Professional Versus Personal Success


Up at 5:30 this morning. I opened my office window and deliciously cold air hit my skin. I am wearing a sweater for the first time in months. I don’t necessarily need it but I relish the sensation of wearing one. Fools me into thinking there’s no way it’s going to be in the high eighties yet again when, in fact, it’s supposed to hit 90.

Tuesday was a marvelous day. Then yesterday I tanked into depression. It appears to be a law of my personal universe that every good day I have must be immediately followed by a bad one. I wasn’t actually depressed in a malaise-y kind of way. I was specifically depressed about my lack of professional success throughout my life. I’m 44 years old and the best career job I ever had was as a design assistant/swatcher getting paid $10 an hour 18 years ago.

I shared these feelings out loud and for once it actually made it worse.

I say I’m depressed because I’ve never succeeded professionally.

And everyone says at least I’m good at gardening.

I realized too late that you can’t put something like that out there and expect not to be patted on the head. There is literally nothing anyone can say to the real cause of my depression so the only thing anyone can do is observe what I actually have going for me which is all the stuff I know how to do well that I can’t make a living doing.

It’s nice to be depressed for an actual REASON for once. So there’s that. Us people with chronic depression spend a lot of time being low for no apparent reason or for ALL THE REASONS OF ALL TIME ALL AT ONCE.

I have only ever had two professional ambitions in life and have succeeded at neither. I wanted to be a fashion designer and a writer. It’s not that I just wanted to spend all my time doing these things, because I’ve spent a lot of my life doing these two things intensively, but I wanted to making a living doing them.

I have long since given up on fashion design. I still love designing clothes but the desire to do it professionally is gone. The last of that ambition died with the failure of Dustpan Alley to pay any bills.

Over the years every time I bring up my ambition to write for a living or cry over writing gigs I didn’t land (all of them) and book proposals denied (just the one) and manuscripts rejected by agents and blogs that never took off enough to create revenue with ads – people always say things like “But you would write anyway, wouldn’t you, even if you couldn’t make a living at it?” and I find this annoying and also curious. Try it with some other professional ambitions.

Someone wants to own their own coffee shop some day.

“But you’d still make coffee even if you couldn’t get your own shop, wouldn’t you?”

Someone wants to be a teacher.

“But even if you can’t land a teaching job, you’d be fulfilled teaching your own kids, right?”

Someone wants to be a banker- oh, never mind.

People imply that I shouldn’t judge my success on my professional ambitions. Like it’s weird for me to consider myself unsuccessful because I haven’t ever been able to make a real living doing what I really want to do. They want to define success in non-monetary terms. It’s gentler. It’s kinder. But it also feels patronizing. The only way to gauge professional success is: ARE YOU ABLE TO PAY YOUR BILLS AND KEEP A ROOF OVER YOUR FAMILY’S HEAD DOING THE WORK YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO BE DOING?

The answer for me is NO.

Pointing out that a lot of writers can’t make a living writing is not helpful. It’s true that a lot of writers never quit their day job.

But it’s also true that there are millions of writers who DO making a living writing. Most of those are making a modest living. There are very few that go on to be successful on a large and lush scale.

But my ambition isn’t to become one of those rare top level rich and famous writers. That would obviously be fantastic. Would love it. Would cherish it. Would probably become a coke addict and haunt Vegas and stop writing and become a Hollywood bungalow burnout.

All I want is to make a modest living but one that could support my family if Philip lost his job or couldn’t work any more. I want to make it writing books. That is a professional ambition and not a personal one.

Even when I was writing short stories as a kid I was writing for imagined readers. Writing has never been a hobby for me. It has never been about self gratification. I don’t want to publish books just so I can say I’ve published a book. I want to publish books that people will read and enjoy.

Yes, I will always continue to write whether I make a living at it or not. It’s what I DO. It’s also what I AM. But I don’t write for ME. I write for readers. I am always writing for readers. Writing really dramatic EMOTIONALLY GRIPPING bad poems at 11 years old was for readers. I imagined that people would read them and be moved. I probably hoped I’d make some people weep over the really truly DEEP poems. I don’t understand writing just for my own sake. And that is what has made it a professional ambition from the start.

It may be less gentle and kind to measure my professional success by how much money I have or haven’t made pursuing my profession – but that’s how professional ambitions work.

Personal ambitions are different and I’m really great at achieving personal ambitions such as making my own wound salve, growing food, and making the best fucking tart you’ve ever tasted. I’m really good at doing many things. Except laundry. Fuck laundry!

But I have never wanted anything more than I’ve wanted to be a writer making a living writing books. I didn’t even want to be a fashion designer as much as I wanted to make a living writing books.

I’ll never stop reaching for it. I’ll never stop working at it.

But there are always going to be those occasional low days where I feel like shit because I’m middle aged and have worked so hard and am still not even close.

And that’s okay.


  1. minnie says:

    i don’t have professional success either. i did have a career where i got paid a pretty high salary and i stuck with it for a while imagining that it would feel like success at some point. money (supposedly) == success! right?! it DID feel great to make that money and pay my bills and pay off my student loans and whatnot. but it never actually felt like success. i hated it every day and now when i look back on it is see it as miserable wasted time. i would never council my own child to take a job for the money and i can’t believe i bought in to it for myself. right now I am trying to make a career out of something i love and have aptitude for but have been told over and over again is worthless. its like this endless emotional tug-a-war and i am my own best saboteur at this point. and even though I feel like shit every day about the process I AM DOING IT ANYWAY GOD DAMMIT. so yeah, i feel you… hugs (without actually touching) 🙂

  2. angelina says:

    Minnie – I’m so sorry I haven’t responded to this comment until now! Yeah, I don’t think that making good money itself is success unless making money is the most fulfilling thing to you (as it is to, say, stock brokers, maybe?) In defining success for ourselves individually I think we have to account for what makes us feel most fulfilled. For me, part of that is making some kind of living doing the thing I love most.

    I say you should ignore those people that say what you’re trying to do is worthless! It’s what I keep trying to do. Let’s just keep trudging through the bracken to – oh my god – I can’t believe I was about to say something so hokey and folksy! Never mind. Let’s keep DOING IT ANYWAY just as you say.

  3. Abhilasha says:

    I have those days too, when I hope that my writing could reach to others. But I also firmly believe that I write because I have something inside me that wants to express itself out.
    If the world is not willing to listen to it yet – it doesn’t reduce my value. If world listens to it and still cannot relate to it – it still doesn’t reduce my value.

    External validation is part of our existence, but cannot be 100% if it. For then I am so fragile and vulnerable and at mercy of ‘whims’ of mass opinions made in flicking seconds.

    Our success is what we feel within. So anchor inside please, do not cut yourself short.

    We play the hands we are dealt with. I have come across many people with lots of money – I wouldn’t call them successful, can’t find them respect-worthy and definitely cannot describe them as happy.

    Scrimping for money and roof over your house- yes that is very stressful. Write about it, about the faith that keeps you going, about the source of creativity bubbling inside you that makes you wake up and go through rest of the day.

    I have loved reading your recipes and would have never thought that the person who wrote them had these problems. Hats off to you girl!

  4. angelina says:

    Glad you enjoy the recipes! You must have come over from my food blog Stitch and Boots. I still hold that personal success is not about money for me but failing to make a living doing the things I’ve most wanted to make a living is clearly not a professional success. A profession is something you get paid to do, period. So if I try to make living writing and I can’t survive doing it – I’m not professionally successful. That’s just a verifiable fact. If you have a different way of looking at it for yourself that’s totally cool – we can’t define success for others, only for ourselves. Thanks for both your encouragement and sharing your thoughts!

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