what the hell is success, anyway?

After feeling awfully sorry for myself yesterday, and moping around for a bit, and then frantically pitching approximately three-thousand* magazines while frothing at the mouth, I took a moment to think.

I highly recommend moments like those. Thinking moments. Where you go, “But seriously, what the hell am I doing?”



I was freaking out. I am one of those people who tends to freak out. I tend to believe the worst. I tend to interpret things negatively. If someone gives me a weird look on the elevator, I am more likely to think, Why does she hate me?!” than “Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m carrying fourteen bottles of diet orange soda?”

When something bad happens to me, I am likely to think, “Well, this just says it all. I know the truth now. I suck. That is the truth. Nothing good will ever happen to me. And I’d might as well accept it. Maybe I should cry a lot, dramatically, at my computer, while I’m accepting it. Yes. Definitely the way to proceed.”

And then I proceed that way.

But when I took a moment to think, after my bout of frantic pitches, it occurred to me that a lot of this probably comes down to how I think about success.

How do you think about success?



That’s the basic model, at least.  It might not be a great one. Or at least, not a healthy one. And weirdly, I tend to only apply it to myself. Other people can be successful in every possible way. But not me. For me, it has to be: WHERE IS YOUR GOLD MEDAL NOBEL PEACE PRIZE MILLION DOLLARS?

A funny thing has been happening, recently, though. Sort of like when I felt good instead of bad about gaining weight. I’ve been feeling happier. Not all the time, of course. That would be excessive. But in general. I’ve been thinking rebellious thoughts. Like, “Maybe I can be happy without achieving all of my original goals.”

Crazy, right?


I’ve been thinking about what I want my life to look like, and sometimes I catch myself fantasizing about being with family, in a beautiful place, hanging out and making a delicious dinner that we’re going to eat outside. I think we’re in the south. Possibly Atlanta. And there isn’t a gold medal in sight.

Sometimes I find myself thinking a secret thought about how maybe I don’t have to reach every dream I had when I was ten. Maybe my dreams can change. Maybe the version of success I’ve built my life around is not the one I’d like to keep hanging on to. Because hanging on here, with my legs dangling out into empty, endless space is getting really uncomfortable.

I’m not sure why these thoughts are radical. They should be part of a natural evolution, which is what we living beings do. But there are these extremely tall steel walls that got set up in my mind a long time ago. They are guarding my goals like some massive, ancient diamond. That diamond is irreplaceable. Nothing can approach it. Nothing can touch it. Nothing can ever compare. There is an army of guards surrounding the steel walls. They all have the same opinions, and they speak freely.

“Anything else is giving up,” they say. “If you do anything else, it means you’re giving up. You’ll be a quitter. You’ll be a failure.”

Standard fear-mongering tactics. They picked them up by watching the political news. But I am rebelling. Gradually. Maybe I can be a writer because I am already a writer, instead of never feeling quite like a real writer, because I haven’t published a book. Maybe there are many things that can make me feel fulfilled, instead of just one or two. Maybe my life is full of time, and rather than something needing to happen right this second, it can happen later.

Revolutionary, I know.

That was sarcasm, but yes, it is. Because it has started a revolution in me.

Last night, after I was rejected and miserable, I met Bear on the Lower East Side, and we went to this little place that served seasoned matzah instead of a bread basket. I wore all flowing white, with a sliver of a belt, and deep red lipstick. And by the time I got there, I realized that I wasn’t upset. I was thrilled by the warmth of the night. I felt lovely and potent.


Some of the guards protested. “You got rejected by someone who CAME TO YOU FOR A PIECE! You’ve never written anything for a glossy! Don’t you feel bad?”

I shook them off.

Sometimes, inexplicably, you know what matters and what doesn’t. You know that your thick thighs are good, even though they’re not supposed to be. You know that you’re alright, even though you could be depressed. You catch yourself hoping, instead of giving up. And then hoping more.

