Sunday, 15 April 2018

Success - a step-by-step guide

Courtesy of Harper's Bazaar

A roomful of losers

Successful people are the ones on the red carpets, right? They are attending premieres or being nominated for glittering prizes. We see them dressed in designer clothes they haven’t paid for, looking more glamorous and more successful than we will ever be.

A while ago I heard from someone who came on stage late in an Academy Awards ceremony to announce one of the final Oscars. ‘At this point in the evening,’ he said, ‘you’re looking out at a room that is mainly full of losers.’

Wait – losers? Those were our successful people! Is success so elusive that you can epitomise it one minute, and the next it slips away to celebrate at a party to which you’re not invited?

Courtesy of IndieWire

Are you a success?

Your answer will depend on the field in which you operate, and on your dreams and aspirations.

Writers are dreamers: we all dream of success. When we’re struggling, everyone says not to despair, because J K Rowling had her work rejected to start with and now she’s on all the rich lists and is still writing great fiction.

At the London Book Fair last week, Millwood Hargrave’s book Vardo ‘was the subject of a battle between 13 publishers.’ It eventually went to Picador for a ‘significant six-figure sum’ (The Guardian).

Are Rowlings and Hargrave the writers I should be emulating? If so, I am falling short. For me, the rejection didn’t stop – it continued. I ended up self-publishing, just to get Unspeakable Things off my desk and into people’s hands (or Kindles).

Wherever you are in life, there will be someone who is doing better than you. Someone in your industry or workplace or classroom, or at the school gate who is your idea of success. You admire them, but with a nasty envious afterburn. They put you in the shade and that’s a dark, cold place. They might be a real person or a celebrity. They have made it and you haven’t. You’ll have to work harder, or all your efforts will end in failure.

We need to rethink our concept of success

When Unspeakable Things came out, I was filled with relief. I had wanted to write all my life – and my lack of success was eating away at me, as if my life’s purpose had derailed and was going nowhere. Now I had succeeded – or had I?

Once your book is out, everyone asks how it is selling. For a while, my sales ticked up in ones and twos. I would get excited about a spike in my KDP sales graphs, until I realised the scale: oh, that was only two books. When people asked, I fudged the issue – with ease, because I didn’t often look at the reports.

One day it hit me: I was in danger of not enjoying my publishing experience for what it was, because I was worrying about what it wasn’t. No, I was not selling millions. Or thousands. But I was into triple figures! And it seemed that everyone I knew was reading the book, and many were saying they couldn’t put it down. Five-star reviews were coming in and I was going to book groups and talking about Unspeakable Things with people who had entered the world I had created. Articles came out in the local press and friends and family were excited for me.

Couldn't give it away...

Over Easter I scheduled a 5-day Kindle free offer on Amazon. I didn’t look at the sales reports for days, fearing I was about to find out that I literally ‘couldn’t give it away’. When I looked, I saw a spike in the graph – it looked big – perhaps a dozen books? But no – it was 761! Soon sales soared to over a thousand.

Now, this may not be your idea of success – I make no royalties from the free purchases. But do you know, I feel much better for it. Having adjusted my attitude to enjoy the success I had achieved, instead of grieving for heights not scaled, I allowed myself to be very happy.

There's always someone even better

If you struggle with a sense of failure, could you stop and celebrate your achievements? There’s always more we could aspire to, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if the only success that will satisfy us is something very few people achieve, we are on a hiding to nothing.

If any achievement is followed by the sense that real success is what that even better person has, we are doomed to think we’re failures. And then we will miss out on all the joy we could be feeling about what we have actually done.

The happiest person at the Oscars

So here’s my step-by-step guide to success. The first step is to work out what you want to achieve in life and focus on it. The next is work and more work and setbacks and learning and never giving up.  

But the most important step is to realise this: the success you dream of is probably an impossible dream. Not because you’re not good enough, but because even if you won all the prizes you want to win, you probably wouldn’t feel the way you want to feel.

Those who have the success you aspire to probably have another dream they’ll never achieve. If those people at the Oscars ceremony felt that way, then they really were a roomful of losers. The happiest person in that sparkling room was someone who was happy with their actual achievements. It is as likely to have been one of the waiters as one of the film stars. It bet it was.

Courtesy of Bon Vivant

Am I a success?

Most writers are not J K Rowling. Most make nothing much, or even lose money. After I changed my view of success, a startling realisation hit me. I have wanted to be a writer since I was five. Now I am a writer. I have published a novel and over a thousand people are potentially reading it. I make much of my freelance money from writing. I am really enjoying writing my next novel, The Year of the Ghost. I’m editing more and more fiction and loving working with other writers.

I could put ‘writer’ on my passport, and it would be true.

No one is battling to give me a six-figure deal. My sales are cheering, but not financially so. I won’t be appearing on any red carpets or peering down any paparazzi lenses.

But I am what I have always wanted to be. And I choose to call that success.


  1. Brilliant. I knew at TWGGS that you'd be a writer (always thought it'd be poetry - don't know why). It makes me so happy to see how your hard work has paid off. Congratulations x

    1. How lovely of you to say so. I did take my time but I think I'm there now. You have come up as Unknown - who are you?