I have two very different dogs.
Alex (Alexander the Great Pyrenees) is, true to his breed, as laconic a dog as has lived. He pretty much has one setting: giant lapdog. He’s never so happy as when he’s taking it easy and being loved by literally any human being on the planet, and he moves at a single speed: poky. This is vintage Alex:
Gavin is wired a little differently. He loves two people, me and my husband, and he has limited use for anyone else. He can chill out for a period of time, but after a while he needs stimulation: a bone to chew, people to bark at, something to scavenge (and in his case that’s anything—the dog practically has pica). This is typical Gavin:
When we go on walks, Alex hangs behind us, leisurely plodding along and stopping to sniff whatever captures his fancy. Sometimes we wind up pulling him along behind us as if we’re his sled dogs.
With Gavin, on the other hand, we cover about twice as much ground as we’re actually walking, because I turn around and walk the opposite direction whenever he pulls ahead on the leash—which is at least half the time.
Gavin thrives on obedience training—he’s eager to please and to learn new things. Alex will not be dictated to, and sits calmly in passive resistance until we come to our senses and just give him the treat.
We love them both desperately.
Neither dog is “good” or “bad” (although ask us during certain frustrating behaviors and we may offer another answer). They’re just different, and we “parent” them accordingly, Gavin learning lots of commands and getting fast walks and athletic sessions of fetch, while Alex gets plenty of petting and brushing and nice, slow meanders through the neighborhood.
Hopefully most of us would take a similar approach with our pets, our children, our loved ones and friends: Accept them for who they are without judgment, and try to give each of them what lets them thrive as individuals.
So why do we so often do the opposite with ourselves?
Are Your Standards for Your Writing Career Actually Your Own?
I so frequently hear authors flog themselves with the “shoulds”: They aren’t writing as much or as well as they should. After X number of books they should be able to turn in a draft that needs less editing and revision. They should have more books published, or have higher sales, or should have gotten an agent or publishing contract by now.
The problem with “shoulding all over ourselves,” as I once memorably heard it called, is that it unquestioningly accepts a metric for our assessment of our own performance based on some theoretical idea of what is “right” or “normal” or what the industry or other writers or some marketing guru or blog constitutes success as a writer.
It defines our self-perception and our enjoyment of our career by an external barometer against which we’re comparing ourselves.
It’s the equivalent of my deciding that all dogs should be like Toto and imposing that standard on my dogs, who are neither small nor perky nor capable of walking off leash without wandering away (Alex) or going on the hunt for squirrel (Gavin).
We often do it not just in our writing life, but in general—accepting arbitrary outside standards of beauty, our home and family lives, finances, our careers, even sometimes our ideology.
This puts the measure of our life’s enjoyment and our own self-image in other people’s hands—advertisers, social media “friends,” Wall Street, colleagues, politicians.
Taking Back Your Own Definitions of Success
I’ve been working lately on not mindlessly adopting standards for myself that may or may not fit my goals, my preferences, and my priorities. But it’s so easy for those external standards to slip in.
- With my latest book release, for instance, it’s been easy to fall into the trap of measuring my success and worth as an author by the daily rankings, by sales, by reviews, by whether my publisher is happy with the book’s performance.
- After a recent spate of workshops, keynotes, webinars, and interviews, I found myself slipping into hyperproductivity mode, a familiar one for me, based on unexamined subconscious standards for myself that come from a lifetime drive toward perfectionism and overachieving from old childhood messaging—rather than consciously deciding what fits my immediate goals and values.
- Because of all the work commitments that kept me overly busy for the last couple of months, once they were met I let my assumptions of what I “should” be doing as a good wife, good daughter, good friend, good dog mom, etc., push me into more activity and social engagements than I was ready for.
All of these goals are important to me—to help my novel reach readers, have the opportunity to share craft knowledge with other authors, spend quality time with the people (and dogs!) I care about.
But I’d unconsciously adopted external standards of “success” in each of them that aren’t necessarily right for me at this moment, and were compromising my enjoyment of them for their own sake.
Just like I don’t try to fit Alex and Gavin into some external definition of what constitutes a “good dog,” I need to respect my own preferences and needs—and what I really need at the moment, I realized, is some downtime and rest.
That means saying no to some things, pushing back some deadlines on personal projects I’m working on, removing a few items from my to-do list…and reassessing what I actually want right now and why.
Every person is different, every book is different, and every author’s writing career follows its own trajectory. The next time you find yourself scrambling toward a brass ring or beating yourself up for falling short, ask yourself whether the standards by which you’re judging yourself are your own—or you’re letting outside forces determine what’s best for you.
How about you, authors–do you unconsciously accept definitions of what “success” looks like for you that may not reflect your true goals with your writing career? Have you defined for yourself what those are? How do you make sure you’re operating according to your own goals, values, and priorities when you slip into external judgments?