Why You Should Change Your Definition of Success

I started freelancing full-time almost five years ago. At the time, success meant matching my previous income, and saying yes to every project that came my way. As a result, I found myself working nights and weekends, skipping meals, and pushing exercise to the very bottom of my to-do list, where it never got done.

These days, success means being pickier about projects, preparing home-cooked meals with my husband, and having time for both my personal book project and my daily yoga classes. I have the potential to make more money… but the other stuff comes first.

Which is why I love Laura Vanderkam‘s work. In both 168 Hours and her most recent book, All the Money in the World, she shows readers that they don’t necessarily need more time or money to achieve a successful and fulfilling life. They just need to know how to spend what they already have.

In this Q+A, Laura shows us how we should redefine success.

1. I went on a sort of Laura Vanderkam reading marathon last week. What I noticed immediately about both your books is that they eschew the typical self-help trope of promising more (more money, more time) to the reader. Rather, you stress in both books that, generally, we have enough. We just need to learn how to spend both our time and our money more wisely, rather than cutting back on things we enjoy as a means of grabbing 15 minutes here, $100 there. How did you come to this somewhat contrary conclusion?

I highly recommend Laura Vanderkam reading marathons. I’ve got some novels stuffed in a drawer that you can read as well…

To answer your question, with time that insight came from looking at successful people. I’m talking about people who have big careers and big personal lives. These people have the exact same amount of time as the rest of us, so what are they doing differently?

In some cases, these people do have more money, but plenty of people with money somehow manage to spend it on things that make their lives more complicated, rather than less. If you start with a blank slate, rather than various assumptions about how we should be spending our time and money, you’ll soon see that 168 hours a week and an average American income can cover quite a bit. I mean, who cares about spending 10 minutes less on errands if you’re in the wrong job? Then you’re wasting 40 hours a week. Fix that first. Then you can be as inefficient on your errands as you want.

2. I loved 168 Hours. Who doesn’t wish for more time? But when I read the press release for All the Money in the World, I was intrigued, because it hinted at the possibility that you don’t necessarily need to be making more money in order to be considered successful. A prospect I find attractive, as someone who values work/life balance over ever-increasing income. Can you share with us your own, personal definition of success?

My goal is to be able to write about any topic I find interesting for publications I admire and in my own books (and on my blog), and know that my words will find a big audience. Money is part of success — it’s how the market often recognizes talent — but you have to consider it within categories. You can be among the world’s best poets and still earn less than a mediocre investment banker.

3. When did you reach that aha moment where you realized that success didn’t have to mean more money? Was there a specific instance where you had to choose between saying yes to a project or yes to yourself?

In 168 Hours, I write of giving up a fairly well-paying gig with Reader’s Digest. I wrote the Only in America section for years. It was a fabulous way to learn to write tight, and to learn about an incredible diversity of subjects, from a young man who walked every street in Manhattan to the person who holds the world record for the most Guinness World Records. I’m so grateful that they gave me the chance to do that.

But what I eventually realized is that I wanted to be focusing on books and longer, bylined articles, and the mental energy required to write six to eight well-reported short pieces every month was distracting me from that goal. It was a tough gig to walk away from financially, but since my husband gets a steady paycheck, we decided I could take some risks.

4. Even though you suggest that we have enough money/time if we spend it correctly, you do recommend simply making more money rather than cutting back on expenses as a way to improve quality of life. Can you share a specific instance in which you realized you needed an income boost (whether for everyday life or a specific purchase) and hustled like hell to get that extra cash? What tactics did you use to drum up that extra money?

My first year out of college, I had an internship at USA Today. My take-home pay was about $1,200 a month. That was enough to live on, but it wasn’t enough to save for bigger goals, like travel or moving to New York City (something I’d always wanted to do). So I freelanced for a variety of different publications. When you set your expenses based on $1,200 a month, even bringing in an extra $500 is a huge win. And by the end of the year I was bringing in a lot more than that — sometimes tripling my salary. If you’re making $1,200 a month, you can’t save $2,000 a month. If you’re making $4,000 a month, you can. I was able to spend three weeks traveling in Asia after the internship ended, and then have a few months’ cushion for moving to New York without a job lined up.

5. I’m a huge advocate of career diversification, something that freelancers tend to master early on. What does a typical mix of projects look like for you over the course of any given week?

Ideally I’m working on something very long term, like a book. I’ve got a few intermediate assignments: a feature for City Journal or another magazine, a USA Today column. Then there’s the immediate stuff: blogging three times a week for CBS MoneyWatch and keeping my own personal blog (www.lauravanderkam.com). Speeches have become a bigger component of my income over the past few years as well.

6. Finally, what was the most fun/fascinating/challenging project you ever did for the money?

I once ghostwrote a book in less than six weeks. I enjoyed the challenge. If I someday need to scale up my cash flow for big goals, I’d take on two to three crash jobs like that per year.

Related: Do You Love Your Work More Than You Love… Love?, Want Freelance Success? Watch Your Health, Didn’t Get It Done? That’s Your Own Damn Fault, Better Than Money

Comments

  1. Alicia says:

    Awesome post! My husband (who freelances) and I have been having a lot of discussions about this very topic lately. It’s taken us a while to come to this conclusion, but we’ve figured out that less frequent, high-quality work is so much more rewarding than snatching up every possible gig, even when it’s less than desirable, just to get some cash in the bank. He’s back to exercising (lost over 20 lbs!), makes delicious home-cooked meals, and can actually spend time with me and our pup. We’re so much happier, even if we have less cash coming in, that it totally makes up for it.

  2. Susan says:

    I’m a huge fan of Laura’s books as well! Both of them really resonated with me and we’re increasingly headed towards a gig economy, but for people still in a traditional job, there’s less fluidity with the time vs. money equation. Yes, you can move closer to your job to save time or moonlight to earn more money, but I’m glad that as a freelancer, I have even more options to earn more money or use my time in different ways.

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