It occurred to me that because there are no guarantees in this game of trying to make it as a writer, the thing that fills the space instead is hope. Like Pandora’s box, maybe. Remember how, after all of the terrible things come roaring out of it, a tiny blue butterfly called hope emerges? Except it’s a swarm of blue butterflies over here, not just one. I’m swimming in hope. I’ve learned, through being rejected over and over and trying and trying again, to keep hoping. And I’ve begun to learn that I am OK, even without the success that I went into this believing I desperately needed.

Could it be that that, in itself, is a kind of success?

It probably could.


*   *  *

How do you define success? Has your definition changed? 

Unroast: Today I love the way I look when my hair curls in the humidity. Love it.

*OK, perhaps more like four

P.S. Thank you to yesterday’s commenters, who really drove this message home for me. You guys are awesome, as always.

And in thanks, here is a fabulous cake pic from a reader!! I love this picture more than words can express. Send me yours soon:


Kate on March 23rd 2012 in fear, uplifting, work, writing

39 Responses to “what the hell is success, anyway?”

  1. Lora responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    ***I’ve been thinking rebellious thoughts. Like, “Maybe I can be happy without achieving all of my original goals.”***

    Yes and yes and yes! I keep thinking to myself, as I’m settling into my thirties: BUT YOU WANTED ______ (insert any one of the following: to live on the west coast, to have written a chapbook by now, a job as a librarian, etc. etc.)

    But the truth of the matter is: I like my life. Actually, I *love* my life. My goals are not as outwardly oriented as they were in my twenties…and that’s appropriate, as *I* am not as outwardly oriented as I used to be.

    My current goal is to be happy, goddamnit :) I currently define success as the ability to sit in the landscape of my life as it is, no matter what is happening, and accept it, take it in, and still say “yes, come on in!” when something new knocks at my door.

  2. Melanie responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    Studies show that booby cake pics may be better than any other cake pics! What can I say? I like boobs! :)

    I have thought about success a ton recently. I have looked at all of my friends and realized that they have one thing in common: they are all the truest representation of their authentic self. Some of them hop trains and don’t really have a home. Some of them live in million dollar homes in the mountains of Santa Cruz. Some barely make it by but are raising the world’s next generation of awesome people (their parenting deserves a high award).

    I think the best thing you can do in order to be a success, is turn inward. Stop worrying about how others perceive you, and concentrate fully on what you need to do to look in the mirror every morning and say, “I’ve made it. I’m doing what I need to do. I am awesome.” If you can do that, then no one in the world can make you feel anything less than a glowing success. To me, that is the real measure of success.

    I have had to get a bit more selfish in my endeavors as of late and really focus on self work. But now I can honestly say that at least 50% of the time I think I’ve achieved the impossible. I am this mighty warrior woman who has conquered the odds and is on the way to becoming the best me I can be, and that is when I really feel successful. 50% may not seem like much, but it’s a long climb from the 5% I was at just a few years ago. I know I’ll never be able to do it 100%, but I’m moving in that direction.

  3. Kate responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 1:22 pm #

    Isn’t it funny how you can love your life and still not feel successful? What is the deal with that?

  4. Kate responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 1:24 pm #

    LOL!!! I’ll wear a pushup bra when I do a cake shoot for you :-)
    I LOVE the way you describe your friends. Fantastic. And reading this made me realize that I see success in so many different places. I just don’t see it that way for myself. I should clarify that in the post. (running off to do that)

  5. Amanda responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 1:33 pm #

    My ideas about success have changed hugely over time, in spite of what my “downeresque” comment of yesterday may seem to imply.

    No, I won’t have literary success, and there are other successes I won’t have. But what I do have is a peaceful life, a good life, and from past experience I know that is nothing to be sneezed at. Sure, excitement and accolades are great, but the way I respond to excitement and the tension of going after those accolades isn’t. I get so wrapped up in it all that I lose sight of everything else around me.

