From the Archive: What is Success?

This post was originally published in June 2012 but is as relevant today as ever. Chip MacGregor, of MacGregor Literary Agency, the author of the post, examines “success” and “significance.”


  Recently, an author wrote with a simple question: “In your view, what is success?”

I have purposefully stayed away from this topic on my blog, figuring a lot of people would give nice, religious answers in the comments section (“Success is just being obedient.” Or “It doesn’t matter if I have success, as long as I’m serving God!”). My problem is that I’ve been in this business for years, and I don’t believe that sort of thing is honest for most writers. We were all born with a desire for power, attention, and success. This is a business filled with egos. To most writers, “success” is defined simply by “book sales.” You sell a lot of books, you’re a success. You don’t, you’re a failure. Even for people writing in the Christian market. No, that’s not the BEST thing for a writer to focus on, but I have to be honest and say that “sales” tends to outweigh “obedience” when we talk about our writing careers.

So… how do I define success as a Christian writer?

Years ago, I used to teach a workshop on creating a plan for your life. (Remember, I’m the guy who went through a doctoral program in organizational development.) In that workshop, I used to tell people that “success is the feeling you get when you reach your goals.” I still stand by that definition. (And that wording is not original to me – it’s a bit of wisdom from management guru Bobb Biehl.) If you set a goal of getting one book contract this year, when you actually sign the deal, that wonderful feeling you have is the feeling of success.

That, of course, is why some people never feel successful, even if they’ve sold a boatload of books.

If an author feels she deserves a $50,000 contract, but is only offered a $30,000 advance, she has a feeling of failure. That might seem crazy to you if you’re sitting out there waiting for somebody, ANYBODY to offer you a couple thousand bucks for your unpublished novel. But that’s my point… success is more than anything else a “feeling” — an internal take on our external work.

If you teach a writing seminar and everybody pats you on the back and tells you you’re the second coming of John Grisham, you feel successful… until you read the participant comments, and discover a couple people thought you wandered a lot, and some others didn’t appreciate your sense of humor, and at least one thought your tie was ugly.

Suddenly you feel like a failure. (And it’s amazing how ONE BAD COMMENT can take away our feeling of success.) And that’s what makes “success” such an ethereal concept.

Some days I feel like a successful father, since Patti and I have raised three kids who turned into pretty good adults. (Um…that’s mostly because of Patti, by the way. She did all the hard work. I more or less stood around and tried to look well groomed.) Other days, I feel like a complete failure as a father, since I missed Molly’s lacrosse game and forgot to write Kaitlin another check for ballet shoes. Success, more than anything else, is the feeling I get when I reach my goals.

As a writer, you have goals — to complete a book, to get a contract for a book, to land an agent, to hit the bestseller list, to sell 30,000 copies, to make $40,000 per year through your writing — whatever. If you reach those goals, you feel successful. If you don’t reach those goals, you feel like you’re not really all that successful.

Is that shallow? Of course it is! Who wants to live his or her life solely on the feelings of the moment? I don’t. I want my kids to know I love them, whether I’m feeling like a successful dad or not. I want my relationship with God to be permanent, whether I’m currently feeling like a nice Christian boy or not (um… and often it’s “not”). Success as a feeling is awfully fleeting — as soon as your one successful book starts to wane, you have to go do another one to regain the feeling of being “a successful author.” So that’s why I remind myself that there is something more important than “success” in my life — there is the concept of “significance.”

Again, going back twenty years ago to the workshop I used to teach, I always encouraged people to consider “significance” over “success.” Significant people are those who made a difference in our world, whether they attained success or not. In fact, I defined “significance” as “making a difference in the lives of people over time.” And I still encourage people to make a commitment to be significant. Why? Because I think true meaning in life is not found just in achieving the feeling of success, but in living with the knowledge that we made a difference in the lives of others.

Maybe that’s why “service” is so important to living a good life. None of the saints ever achieved greatness by exalting themselves — instead, it was usually earned by giving themselves up for others. I still think one of the most overlooked messages in modern Christianity is the notion that true joy is found in giving, not in getting.

Look, some of the best writers and artists of all time have not achieved success. Van Gogh felt himself an utter failure. So did Poe. Hawthorne never really felt successful. Their “success” (in terms of book sales) came after their deaths. And some of the best American writers achieved great success, but died unhappy because they couldn’t retain the feeling (and probably because they were so focused on themselves that they never figured out how to be significant in the lives of others). Don’t believe me? Take a look at the lives of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. For that matter, take a look at any of the Lost Generation writers. Successful? Sure. Significant? Um, not for the most part.

