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It’s True. I Really Suck at Success.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

I suppose I’ve had some career success. But I would know this only because every so often I am told so. Be it in the form of a question asked in an interview or an email query from a blog fan.

“Doug,” they usually begin, “as a successful writer, what do you think blah blah blah (sub in your qualifier-following question right here).”

Yet the word itself—success—tends to miss me or fail to penetrate my armor. Either that or it glances off me as if I were dipped in Teflon. And it’s not that I’m immune. I understand the meaning of the word and even the context with which it’s often used. I merely can’t seem to relate.

I recall a conversation years back with a radio interviewer where he referred to me as a Hollywood success story.

“Whatever that is,” I joked.

“Well, you are,” he insisted. “You’ve written big big movies.”

“Yes,” I answered. “But you could describe Barry Levinson or Lawrence Kasdan as Hollywood success stories. Right?”

“Of course.”

“I would argue that compared to them, my career is a pimple. On paper, I look more like a dilettante.”

“Well, there are different levels of success,” he managed.

“Understatement,” I argued.

“Then how do you define success?” he followed up.

It was part of the pre-interview so there’s no recording of my answer. Yet if there was, I’m sure it would’ve been mushy and formless and possibly even incoherent. That would be because I’ve never had a qualified answer on the issue. I just knew that, in my mind, I wasn’t a success and still might not be to this very day.

That’s right. I don’t know what success is but I sure as hell can tell you it’s not the guy staring back in the mirror.

“Then if you’re not successful then what are you?” asked a baseball dad with whom I was sharing the shade of an oak tree hanging over some bleacher. We were watching our sons’ travel ball team performing infield drills and using our Blackberry’s to pretend that we were still at the office.

What am I?

For a moment, I pondered as if it were an existential challenge. Then when I realized my fat head was, once again, getting in the way of answering a simple and sincere question, I had this bell-ringing moment of clarity.

“I’d like to think I’m accomplished,” I answered. Then I had to clarify myself. “Or accomplishing things in this life.”

“Isn’t that the same as success?” he asked.

“I can’t quantify success. But I can look back on what I’ve accomplished.”

“So can everybody.”

“And that makes sense to me,” I said.

I think I went on to describe what I did as no different than that of a building contractor or an architect. After the schematics, an actual product had been erected. Yet be it concrete or brick and mortar or celluloid or pages bound into a hardcover book, each bore a physicality that was undeniable. It was there. Finished for consumption. Ready to be judged on its merits.

Now to you it may appear that I’m splitting hairs. Parsing words. And who cares or why it should matter to anyone other than me? To which I would reply, “Good point.”

This brings me back to a movie moment I’ll never forget. And no. It’s not about a particular movie or even a moment within a movie. It was a movie theater. As I am oft to do, I’ll spend my lunch break parked in a local movie house, catching up on a recent flick. This is work time for me. The War Department knows not to disturb me unless it’s an emergency.

We were in the middle of a major home remodel. The War Department had left on an errand and returned to discover the mason and his crew had begun laying our handpicked tile in a pattern that better suited their taste than the style directed by their employer—ergo me. I cut out of the movie and raced home in hopes of arriving before the cement had hardened.

As a writer, I’m used to unstitching my work and sometimes weaving it back together in a way that better serves the final product. Even if it’s time-consuming and uncomfortable, best efforts are required. I was preparing such a speech for the tile mason, only to discover it wasn’t at all necessary. And though they had another job the next day, upon realizing his error, he set his crew about rescuing the already cemented tiles and prepared fresh mud to begin anew. In grateful return, I ordered pizza and beer and prepared for all of us to stay late.

Now you ask what the hell does this have to do with success or accomplishment?

As I helped rig lights in order for the crew to work into the evening, the tile mason and I traded stories. His tale was about the son of tile mason. As a boy, he’d learned the trade during summers toiling alongside his old man—an immigrant from the Baltics who’d moved to America to give his family a better life. The boy excelled in school, earned college scholarships, and became an aeronautical engineer for the likes of Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas. A true red, white, and blue success, especially when viewed through his father’s eyes. But the engineer, who was earning a six-figure income and was on a stellar career trajectory, felt like a cog in a very big machine. He missed the simplicity and sense of daily accomplishment he’d recalled from those hot summers in his father’s employ. Soon, he began accepting weekend gigs. A quick countertop job. A bathroom floor to knockout. It felt so damn right.

Thusly, the tile mason chucked his tony engineering degrees and returned to the satisfying career of the sweaty artisan.

