On Defining Success

From time to time I get bogged down, lost in the weeds, wrapped up in all the sausage making and inside baseball stuff behind blogging. I’m genuinely interested in how this stuff goes down, after all, I owe a great deal to blogging. I write occasional commentary, meta crap that comes under the heading of “blogging about blogging.” It’s not particularly compelling to a good percentage of my readers, though I thank you all for indulging me the behind the scenes tours from time to time.

I’ve backed off some over the latter half of the year; it’s clear that I’m using outlier methods and that my metrics for what counts as success are just not the same as they are for many, many bloggers. It’s kind of dumb for me to participate in conversations about the validity of paid links or disclosure of free travel or how to use sharing tools to increase my page impressions when really, what I care about is something else. I care about writing something I really feel good about. I care about whether publications I like answer my email. I care about who invites me to contribute under their masthead. I care about more personal stuff than that too, and recently, I was — well, honored is probably the best word — honored to learn that one of my readers had responded to my post about the decline in my Dad’s health by finally telling her own family story.

Yeah, I can’t send that stuff to the bank to pay for my mortgage. Some of it does actually translate into cash, there are checks in the mail from Conde Nast Traveler and Afar and Seattle Wise, and a story on deck for another glossy, and that feels quite good. That editor will take some time out from a busy day to meet me when I’m in town, and sometimes, that leads to an assignment. Maybe a friend will pass along a lead because they trust I’ll do right by them; that’s pretty great too. I’m happy for those things and they do translate my contrarian path into a comprehensible economic success.

But there’s something that’s both less and more tangible that has messed with defining success for me for the past four years. Every winter, I join forces with four other women, Michelle Duffy, Meg Paynor, Debbie Dubrow, and Beth Whitman. We some how stitch together this fundraiser called Passports with Purpose. We engage all the bloggers and PR folks we can reach in some way or other, we round up some fabulous prizes. And we use all the tools we have at our disposal to do something amazing. We build a school. We house some families. We give some kids a place where they can find not just books, but also, people to help them learn to love reading.

I don’t see money fall into my wallet because of this effort. I lose a little sleep in the depths of it, partly because I’m juggling my weird little responsibilities that make this thing go (don’t for a second think I’m implying I’m the only one doing this) and partly because I can’t stop hitting “Refresh” on the report that shows me the donation totals. I don’t get writing gigs because of the stories I scribble to support the efforts of our program. I might pick up a few new readers for the duration of the fundraiser, but I don’t get a mega-spike in traffic, not the kind of thing that immediately brings advertisers to my door. I don’t even get the fabulous prizes — as a founder of the fundraiser, I’m not allowed to participate. The stuff that I get because of my participation in Passports with Purpose is kind of hard to quantify.

But there’s something beautiful and small about the idea that this spring, a kid in Zambia is going to walk into a building that was not there before. She’ll pull a book off a shelf and open it and fall into the magical world of words. The mere idea of this simple action taking place puts the brakes on my struggles to define success. We built a school, a village. This year, as I type this, I can see that we have raised nearly $87000 dollars to cover the costs of two libraries, libraries that will each support literary programs for somewhere between 400 and 1000 kids. My personal definition of success in the face of this? It doesn’t matter at all.

A heartfelt thanks to this year’s sponsors, Round the World with Us, Traveller’s Point, and HomeAway. More of the same to all the bloggers who participated, either by hosting a prize or spreading the word — your network makes sure we reach our goals and we could not do this with out you. To our donors, every single ten dollar donations matters, every single one, and all that money goes directly to Room to Read. And to my posse, the PwP crew, well, you’re absolutely too awesome for words.

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