On Goals and Success

As you might imagine, the big projects we have going on here at Write Anything have had me thinking a lot about goal-setting and success measurement. It’s been a bit of a struggle for me to set my writing-related goals in a way that feels “right”.

Part of this may very well be the 14+ years I spent working for a rather large company everyone reading this has heard of and either loves or hates (it shall remain nameless so that I do not appear bitter at being laid off via cellphone). At this company, I had to take yearly training about S.M.A.R.T goal setting. For those who may not know, this is an acronym for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely.   Each year, we went through the effort of creating our “commitments”, strategically aligning our own priorities with those of our management, our organization and, ultimately, the entire company. This process could take months to complete, with preliminary commitments being defined well before the organization’s goals were announced—only to be adjusted and re-done when the organizational managers decided on the flowery language they wanted to use while creating three to five bullet points that essentially amounted to one thing:

Increase shareholder value.

Seriously, we had training on goal setting and success measurement and on how to put together better, more-flowery language. Some of it was even internet-based training and, well, we all know that anything on the internet must be true.

My point is not to bash my former employer; it is to take away a valuable lesson from one of the worst parts of having been employed there. See, the underlying message, which often got lost in the shuffle of hating every moment of the commitment-setting process was still valid:

Make sure your goals align with how you are going to measure success.

And this is where I am having trouble setting goals as a writer. Essentially, I’m not sure how I want to measure, or even define, “success”. Is it output? Is it sales? Is it comments and reviews? Is it movie-rights negotiations?

We’ve had numerous discussions over the past year here at Write Anything in which we discussed the role of the writer in marketing and selling their works.  This is a reality that we each must face as we continue on our journeys as writers, at least if our goal is publication.  I freely admit that I am really bad at this aspect of the industry and gaining a better handle on it is one thing I’d like to do over the next twelve to fifteen months.  But I wonder:  is success at marketing and self-promotion necessary to define success at writing?

My goals for 2011 were too generic. Basically they boiled down to writing high-quality, well-received pieces (note how this does not meet the SMART goal setting process).  If I focus solely on the writing side of things, 2011 was pretty good: stories in four books (and a fifth accepted for publishing in 2012); a co-writing credit on a full-length stage play; and numerous blog posts about gardening, writing, travel and the wacky things my cats and the neighborhood squirrels do.  It was, despite a low volume of publically-available output, some of the best writing I’ve done in my life. Yet, when I actually look back at 2011 through the haze of steam coming off of my mug of coffee, I feel like it was a failure for me as a writer. It is a feeling I cannot shake and I am allowing it to directly impact the woeful beginning I’m having for 2012.

I’ve spent a lot of time—without a doubt more time than I should have spent—trying to figure out why I feel like this. All I can come up with is the thought that I had unrealistic goals. I planned for more sales of the books, more butts in the seats at the theater and more readers on the blogs than reality saw fit to provide.  Sure, the actors and actresses, as well as hundreds of audience-members, laughed and enjoyed being in or seeing the play.  And sure, books were sold, money was raised for charity and money was transferred onto my Starbucks Gold Card (my version of tequila money). And, if the way people hurry to the other side of the street when they see me or comment about how odd I am are any indication, people did, in fact, read my blog posts.  But despite a lot of effort, we didn’t sell out the theater and we didn’t sell hundreds of books and the squirrels and cats didn’t garner thousands of comments and hits on their respective blog posts.

I firmly believe that a writer has a stake in getting the word out about his or her work and that it cannot fall solely onto publishers, producers and Google searches to do the work. That said, I find it hard to define success on goals which, in many ways, are only partially my own to manage.  If a book or a theater seat doesn’t sell, is it because of less-than-perfect marketing efforts?  Or is it because the price for the book or ticket is too high? Or is it because the market timing for it wasn’t quite right? If there are no comments on a blog post, is it that there’s nothing more to say on the subject? Or is it because no one is interested or no one is visiting?

Or is it simply that the writing wasn’t good enough?

In the end, I feel like I should be able to just let go of all these questions, allowing myself to instead just write, because before any of the other tasks and goals can be successful, words have to appear on the page. After months of struggling with this that’s where I finally am.  But first I think I need to make my goals smarter, to reflect the right priorities.

I can’t (I hope) be the only one who is or has struggled with this.  How do you set your writing goals and evaluate them for success?


Rob Diaz spends his days writing computer software and his nights chauffeuring his children around his hometown of Hamilton, New Jersey. An avid organic gardener, trumpet player and coffee drinker, Rob writes fiction in which coffee, the number thirteen and the natural environment play pivotal roles. You can find more from Rob at Thirteenth Dimension.

4 Responses to “On Goals and Success”

  1. Annie says:

    SMART goals have alot going for them and as you say – are open to interpretation – but its only YOU who is setting them, only you who checks in and holds yourself accountable.. don’t be too hard on yourself. work out what you believe success is – and go with that.. until you get yourself a new definition. You are a writer.. you are allowed to have a little dramatic leeway..

    • Rob Diaz says:

      That’s a nice perspective to put on this. Success is whatever I, as the writer, define it to be. And right now I need to define it as “writing”. Period.

      And so it shall be.

  2. Matt Robb says:

    The question I have upon reading your post is to ask whether you’ve examined why you feel you need to set goals and measure your writing success to begin with?

    Is your plan to change your profession entirely so that writing supports you and your family financially? Do you plan to publish a 100,000 word novel by end of the year? If that’s the case, than setting goals and objectives can be beneficial.

    Does the week-end hobbyist fisherman, for example, set goals and objectives? “I want to go fishing x number of times this year. I want to catch a y pound bass this year, etc.” Probably not. As my HS friend’s father once told us, “You don’t go fishing for the fish. You go fishing for the fishing.”

    • Rob Diaz says:

      You raise very good questions and points, Matt.

      This post was really me venting and blowing off steam about the fact that I *don’t* know what I want to do with this. And it is also me blowing off steam about being frustrated with what I am doing.

      Essentially, do I want to have writing at least partially support me? Yes. Am I there yet? No. How do I get there? I need to be writing. A lot more than I am. How do I make myself write a lot more than I am? I need to set goals… it becomes a self-seeding problem of sorts because, as you aptly pointed out, as a hobbyist (which is clearly what I am right now), I should be writing for the writing, not for anything else.

      Do I, personally, need to have goals to write “for the writing”? At this point in my life, I feel like I do because otherwise I won’t write at all. It is a flaw in me that I should be able to turn into a strength, if I can just get out of my own way.