    As the mother of two awesome kids, that isn’t acceptable. So instead of being wildly creative and seeking what I used to see as success, I instead do for me, and for mine. And absolutely there are times when I wonder if I’ve sold myself short, but then reality returns and I know without a doubt that I am exactly where I should be at this time. It’s not the answer for everyone, but it is for me.

    Plus the great thing about being more of a reader than a writer anymore is that I have more time to read other people’s writing :)

  6. D responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    Oh yes, my definition of success has changed. Growing up, I so, SO badly wanted to be a geologist (paleontologist or archaeologist were also acceptable). That career in my mind was equal to success. It would define who I was in the best way I could imagine. Now I actually have the geology degree, but its been a few years since I’ve learned that the success I was envisioning was more than a career- it was the personality traits and accomplishments that I envisioned a geologist/paleontologist/whatever having. I want to have a healthy sense of adventure. I want to be good at science. I want to explore, and be brave and strong. I want people to accept that I am smart and worthwhile even though I don’t match up with physical stereotypes. So now, success for me has become more of a process of refining myself. I play roller derby to feel brave, and strong. I read about feminism and science because I want to be smart, and able to stand up to people. I like my current definition of success much better, even though it is much harder in many ways and I’m not there yet.

  7. San D responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    In my 60′s I can look back and say I have achieved more than I ever thought I would, and no one “knows” me and I’m not *famous*. But that said I have had some amazing experiences, including smelling homemade bread weekly, surviving cancer, traveling to the galapagos, teaching puppetry at a national festival where there ARE famous people, and literally breaking a Tony Award in a regional theater. Believe me, none of these were ever on a “goals” list. Throw the list out, it only holds you BACK!

  8. Emmi responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 1:39 pm #

    I’ve been reevaluating my definition of success lately, too. A big goal my husband and I always had was to buy a house. However, about a year ago we realized that it was probably a terrible idea for us for a lot of reasons, and chucked that goal in the bin. I felt sort of lost afterwards. Where was my big looming pressure-goal? And then I had to teach myself how to learn to live without that hanging over my head. It’s been an unusual experience.

    I guess we no longer technically have a long-term goal. Shocking – getting out of debt is now our short-term goal. Despite minor delays, we are on pace to be out of debt within the next year or so. After that, I don’t know what our goals will be! That is exciting to me. I feel like I could try anything, redefine myself if I want to, once I am not financially beholden to anyone. At this point, my short-term goals are enough for me, and I am excited to see what new things life will bring along the line.

  9. S responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 2:09 pm #

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I’m in a field unrelated to yours, but your words resonate deeply with me. I’ve always derived so much of my self-worth from academic/professional achievements, and sometimes I wonder about the sustainability of this life strategy.

  10. Kimmy Sue Ruby Lou responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 2:10 pm #

    you are exactly where you need to be, every minute of every day…and if there are walls, you made them (obviously you know this), which means you can sure as hell tear them down “miss eat the damn cake!” :) even better, if you ignore them, they will go away quite naturally…

  11. Deanna responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 2:19 pm #

    Our society defines success usually as either making a lot of money or being at the top of your field. People who are successful often doubt their abilities and are often depressed feeling like frauds for making it when they feel they don’t deserve to be successful. Also, when you are the top of your field, there is only one way to go and it ain’t up.

    I think there are so many factors involved with being successful. In the writing field it is all about getting published. Once you are published you have to sell copies, once you sell copies you have to sell more and more. I just read a book that you might enjoy entitled It’s Hard Not to Hate you by Valerie Frankel (a neighbor of yours by the way) and she talks a bit about some of the ‘successful writers’ that she knows. Some are really not all that good.

    In my field it;s about being popular and having big classes. I know I’m good but I don’t have that je ne sais quoi that makes a teacher super popular although I do have a small following. I feel successful only because I have changed a few lives.

    Keep writing…someone needs to bring these things up.

  12. rose responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    This was beautiful! I would give you GOLD MEDAL NOBEL PEACE PRIZE PULITZER A MILLION DOLLARS, but I haven’t worked out how to get them myself either.

