Leveling Up and Measuring Success

Ding! Level! It’s a satisfying noise and a satisfying feeling. You’ve put in the time, now your efforts have been rewarded. Whether it’s a noise, or pretty sparkles on the screen, video games tend to celebrate the achievement of leveling in a tangible way. They’ve also conditioned players to expect that with leveling comes other rewards – more powerful attacks, new skills, better gear, an increased chance of winning the next fight, and so on. It’s hard not to want to apply that same metric to other areas of life, for example writing. You pour your heart into your work, tear yourself open, bleed on the page, bang your head against the wall trying to get that one sentence, one word, one punctuation mark, right. And slowly, ever so slowly, you improve your craft. Ding! Wait, no ding? What’s happening?

Mario Level UpHere’s where things get tricky. That tangible reward system, that outside sense of validation, isn’t always there. It’s hard to write about things like this without it sounding like sour grapes or meaningless platitudes. This post isn’t intended to be either of these things, or to be dismissive of tangible rewards. Consider it a companion post to one I wrote three years ago: Permission to Fail, Permission to Succeed. It’s something I need to remind myself of every now and then, and maybe other people will find it helpful too.

As authors, we all love our craft, right? Otherwise why would we keep banging our heads against that metaphorical wall, agonizing over that one sentence? We’re passionate and most of us would keep writing regardless of reward or recognition, but deep down, wouldn’t it be nice if someone noticed? If a lot of people noticed? If enough people noticed to result in an award? Applying the video game metric, the logical conclusion is that as long as you put in the time, keep grinding and leveling up, an award nomination or even a win will be the end result. Level. Ding! But there are a lot of factors that go into award nominations, and nothing is guaranteed.

Every year, many wonderful, worthy, and amazing works get nominated, but only one can win. Does that make the rest of the ballot any less amazing or worthy? No. Many more works don’t get nominated – they just miss the ballot, or they miss it by miles. Does that make them objectively bad? Not worth your time? No. There are so many works published each year, no one can keep up with all of them. Incredible work gets overlooked and missed all the time. People make hard choices when deciding what to include on their ballots. The works and authors that don’t end up on the list aren’t failures.

Leveling up in writing, unlike video games, is not a strictly linear progression. Some people seem to burst onto the scene with immediate awards success, and from the outside, it looks effortless. We don’t see the years of work behind the “instant” sensation, the days when they too stare at the blank page and the words refuse to come, the days when they doubt anything and everything they’ve ever written, and doubt themselves most of all. Some people work steadily for years, build a career of small victories, then larger ones, and then finally, at last, they earn a coveted space at the top. Ding! Others zig-zag  all over the place and take unconventional routs, and others still put in the time, steadily improve their craft, and that ding never sounds. Sometimes, the cake is a lie.

Does that mean you’re doing something wrong as an author? No. Maybe there is an award further ahead in your future, and when that nomination comes it will be incredible and well-deserved and you will celebrate with glee. But there might not be. Awards aren’t a guaranteed landmark on your journey. If you don’t hit that way point, it doesn’t mean you’re lost. Again, it means the rewards, the way points on your journey, the proof you’ve leveled, aren’t always tangible.

There are other markers along the way, and sometimes it’s hard to see them. You’re running so fast toward that next level, that perceived endpoint, that sometimes the scenery starts to blur. You don’t always see that one person your words touched, or that your work meant the world too. You don’t always notice the improvements in your craft, or how far you’ve come from where you started.

The temptation is there to think if I could just win an award, I will have finally made it. I will be able to leave the self doubt behind. The dirty secret is, it’s never enough. Those people who win awards? They doubt themselves too. We all do. It’s what keeps us writing, keeps us striving. Even when you win, there’s always another level. The cap keeps rising. So what do you do? Keep writing. Make more words. A torrent of them. Don’t stop, but do look back every now and then. Give yourself permission to succeed. The metric may not be what you thought it was, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t made any progress. You may just need to learn to measure the journey in different ways.

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