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Being a Success, Without Being a Bestseller

How do you measure the success of your writing career? Do you dream of accolades, swarms of raving fans, speeches given in your honor, and your name at the top of bestseller lists? Perhaps. As many high school students dream of becoming rock stars or professional sports heroes, dreams such as these fuel our desire to work hard towards our goals.

But today, I want to address what success can look like in your writing career, without becoming a bestseller. That there is value in your contribution to the world, even if at a smaller scale.



A scene from Chariots of FireWe often strive for greatness as a primary motivation to move past barriers. That, if we aim too low, then we already limit our own capabilities. One of my all time favorite movies, Chariots of Fire deals with the topic of motivation in describing greatness. It tells the story of two men, reaching for greatness in the 1924 Olympics in track. One is motivated by “overcoming prejudice,” as Wikipedia calls it; the other, by celebrating his faith. Both have astounding capabilities on the track and are complex and admirable men. But when each achieve their goal, only one seems to find solace – the man whose motivation was that of celebration.

The lesson I take away here is about core motivation of how we each achieve our own personal greatness. Are you fighting to prove something to others, or are you celebrating your own capabilities and your potential effect in the world? There is no right answer here.

Many are competitive, in that they find a focus and motivation in outselling others. But I do feel there can be a hollowness in valuing ONLY that type of success. It is not a hollowness of a bestseller list itself, but in considering WHY your goals are set where they are, and the means by which you measure and value your own achievements.

Is your motivation to truly affect the lives of others? To move our culture forward? To achieve greatness in your own terms, pushing yourself to places you have only dreamed?

Or, is it to be a name on the top of a list? Quick: name the bestselling author  in 1972.

Quick: tell me about the writer who has shaped your life in a profound manner, someone who you are eternally grateful for.

Is there a difference in those two names? It is not that both aren’t great books, written by great authors. But the measures for success may be different because of how one author shaped your life, not whose sales numbers topped a list.

How to define greatness

A scene from Chariots of Fire

If you are a kid playing basketball, you dream to achieve the level of greatness of Michael Jordan. But the question I have is: as that child grows into an adult, builds solid skills and measures of success, but DOES NOT reach the level of Michael Jordan, is he or she a failure?

How do you cope with this when Michael Jordan is not just the top 1%, he is an anomaly in the universe? Every field has their Jordan somewhere in it’s history books. The outlier whose abilities are so unmatched that it is hard to consider them human.

What if this child “merely” becomes a good team player, assisting in scores that propel his team to victory, winning some awards in mid-level leagues. What if he “merely” makes his hometown proud, wins the affection of his sweetheart and admiration of his friends, and perhaps garnering a few nice mentions in the regional newspapers? Failure?

As a writer, what if you “only” create a body of work that is meaningful to several hundred people? What if you hold a book signing, and “only” 4 raving fans come up for autographs and to chat you up about the intricacies of the world you have created, and the characters that feel like friends to these people? Failure?

I have been obsessing about Bruce Springsteen’s 1978 album “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” fueled by the incredible 3 cd and 3 dvd box set.

The story of creating the album is powerful in and of itself. Facing a legal battle with his manager, Bruce couldn’t record a new album. So he holed up in a house with his band, and wrote 70+ songs. Once the legal battle ended, he went into the studio and made some seemingly bizarre choices. His previous album, Born to Run was his biggest success, and featured a big sound of songs such as “Thunder Road,” the title track, and others. But for Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce recorded many songs that were uplifting songs that would surely have been hits. And he threw them in the trash.

Instead, he released an album of understated songs that adhered to a theme: coping with the limits of adulthood. Of what happens when adolescent dreams of greatness and freedom turn to the challenges of adult relationships, work, and living within boundaries. The “darkness on the edge of town” is the feeling of something keeping you in. Of the horizon not being an open road that promises new dreams to come true. That we are not all immortal and destined for greatness as we all may have believed in high school.

The album is ultimately hopeful, finding empowerment in facing these limitations. About redefining what it means to be a person living by principles in a world that is full of limits and challenges. It is an adult view of the world that does not rely on vague promises of success. The photos of Bruce on the album cover and within the sleeve were meant to portray the character in the songs.

How do you define greatness as you juggle the other obligations in your life? Is your writing career merely a lottery ticket, meant to solve your problems by propelling you to the top of the charts? Or, is it a passion that you balance with the many other obligations of family, work, finance, time, and mundane tasks such as laundry and mowing the lawn.

Is it something you are making a bet on, or something that represents who you are, regardless of your name appearing on a bestseller list?


Measuring success

How you measure success will define the type of writing career you have. While we all dream of being bestsellers, of having the world validate our work on a grand scale, the fact of the matter is: many of us will not be number 1 New York Times bestsellers.

But that doesn’t mean we won’t be great.

Sometimes, it’s not about being a bestseller – it’s about being a writer, putting your work out there, and affecting peoples lives. Of creating meaning for others, one person at a time. Of building a legacy for your work that extends beyond your own lifetime.

That you work to improve your craft, and live a life filled with the people and experiences that matter to you as a writer. That this is about the process – the journey – not the name on the top of a list.

In the end, your goals are your own. How you find motivation, define greatness, and measure success are deeply personal decisions.

If I can help you in your journey, just let me know.


  • Your post made my day. Thanks, Dan. On the Springsteen note, I found great inspiration and comfort in the Devils and Dust album.

    • Thank you so much Dave! I was lucky enough to get tickets to a few of Bruce’s upcoming shows, every excited about them!

  • Good stuff, Dan. I’m putting together an audio set on this very topic, so it’s very front of mind right now.

    I recently spoke at a conference of executives about success & significance. I got a little carried away & literally said – to Fortune 1,000 executives – “Five years after you retire, no one at the office will remember your name.” Someone tweeted about it while I was onstage, with the hashtag “crickets.” Ouch.