    Meanwhile, I have worked out how to eat a perfectly ripe avocado on a buttery tortilla and take badass naps. I’m understandably proud of those accomplishments.

  13. Kate responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    Oh my god that sounds so good!

  14. claire responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 2:51 pm #

    you are indeed a success, maybe not in the areas you
    thought you should be in, but remember there is more ahead of you to enjoy. (pop pop told me this today) and who knew better than he did/ CRF

  15. rose responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    @ kate

    I forgot to mention, but this is totally mandatory: salt and a squeeze of lime. Some people might choose to add cilantro, but I like my food boring.

    Also, I had a rejection story to share, which involved kicking something back and forth with an editor who I deeply admire, only to have it labeled ‘too specific’ after I added all these details on request, and then it was dropped, which was an ego smush. I think I sulked for a few days and eventually just went back to the drawing board. These last two posts have gotten me thinking that it’s time to massage that piece back into its original form and resubmit it somewhere more suitable, if I can make myself get over the sting.

    Thanks for writing with your heart on your sleeve; it’s an inspiration.

  16. Lora responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    @Kate: I think it has to do with thinking success looks like something in particular instead of knowing that it feels like something in particular.

    I think Danielle LaPorte sums this up really nicely in the first five or so minutes of this video: http://vimeo.com/36656099 If we make the foundation of our idea of success the feeling we want to feel, I think we can allow ourselves to be satisfied. That’s just my answer, though- YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary.)

  17. Emily responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 4:52 pm #

    As someone who studies happiness… I want to say that this is a very good thought for you to have. “Success” does not breed happiness. The research doesn’t show a positive correlation there. Monetary success does not increase happiness either. The absolute worse thing for your happiness is comparing yourself with others and using that as your guide. Why? because there is always going to be someone who from your perspective is more successful than you, at something. You will always feel bad about yourself using that method.

    What does make people happy? Gratitude for their life. Love. Social connections. A feeling that you are having a positive impact on others.

    After reading on happiness everything from ancient advice the latest research, I noticed that the resounding chorus is the same. It is never about what you can get or what you do. It is always about shifting your perspective so that you can understand there are an infinite number of things to be happy about. Right now.

    Because really… it’s always right now.

  18. Spelling responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    Great post :)

    P.S. – I love how you (most likely unknowingly) just made several Castle references.

  19. caro responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 5:03 pm #

    Beautiful post, as always, Kate. Your writing is lovely. You clearly work hard for your craft, and your hard work has paid off. The words are just lovely.

    Something I noticed–of those definitions of “success” you mentioned, nearly every one of them has to do with measuring yourself against others. Being the best. Gold medal means you are the best. Pulitzer means you are the best.

    A little thing I’ve always loved: People who win the bronze medal in the Olympics are almost always happier than the people who win the silver. Because the bronze medalists are just so thrilled to place, but the silver medalists feel like they’re the first losers–they’re not the best, so they’ve failed. It’s the difference between celebrating your successes, and always striving to be even more.

    I think you are awesome, and you deserve to take time to celebrate all of your successes. Like how beautifully you write. Or that you come up with new topics to write about so consistently, day after day after day. And that you will only become a stronger writer, a better blogger, a more beautiful and masterful wordsmith with time.


  20. Kiannah responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 5:43 pm #

    “Maybe I can be a writer because I am already a writer, instead of never feeling quite like a real writer.”

    You said it! And my mom tells me this all the time, when I’m questioning my writerly legitimacy. I’m bookmarking this post for days when I feel like this.

    For me, that’s the crux of it- not so much widespread fame or money (although the latter could definitely change once I graduate), but legitimacy…which for me means writing something I can be proud of even if a publisher balks at it. Something like what Sarah Kay describes in a poem of hers- that “no matter that I have inhibitions to fill all my pockets, I keep trying, hoping that one day I’ll write a poem I can be proud to let sit in a museum exhibit as the only proof I existed.”

