Three Steps to Success!

In last week’s post I laid bare my own insecurities as a creative person pursuing success. I talked about how we (creatives) tend to define success as (1) having an audience, (2) getting applause and (3) achieving acclaim. But this week I’d like to disrupt these assumptions.

I believe there is a way to do our work, be fulfilled, and achieve success without an audience or applause!

Sound strange? Read on!

Enjoy the process

First of all, you have to do your work for the love of it. Whether you sing, play an instrument paint, write or draw, if you’re only doing it in order to get something—money, praise or fame—then you’d do better in sales. True creatives do their work because of a compulsion that transcends tangible rewards. If you get enjoyment from the very act of creation, whether people are around or not, then every time you sit down to practice your craft, you win!

Be your own audience.

When you’re in the audience you have a different perspective on the performance than if you’re performing. That perspective is important.  After going through the creation process, step back from what you’ve created and examine it as if it wasn’t made by you. The only way to do this is to give yourself some time. Walk away from it, forget about it (as best you can) and only return to it when you can do so with fresh eyes. If you do, you will likely find ways to make it better. You know how great you feel right after you’ve made something? Let that feeling fade—it’s infatuation and it can be misleading. By putting some distance between it and you, you are removing yourself from the emotion which is necessary for creation, but bad for revision.

Think like an athlete…kind of

Athletes are focused on winning and they’re success or failure is measured by how much better they are than their competitors, but for artists, being motivated by comparison is a death sentence! To measure your success by the standard of others in your field is to secure your sense of failure! Why? Because you will never be them! And there will always be someone who does it better, earns more awards or makes more money than you. Not only that, to measure my success by the standard of other writers is to constantly chase a moving target! There are too many writers in the world, and far too many standards of “good writing” against which to measure my own ability.

However, there is another characteristic of a true athlete that I do think is valuable to imitate. While training, athletes don’t look at their competitor’s achievements. They look at their own.  A runner trains to beat his/her own best time. Basketball players practice making more shots today than they did yesterday. Gymnasts challenge themselves to increasingly difficult moves—but the standard is theirs.

If you’ve enjoyed the process, then critiqued your work at a distance, you are in the best possible position to determine the next level to pursue. To do so without the pressure to best someone else’s best is to free yourself to achieve your own best!  As Chrystal Hurst says “run your race.” Focus more on improving your skills than on promoting them.

Those singers on American Idol didn’t spend enough time with the process. They took the cake from the oven too fast and it flopped! Or, to use a gardening metaphor, they failed to cultivate their craft.

I love what Lara Casey says:

“Cultivating an intentional life is…faith in action. It means planting dreams in faith, even when we don’t know exactly how those dreams will grow—or if they will grow at all. But the possibility is worth the planting”

Did you catch that? Dreams are worth planting whether they grow or not! How can this be? Because there is something to be gained from the process that has nothing to do with your audience and everything to do with you! How will you be changed by your own work? How will the effort and difficulties you face make you stronger? This is how you achieve success and accomplish your dreams. You do your work. Period.

“Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold.” (Proverbs 3:13-14)


Photo by Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash

Why Ambition Isn’t Enough

Have you seen those singing competitions where the contestants belt out their very best only to become fodder for hungry judges. #eatenalive!  The would-be singers are always shocked and dismayed by the audience they had hoped to impress, as hysterical or politely muted guffaws follow their crushed souls to the door. Now, putting aside the very real likelihood that many of these contestants are actually carefully selected characters intended to boost ratings, you know there are some who genuinely thought they were called to sing. We all know a person or two who believes this in her heart, don’t we? Yet every time he opens his mouth you want to cry! 

What I wonder is…why are these singers so shocked when people cover their ears or stare in disbelief? Do they not hear the dissonance? What is it that compels them to chase their dreams in spite of clear deficiencies? Can their challenges be overcome? Some argue that certain talents can’t be taught—you either have it, or you don’t. What do you think?

We tell people to go for it! Chase your dreams, be persistent, don’t give up!  But, what if you’re really bad?  And worse–what if you’re bad and don’t know it? How do any of us know when we’re truly gifted? We could, like those bad singers, be blinded by ambition!

Sometimes people need encouragement. Sometimes they need to know the truth.

When I see non-singers assaulting audiences with their noise, I want to tell them to stop, but I also worry that I’m just like them! Maybe I, too, am guilty of “not hearing” it—and if so, who would tell me? Friends and family don’t want to hurt my feelings! I could be like those contestants whose loved ones send them on their quest for stardom with fanfare, then quietly close the door behind them and let loose! Maybe that’s me standing on the front porch, sun on my face–full of hope and possibility–blissfully unaware that behind me are folded hands and church fans snickering, that poor girl thinks she can write.”