    But here’s the thing: On the breaks, people approached me to say, “You’re exactly right. It’s ridiculous what we sacrifice for hollow, temporal success.” I’ve tried to process this, fearing the message could degenerate into a cynical, “If you’re not MLK or Mother Teresa, your life is a waste.”

    But the question becomes: “How do you ensure someone will remember you 5 years after you’re gone?” The answer lies in relationships, I think. In this context, it’s the relationships with readers; those who are affected by your writing – whether it’s entertainment or enlightenment.

    There are a couple of writers who have profoundly influenced my life, and I used to be a little shocked that I was the only person who had heard of them. I now refer to them as “the most famous people you’ve never heard of.” They put their message out there and those of us who were supposed to find, found it. We then passed it on to others, and so on. They’re notable in their niche, but they’re not likely to be Patterson or King.

    It’s a quiet process, like the teacher quietly influencing students. As you said, “it’s about being a writer, putting your work out there, and affecting
    peoples lives. Of creating meaning for others, one person at a time. Of
    building a legacy for your work that extends beyond your own lifetime.”

    Thanks for your perspective on this. Always enjoy reading your posts.

    • Brian,
      Wow – thank you so much for all this insight! I agree, its a real challenge, especially in a culture that shoves visions of “success” in front of you via media channels 24/7. 

      It is a common refrain when you poll the elderly, that their top regret is working so much. Your point about legacy at work is a VERY good one. I think those crickets were not a sign of disapproval, but of the audience being confronted with something they have neglected addressing.

      Yes – relationships are key. That was part of the message of Mr. Holland’s Opus – a movie that talked about our influence on others in ways we don’t expect.
      VERY much appreciated.

  • Amazing post, Dan! This blew my mind because I was discussing it with my husband just yesterday – that to me, success means leaving a legacy and making a difference in the lives of a small number of people who truly appreciate my contributions.

  • Cynthia Morris

    I love this, Dan. As always, you provide a thoughtful perspective in a sea of hype. 

    My only problem is that picture of Bruce is seriously hot. He has to be one of the sexiest men alive, both back then and now.  I’m distracted! 

    Okay, back to work. 😉

    • Well, as long as you got something out of the post! 🙂
      Thanks Cynthia.

  • Anonymous

    This is a powerful post, Dan about keeping everything in perspective. I always appreciate how you take a universal topic such as how we each define success and make so much sense out of it in a thought-provoking and inspiratonal way. Thank you!

  • I’ve always been grateful for the legacy left to me by my parents–encouragement, self-confidence and the security that comes from unconditional love. I’m also grateful for what they didn’t leave me–emotional baggage. The footprint we leave encompasses more than just carbon. Everything we say and do, matters. And whether it’s the written or spoken word, what we do or what we think, we need keep that in mind.
    BTW, thanks for being the inspiration for my next blog. 

  • Carra Copelin

    Dan, thanks for sending me the link today. This is quite possibly the best post I’ve read this week! I know I’ll never be on the best seller list and I also know that it just isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things. Hearing this affirmed by someone else is uplifting. If I (or any one of us) can please even a small number of people with our words, it’s all worthwhile.

    • Pat

      Thanks for the shot in the arm! With the tie-in to MJ and basketball, this post spoke to my heart.
      What a positive, empowering way to see oneself making an imprint and a great reminder that whether it is through sport, music, writing, whatever the medium, we are all valuable artists in our own universe.

      • Hi Pat! Ah, I should have known the basketball reference would get you. 🙂
        Thanks so much for the thoughts here – very well said.

    • Thank you Carra!

  • Paula Wagner

    Hi Dan,Thanks for a great article on the motivation to write as well as the definition of success. I was especially moved by your questions about writing being the “passion that you balance with the many other obligations of family, work, finance, time, and mundane tasks such as laundry and mowing the lawn vs.  “something you are making a bet on, or something that represents who you are, regardless of your name appearing on a bestseller list.”  The instantaneity of SM (and the pressure to keep up with it) is dizzying – the polar opposite of the reflective time most humans need to process information into knowledge and wisdom. Sort of like fast food for the mind vs. slow food for the soul.  Paula

    • Paula – GREAT point. “reflective time.” Need to consider that more. Thanks!

  • Thank you for this post, Dan. I found it encouraging and reposted it on my blog: daniemariesmusings.blogspot.com

  • Joan P. Lane

    Have to confess I’m driven to write only by the desire to write, or maybe it would be more accurate to say driven by the desire of something within me (a thought, an idea, an emotion) to be expressed in words. If I were to have any other goal, it would be to win a Pulitzer Prize for my work. Why? I suppose because the Pulitzer represents a standard of excellence, though knowing a book won a Pulitzer Prize has never been a motivation to read it.

    • Joan,
      Interesting reflection on the duality of something like an award – that it has its uses, but is not some kind of magic bullet. Thanks!

  • Dan, I heard about this post from Lisa at Woman Wielding Words, and I am so glad I got a chance to read it. I fall into the “Why doesn’t everyone LOVE me?” hole sometimes and this is a refreshing reminder that the publicity and praise isn’t the whole point! Thanks, Tori

  • Kbrosky

    Thanks, Dan. This is just what I needed at this time, I cannot even begin to tell you. It’s amazing how we let outside people’s views of what they think an author “should be” define us at times. You really put things into perpective. I am most grateful.

    Kerriann Brosky

  • Hey Dan, what an enjoyable post, thanks! We all have a sphere of influence as writers and if we open to that, then we allow our writing to be so much more fulfilling and we give up the struggle to achieve something that wasn’t ours to achieve. We all need to be reminded of this, thank you!