But there have also been writers who have led significant lives, investing in the lives of other people. And I’ve found those people are almost always happier than the successful authors. (Case in point: Look at all the recently-successful authors who are suing everybody in sight.)

You know, the guy who stepped in to help me after my dad’s suicide was no success. I was 12, and I needed a mature guy in my life. Jim Peabody pushed a broom in a steel mill and probably never made more than $25,000 a year. He died at age 40 of liver cancer. You’ve never heard his name before — he didn’t write any books or get on television or run for office. He wasn’t a celebrity, or gain any national attention. But Jim is one of the most significant men I ever met. He took a bunch of teenage boys who didn’t have fathers, or who were from rough homes, or who were living in the thriving town of Witch Hazel, Oregon, and showed us all how to be men.

Today I can point to writers, teachers, chemical engineers, US Navy officers, pastors, and solid husbands and fathers who are all at least partially the result of Jim’s work in their lives. I’m proud to be one of them. I’d like to be more like Jim. I wouldn’t be the guy I am if it hadn’t been for him. AND I can point to dozens of other lives that were changed because the guys Jim discipled turned around and discipled others. There have been hundreds of people influenced because of Jim’s life — a more-or-less “unsuccessful” guy who ended up living a significant life. I’ve always thought that was something Jim could take with him. There was no temporary feeling of success or failure, but a firm belief that the world is a different place because of his little ministry in the lives of a bunch of dopey, small-town guys.

You know, I’ve frequently had people ask me, “Why didn’t you make your living as a writer?” The fact is, I did for years. But I was basically a collaborative writer, and that was because of a simple reason: I didn’t really have anything to say. To do a great book, you need to share a great truth, and the fact is, I’ve only had one significant thought my entire life. But, since it relates to today’s topic, I’ll share it here: Judgment happens at the end of time.

I don’t know how you feel about the concept of judgment, and no, it’s not a popular topic. I fear the church has focused a bit too much on judging people, worrying who’s making mistakes rather than how we all should be nice to each other. But if you read what the Bible says about judgment, it makes it clear that God doesn’t hand out rewards the day we die. (I don’t care if you believe the Bible or not — just stay with me for a minute.) Judgment happens at the end of time. Why? Because it won’t be until the end of time that the full influence of a life can be measured. The people Jim Peabody impacted are still making a difference in the world, so the full effect of Jim’s life isn’t done yet.

Therefore God is going to wait until the end of time, when we can all appreciate the influence Jim had on the world, and he can be rewarded appropriately.

Conversely, this is why Hitler hasn’t been judged by God yet. His writings still influence people for evil, and the full extent of that evil won’t be able to be completely evaluated until the end of time, after every life has been lived. Whether you believe in the same sort of theology doesn’t matter to me – we all want to believe in an eternal justice of some kind, so most of us assume something like this is what awaits people. And that’s why significance matters more than success.

As a writer and agent, I want to live a life of significance. I keep seeing “success” as a necessary part of earning a living, but I worry about throwing my life away in trying to achieve it. Maybe this is why Saint Paul encourages all of us to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life,” so that we’ll have a mind focused on significance instead of mere success.


Chip MacGregor is the president and founder of MacGregor Literary, Inc., a literary agency located in Oregon. He has been working in the publishing industry for three decades, and made his living as a freelance writer and editor for several years. Chip is the author of numerous books, including a couple of bestselling nonfiction titles, and formerly served as a publisher with the Time-Warner Book Group.

3 Comments

  1. I’ll probably never become famous or even make much money from my writing, but I’ve learned that two of my articles and one book made a big difference in the lives of readers. And I’ll never know this side of Heaven what influence those people had or will have as a result. I guess that makes me successful by your definition. Thanks!!

    • That’s awesome, Janet! I think it was Chip who shared a story about a book deal that he brokered that wasn’t exactly successful in mainstream markets. That book, however, made its way to the hands of a young actress who was on a flight from New York to LA. As she sat on the plane, she reached in the pocket in front of her and found it. She read the book the entire flight. Apparently, she was contemplating having an abortion but it was that book that changed the course of her thinking. Her child, if I recall, is heading to college. You never know who your work will touch, but God can use us if we are ready, willing and obedient. Significance!

  2. I had the privilege of meeting Chip at a recent Christian writing conference and it’s refreshing to read his work here. I admire him for his truth-speaking, above all, and doing what he can to help aspiring authors like myself. I love that he makes a distinction between success and living a life of significance — the latter is something that lasts for all eternity, and is absolutely something I’ll be aspiring to. Thanks for your words of wisdom, Chip!

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