Photo by Simona Todorova on Unsplash

The Surprise

So, how did the break up go? If you read last week’s post, you know that we parted ways with Writer’s Block, or anything that has been holding us back.

This week, I’ve snagged another prompt from Brian Klem and Zachary Petit’s Bootcamp of Writing Prompts. As a way to get the creative juices flowing, I responded to this prompt:

Someone starts leaving little gifts on your desk every day at work. Then one day, instead of a gift, they leave a note.

Here’s the story that evolved from this prompt. Let me know what you think!


I could hear the click of high heels tipping down the hallway and I knew I was in trouble.

“Charlie Johnson! Is Charlie in his cube?” I could hear Tonya asking our co-workers as she rounded each corner.

Oh shoot. Ducking out of my chair, I bent low and crept quietly towards the men’s bathroom. Pushing through the door with my shoulder and keeping my head down, I barreled full force into something soft. I heard an “uck” sound. “Oh!” One of my feet crossed the other and I lost my balance . In seconds I and the other man were falling. The doughy mass of human flesh went down with a thud! As I tried to disengage myself I could still hear Tonya yelling in the distance.

On my feet at last, I looked around to find none other than Jacob Jones, CEO sprawled on the floor like a June bug! He was a big man with bad eyesight. As he rolled his large body over on his hands and knees he was also patting his head in search of the horn-rimmed glasses that were set at an odd angle on his forehead. Honestly, he looked ridiculous.

I knew Mr. Jones would be looking for that financial report I had promised on Thursday–it was now Monday. So, before he could situate his glasses and get a good look at who just tackled him, I spun around and darted back out the door. “Sorry!” I called over my shoulder. Then slammed face first into– “Tonya, Hi!” I flashed her my bright whites.

“Don’t you ‘hi’ me.” I could feel her moist breath against my cheek. “What happened to you last night?” She punctuated each word with a hard tap on my chest with her long, sharp fingernail.

Ouch! I pulled back.

“I waited at the restaurant for an HOUR!”

“Yes, about that—”

“Mr. Johnson!”

“Mr. Jones!” He came behind me from the bathroom and suddenly I was the cream sandwiched between two cookies. “Have you met Tonya Cooper?”

“How do you do, Ms. Cooper… Mr. Johnson, why must you barge into the men’s bathroom like a Pamplona bull?  The last time you did that Tom Pinkett filed for workman’s comp from the injury he sustained.”

“Ah, yes, but, really, Mr. Jones, it was a paper cut!”

“In his eye.”

“Well, yeah, but if he hadn’t been holding that file so close to his face—”

“He nearly went blind!”

“He just had to wear a patch for a few days.”

“Three. months.”

“Was it that long? Wow! Time flies, huh?”

“Speaking of time, Mr. Johnson, where is that report?”

“On your desk, sir!”


“Yes sir, I’m going to my desk to get it!”


“and take it to your desk right now!”

“Mr. Johnson!”

“And did I mention that Ms. Cooper has an extensive background in marketing and public relations? She might be able to advise us on that new product launch. I know you were looking at trying something different this time.”

Tonya cut her eyes at me letting me know I wasn’t off the hook, then turned, smiling towards Mr. Jones. “I’d be happy to put together a proposal if you let me know what you had in mind…”

I eased myself out of the conversation and back to the safety of my cubicle, pretending not to notice Mr. Jones still giving me the evil eye. “Whew! That was close.” I slid my wheeled office chair over to my computer and was surprised to find a tiny, gift-wrapped box. Looking over my shoulder I half-expected to see Tonya standing there, but no.  She’s mad at me. Ohhh…maybe it’s from Rebecca! She and I had a great time last night. But, Rebecca works in another building and wouldn’t have access. She would have had to send it with someone. Wheeling my chair around the half wall, I tilted my head to see if Tom was at his desk.

“Hey buddy!”

“What do you want, Charlie?” Tom didn’t look up.

Raising the little box and giving it a shake I said, “Know anything about this?”

Tom sighed and leaned back, cocking his head to look at the little box I was waving.

“Nope,” he said without interest and returned to his computer.

“Did you see anybody come by here in the last 10 minutes? Tonya? Or anybody else?

“Uh-uh.” Tom wasn’t being very helpful. I can’t imagine why. Eh, I opened the box and found a single key inside. It looked like a key to a file cabinet. “That’s a weird gift.”

“Hey Tom! Does this look familiar?” I popped my head over the half wall and held up the key.

“No,” Tom said barely glancing up at me. Tom won’t win any congeniality awards, that’s for sure. Just then I heard the distinct click of Tonya’s heels on the linoleum. “Shoot!” I grabbed a file folder off my desk and tripped over my briefcase as I headed towards the main hallway. I made it to the elevator just in time to squeeze in between a little old lady holding a huge dog carrier and a monstrous-looking biker dude with some major biceps. As the heavy doors slid shut I smiled as Tonya lunged, too late, for the call button.

