joe McGinniss. It’s a profile of Teddy with a lot of background on the whole family.

  2. I’ve got two examples of the subjectiveness of “success” that I always think of. 1) My husband became a state Assemblyman some years back and everyone suddenly loved him. He was a nobody, came out of nowhere and beat someone who’d been in office for nearly 2 decades. Of course that was the year our state had a major tax meltdown and raised taxes for the first time in 10 years. My husband voted for some of those taxes. He was beat the following term by a man dumb as a box of broken marbles but who knew how to say “No new taxes.” When everyone loved my husband I figured it was because he was finally in a position for people to see what a smart, ethical man he is. I was stunned how fast “friends” disappeared. My husband wasn’t (did I mention he’s smart?).

    The other is Arthur Conan-Doyle who so badly wanted to write “important” historical novels that he killed off Sherlock Holmes, but the public wouldn’t have it.

    I know there are others, but those are the “success” stories that stick close to me.

    For me, “success” is simply no longer needing a definition for success (from outside or in). It is simple contentedness. How to get there? Yeah, I don’t have that figured out yet.

  3. Aw, Kris, ya big tease! Giving me three points and then only discussing two of them . . . 🙂

    I know, I know . . . “cliffhangers.”

    Just a thought experiment – one could apply your discussion of perspective to the Eunice Shriver example in this context: perhaps she did not consider HERSELF a success. She certainly fit your definition (and mine) – but maybe there was something else she really wanted, and did not have . . . you just never know. 🙂

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