How Do You Judge Your Work?

Yesterday Maureen Johnson posted most excellently on the topic of judging yourself by numbers. She paraphrased a graduation speech by Bill Murray:

“Look, people thought I was going to be a huge failure, but then I got kind of lucky and made it. And I had and have lots of amazing friends, and we’ve seen each other’s careers go up and down. Take my advice: don’t go comparing yourself to other people. You will go insane. It’s pointless. Your fortunes may rise and fall, depending on all kinds of things you have no control over. Keep your friends. Never compare all the outward markers of success. Do what you love, because that’s all you really get and that’s all that matters and that’s all that will ever really work. And don’t be an as$h&^e.”

It’s doesn’t matter what game you’re in, judging yourself solely by external measures will do your head in. You are not a good writer because you get good reviews or because you’re a bestseller or a prize winner.

You can continue to work hard and write your best and yet stop getting good reviews1 and prizes and spots on bestseller lists. If you depend on those measures to determine your worth you are in for a world of pain.

As Mr Murray and Maureen say you have no control over that external stuff.2 Forget about it. You are not a better person cause you sell more than your friends. You are not a worse person because you’re never short listed for prizes. Concentrate on doing the absolute best you can in whatever field you’re in. Because if your eyes are only on the prize, all the joy and pleasure in writing (or whatever) will disappear.

If you do get lucky and your work is recognised, make sure you thank the people who gave you the time and space and support in order to do your absolute best: your family, your friends, your colleagues etc. etc.

Thus endeth the sermon.

  1. Or any reviews at all, which is much worse. []
  2. And if you did have control and could give yourself prizes and good reviews and huge sales, what would be the point? []


  1. Anonymous on #

    Am I allowed to be happy when I win an award?

  2. Julia on #

    I agree, though I think sometimes it also helps to get some friendly competition. At school friend and I are always trying to beat each other at grades and teacher comments. We are pretty evenly matched and neither of us get upset if we do worse. It just gives a reason to try harder. You talk about writing with other authors and I think it is the same sort of thing, they give incentive to actually work.

  3. Justine on #

    Anonymous: Of course enjoy winning an award! Rejoice in your successes, mourn your failures, just don’t waste time and energy judging yourself over them. Or wishing you could control them.

    Julia: If it worked for you that’s awesome. I have seen it work that way for lots of people. And, yes, I think “friendly” is the key word.

    I am definitely inspired and energised by talking writing with my writer friends. But I never feel like I’m in competition with them because we’re not. In fact, some of our fans go off and read our friends’ books when they discover the connection. I strongly believe our successes create more readers for all of us.

  4. Julia Rios on #

    I am so with you (and Maureen and Bill) on this one. I had a few years when I felt extremely jealous of writers who were doing well. It even stopped me from writing a lot of the time, because I would think it was futile, and that I wasn’t good enough. And then I would think these other people weren’t any better than me, but they had better connections, or whatever. It was ugly, and it’s embarrassing to admit, but I think it’s something a lot of people struggle with.

    Eventually, I had a friend who got into a workshop I’d always wished I could go to, and I was so jealous. Of my friend. Even though I knew that my friend had worked hard, and earned this good thing, and I had never even tried to get in there. And then one day I told my friend half-jokingly that I was so jealous of their good thing, and my friend said, “Don’t be jealous! You should apply!”

    And that was a turning point for me. I realized that my friend’s success was not a marker of my failure, that only not actually making progress of my own was a sign of failure. And I had this sudden very obvious realization that I would feel so much better if every time a friend sold a story, or got an award, or what have you, I could honestly say that I was happy for them. It’s been about two years, now, and they’ve been my most productive two years as a writer. I still don’t have any professional sales, but I know I’m working in good faith, and that makes a huge difference.

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