Somehow, I managed to avoid her the rest of the day, but I knew I’d have to explain myself eventually.  Tonya and I had been going out for a couple of months, but she was starting to get a little clingy. I came to work the next day with my speech prepared. I would tell Tonya that I got sick over the weekend and I didn’t know if I was contagious. And, by the way, maybe we should see other people.  Peeking my head around every corner, I expected to hear her shrill voice at any moment, but the office was surprisingly quiet.

“Morning Fred! Still working on that finance report? Yeah, I gave mine to Jones yesterday, he says it was the best report he’s ever seen! Ha! Hey there Margaret, how’s that rash? Still itchin’? I’m tellin’ you, corn starch and water, that’ll do the trick!  Betty! I heard your husband died, bummer!”

I’m a friendly guy, but my co-workers are always so grumpy. “Hey Lily? What’s got your panties in a bunch?”

When I get to my desk I find another gift box waiting. I smile. Somebody is definitely into me!

“Hey Tom!” I pop up over the half wall.

“What, Charlie” Tom replies sipping his coffee and staring at his computer screen.

“Any idea what this is?” I wave the little box again.

“The key to my heart.” Tom says dryly, still not looking at me.

“Ha, ha! That’s a good one! Do you think that key that I got yesterday was for a treasure box somewhere? Maybe it’s a game someone’s playing and these are clues!”


I tear off the ribbon and lift the lid. Inside is a gold ring—a man’s wedding band. I slide it on my finger, too big.  I let it slip off and hold it to the light of my desk lamp. Engraved on the under side of the band are the words To My Love. A smile spreads across my face.

“Hey Tom! Look at this!”

I spend the rest of the day showing the ring and the key to my co-workers, asking their opinion, trying to see if any of them give off a hint that they know where these items are coming from, but no one has any info. In fact, most of them tell me to “get lost” or “go to hell.”

Sheesh! Grumpy.

I return to my cubicle and unwrap my tuna sandwich. I haven’t seen Tonya today. These gifts must be from her!

When I come to work and find yet another gift on my desk for the third day in a row, my curiosity is more than a little piqued.

“Tom! Can you believe—” I wheel my chair over to Tom’s cubicle, but he isn’t there. Bummer.

I look at the box. This one is different. Rather than a cube, it is a rectangle and tucked under the bow is a little card. I open it and in a loopy cursive handwriting there’s one word: Surprise!

I look around and peek over the half wall again to see if Tom is there. Nope. I turn the box over in my hand, thinking. My birthday isn’t for another couple of months. What is this about? Slowly, I slide the bow off and lift the lid. Inside, on a piece of soft white cotton, is a leather luggage tag. On the name card showing through the clear plastic, in the same cursive font is: Aloha!


All day I’m frustrated, but no one cares. When I show them the luggage tag they just shrug, “Who knows?”

Mr. Jones sent back the report I submitted. Apparently it was “incomplete” and I better get it right this time, “or else!”

Lily yelled at me for eating the chicken salad sandwich she had in the break room fridge. How was I to know it wasn’t my tuna? They look the same!

Betty from HR sent a stinging email that she’s been getting “complaints” about me—me? What did I do? “I’m the nicest guy in this office,” I told her.

“Well, stop being nice. Just keep your opinions–and your hands–to yourself!” With that she slammed the phone in my ear. Now that was not nice!

Still fuming from my day of insults I almost don’t notice that my cell phone is buzzing. Swiping the screen, I see a message from an unknown number, “Check your email.”

Betty again? She already read me the riot act! I click on the envelop icon and  see a new message from Tonya. “Finally!” I have been calling this girl for two days. Where has she been?

Her message is empty but there is a photo attached. Is that Tonya and…Tom!? What in the world is Tom doing with my woman? Then I look more closely. The two of them are wearing Hawaiian shirts and floral leis. Tom is holding up a glass of—something with an umbrella in it—but what catches my eye is the gold band on the ring finger of his left hand. Tom isn’t married.

My phone buzzes again. A message from the same number says, “Use your key to unlock my heart.”

Who is this? I text back.

No answer.

I look again at the picture of Tom and Tonya. Weird.

Setting the box down I look at the key, then walk around the half wall to Tom’s filing cabinet. I yank on the handle to see if it’s open.


So, I fit the key into the tiny opening above the top drawer and turn. I hear a click, pull the drawer and–scream!


What do you think happens next?  Leave a comment!

Did you like the story? Why not try your hand at the prompt and see what evolves. Happy writing and Happy Monday!

Cover artwork courtesy of Johnson Wang on Unsplash