I’ve been choosing a word-of-the-year for nearly a decade, a tradition I’ve shared with a friend who initiated it; several years ago we invited another friend into our circle. I look forward to our annual meeting—in front of a wood stove on a dark winter’s night—like I’m preparing to unwrap an exciting gift. We meet to reflect on how we used (or didn’t) our chosen word from the previous year, and then we reveal our new words, along with the hopes and baggage and dreams and fears and intentions going forward.
My word of the year for 2014 was “success.”
As always, I tested out several different words in the weeks leading up to our meeting, believed I’d landed on one, and at the eleventh hour switched to another. This is a consistent pattern for me. We’ve observed over the years that words can carry with them their opposites, their shadow sides, and I approach my choice with a certain amount of caution as well as excitement. Last January, I decided to go into what frightened me, and dig deep.
Just a few months earlier, I’d sold my third book, and first novel, Girl Runner, to a number of publishers around the world. This was the culmination of twenty years of discipline, work, and outsized dreaming, and to be perfectly honest, I was terrified of what would come next. I couldn’t begin to see it. The word “success” seemed to encapsulate my fears: success carried with it a weight of expectation, and the potential for failure on a previously unsuspected scale. It sounds perhaps silly and ungrateful to fear success, but I was acutely attuned to all that could go wrong. I did not want to disappoint anyone, most especially myself.
What did it mean to succeed? Why did the thought of success fill me with dread and fear, anxiety, even shame?
I spent the year unpacking this, as I’d hoped. In fact, this year was the first that I extended the word-of the-year project to include regular written meditations. Over the course of twelve months my thoughts on success changed in ways both subtle and radical.
At first, I focused on identifying the positive aspects of success—the notion that an achievement is a starting point, not an end, and that success offers a platform to look beyond and tackle even greater obstacles. I thought of Nelson Mandela, who wrote, “But I have discovered the secret, that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb,” which helped me cope with the paralyzing anxiety—that I might have nothing more to say, having achieved what I’d set out to achieve all those years ago. No. What looks like success might, in retrospect, prove to have been simply a catalyst for possibilities as yet unguessed-at, which can only be explored using all of the tools that brought you to this moment. In other words, go bravely into the darkness.
When my book was published in Canada this past fall, success took on a harsher shade, a glare. I was fortunate to receive good media attention and good reviews, and to be invited to festivals and events to share my work. But with the attention crept the doubt. Was I deserving? Did I have anything interesting to say? Had I written the book I’d hoped to write? The more comfortable I became with being on stage, the less comfortable I became with being alone. I liked the light. Was this dreadful of me, was I becoming a spotlight-hogging narcissist? Was I losing myself? Was my self so superficial that it could get lost this easily?
Well. No. (Although perhaps temporarily, yes.)
When prize season rolled around and my book was a finalist for a major literary award (but not for the glittering-est and most coveted), and when it did not win, I underwent some very unpleasant, even ugly, internal emotional battles. Did my notion of success hinge entirely on external acknowledgement? I countered the ugliness by practicing gratitude and savouring the pleasures that came with being nominated. I tried to be mindful and careful to name the pleasures, even if only to myself, so that I would not get caught up in envy or greed or self-loathing.
I knew that my idea of success—the success that I wanted to embrace—was not about envy or greed or self-loathing (which may seem an odd addition to the list of ugly internal emotions, but there it lurked).
Over the course of this year, I’ve learned what I probably knew all along, but needed to know even more deeply, needed to live inside: that success is not only about work. I do love my work. And that is a great fortune. But I consider myself successful when I share my life with people whom I love, and when I respond to needs and responsibilities with care and love—within myself, within my family, within my community, and within the larger world.
It isn’t about what’s visible, necessarily; success doesn’t always get acknowledged. Success, ultimately, is extremely personal.
Here’s what I’ve learned this year: It doesn’t matter if the world tells you that you’re successful if you don’t believe it yourself. And, likewise, it doesn’t matter if the world doesn’t notice your success if you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished. Success is progressive, cumulative, built on deep layers; it doesn’t anoint you in an instant. It isn’t a place. It isn’t a thing. It isn’t definitive.
Finally, while it’s good to remind myself that acknowledgement is not the same as success, it’s also good to remind myself to express gratitude and thanks for acknowledgement when it comes—that is something I need to work on, a lot. I need to work on accepting acknowledgement with grace, gratitude, and, um, acceptance (to repeat myself). Know what I mean? What I noticed this year is that I doubt acknowledgement—I disbelieve the sincerity and assume people are just being nice—because I see every flaw in my work and efforts, and I don’t love my flaws very much, at all. (Hm… new word for next year, buried somewhere in there?)
As the year comes to a close, I think I could easily spend the rest of my life exploring the idea of success, which is the way it feels at the end of a year when a word choice has really struck home.
But onward, friends, to a new year and with it a different word, with a different flavour to spice our intentions and reflections.
Walk into the fear! Go deep! Unwrap with excitement.
Carrie Snyder is mother of four, writer, dreamer, planner, mid-life runner, teacher, photographer, blogger. She is the author of three books of fiction, most recently Girl Runner, published this fall in Canada and coming this winter to the US, UK and Australia. She looks for the light and embraces the transitional moments: winter solstice is one of her favourite days of the year.