“How many jobs can you sit back and, at the end of the day, look at what you’ve done and know it was good?” he asked after popping the top off another cold one.

“What’s your pops think about your choice?” I asked.

“He jokes about all the money he spent for me to go to college,” said the tile mason. “He wanted me to be a certain kind of success. But he’s happy that I’m happy. And he sure as hell understands what I love about doing this job.”

Success. I wonder if too often we see it as a destination instead of what it should be: a journey.

Until I get there—if there is a there—I prefer to stick to feeling good about what I’ve done while looking ahead to see what I can accomplish next.

Feeling Lucky? Pre-order my first Lucky Dey thriller, 99 PERCENT KILL right now at Amazon. Feeling even luckier? Meet Lucky Dey in BLOOD MONEY–free download this week at Amazon.


  1. Jorge Perez says:

    aah, the sweet smell of…recognition. This blog reminded me of a buddhist saying ( and other than a shaved head, I don’t have that wisdom!:):
    “Before Success? Chop Wood. Haul Water.
    After success? Chop Wood. Haul Water.”

  2. wonder says:

    This also makes me think of imposter syndrome – where even if you are a success by other peoples’ standards, it’s difficult to embrace that because it’s frightening to believe. ‘What if they find out I’m just making it up as I go along?’ I think that’s why, as you say, it’s important to define it for yourself as things evolve, rather than hang your self-worth on someone else’s definition.

  3. M Pepper says:

    Whenever someone says, “You’re a successful writer,” I always want to ask, “By what metric?” It’s not an absolute zero. I know what my goals are. I’ve reached some of them, but then I set more. There’s a kind of scale, I think, and what would we do if we had no more goals to reach? Be bored.

    And then there’s success by society’s terms versus personal ideas thereof. Will achieving what “they” say you should [want to] achieve really make you any happier in life? I wrote a screenplay about that once…

  4. Andrea Snider says:

    Finding what you love to do and what feels “right” for you to do, and then getting paid to do said work (so you can continue to do it) is my definition of success. To me, the tile mason in your story IS successful because he’s happy doing what he loves to do. His engineering degrees were merely accomplishments. Moral of the story… listen to that inner voice and follow it… your “success” does NOT have to look like what the world predetermines it to be. You determine what success means to you… and then it’s your job to work ass off to make it happen. Or don’t… that’s the beauty of choice. 😉 Loved this… thank you, Doug.

  5. Dona General says:

    Hi Doug – It’s me again. Just read your screenplay for True Believers. Loved it, as a teaching aid for screen writing as much as for its high concept images depicting the innate fears we humans harbor about good and evil. I wonder, however, if the ending was yours or the filmmaker’s? I haven’t read the book — yet.

    Thanks for this philosophical blog post and the other fine work you do. 🙂

    • Doug Richardson says:

      Apologies Dona. Your question slipped by me. The screenplay significantly diverges from the book, though remains faithful to the primary elements of the story. Something I’d always planned – in that I felt there were limitations when it came to a screenplay which might better serve the resulting movie. After that, it was only about small and subtle adjustments made by myself with some wonderful nudges from Hideo Nakata. If you haven’t already read my multi-part blog called TURNING JAPANESE, please do. Many answers there. It’s also available as part of my book THE SMOKING GUN which is secretly available on Amazon.

  6. Cat says:

    Great advice from an always compelling writer! I love the notion that it’s accomplishments we have not some canned, processed “success”.
    After all, once the checks clear, it’s back to the drawing board anyway 🙂
    Thanks Doug.

  7. Brian Shell says:

    Doug, this blog arrived in ScriptMag’s Week in Review this week (Oct. 20th)… and it’s interesting in that I made the same choice as that engineer-turned-mason… only to become a writer and musician (instead of a mason)… after being a successful aerospace engineer in LA for a huge satellite-building corporation.

    The feeling you describe is dead-on… feeling like a cog in a very big machine.

    Even more accurate is that when I made my leap of faith in 1995, I had achieved “a certain kind of success” that all my friends and family perceived as valuable. For me though, I was good at it, but I didn’t love it. Due to that decision to leave engineering, I lost a lot of friends and family because of giving up their perceptions of “success.”

    Interesting though is that this week (10/19/2015), I just published a book titled “Crossing through Career Crossroads” about what I call the “destiny journey”… only to read this blog *after* I finished… validating what I just wrote about and published this past week.

    It’s almost like Life knew I wasn’t ready to read this particular blog until now. Funny how Life works. Ah, Serendipity continues to weave Her magic – well.

    All the very best Doug… bravissimo!