    Fantastic post, Kate. Personally, I think you’ve already succeeded as a writer through this blog, and the people it touches.

  21. Abby responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 10:23 pm #

    Lovely post–then again, they always are. I am very very glad that you’re feeling better.

    I feel the same way about success–except for me, it tends to be about grades. “You got a 3.7? That’s great. You got a 2.5? Ahh, that’s not bad. You were trying, and you’ll do better next semester.”

    And then to myself I’ll go “IF YOU DON’T GET GREAT GRADES YOU ARE A TERRIBLE PERSON AND YOU FAIL AT LIFE.” I know it’s hypocritical, and it’s a model that isn’t sustainable…because I’ll just want to do better next semester, and the semester after that. I got a 65 on a test (nobody got higher than a 75, but still…) and after a few moments of hysterical sobbing, I was actually okay with it. It was a “I’ll do better next time, and I did the best I could” kind of feeling, but I was happy. And it didn’t ruin my day. I was surprised…and proud. Maybe I am finally getting it into my head that grades aren’t everything–even when they’re MY grades.

    (P.S. Also I wrote a song today about thunder thighs. A happy song. Maybe someday I’ll actually get up the courage to sing it to people.)

  22. Blair responded on 23 Mar 2012 at 10:29 pm #

    Yes! I love this. Swim in hope!

  23. Val responded on 24 Mar 2012 at 2:41 am #

    You know, I think you actually speak for a lot of self employed people.

    love, Val

  24. Deedee responded on 24 Mar 2012 at 9:13 am #

    I think any one of Wayne Dwyer’s books could help your thought processes…I’m sure you’ve heard of him…his insights are amazing.

  25. Lissa Matthews responded on 24 Mar 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    This was completely amazing. I FEEL this ALL THE TIME! I’m glad not to be the only one. Your words are also incredibly inspiring. Thank you!

  26. Kate responded on 24 Mar 2012 at 2:30 pm #

    @San D
    What’s this about breaking a Tony? Tell! Tell!

  27. Kate responded on 24 Mar 2012 at 2:30 pm #

    I’m dying of curiosity about the Castle references! What did I do?

  28. alex responded on 24 Mar 2012 at 3:37 pm #

    I’m in high school so the idea of even getting the opportunity to maybe have a job at a magazine sounds super cool! I would much rather get a rejection letter then be in high school. Your life sounds way more fabulous then mine. You live in New York City!! I live in a very boring Floridian suburb right next to the everglades. This might sound shocking to you but I actually look up to women like you because at least you are trying for something. I think you’re successful. :)

  29. San D responded on 24 Mar 2012 at 4:32 pm #

    Tony Award Breakage:

    A regional theater in the area was given a Tony Award many years ago for excellence in theater. The husband and I used to be subscribers and would go after work. Generally this meant we were tired and cranky, and would have to drive an hour to see a show. At that time the artistic director for the theater would choose very serious pieces, which would add to the sturm and drung of the whole experience. One evening as we approached the theater with the other tired weary throngs, my husband hesitated and stopped in the doorway. I, in my “let’s keep moving” teacher-way, shoved him to get him through the doorway. (Think Mythbuster dominoes here). He in turn fell against the plexiglass display the theater had hanging on the wall with the Tony in it, which in turn pulled the box off the wall along with some of the plaster. The box exploded and out fell the Tony, and well you know that little spinney thing with the tragedy/comedy masks on it well, it rolled off too, and the broken Tony was on the floor next to the husband. Everyone came running over to see if he was OK, at which point he turned and pointed at me and said “she pushed me”. Nice. Fortunately for me, the show was about to start, and everyone went darting to their seats. End of commotion. Now the theater has the Tony in a special alcove, on a pedestal,roped off. Good thinking on their part.

  30. Laurna Tallman responded on 24 Mar 2012 at 10:45 pm #

    Your meditation on your goals is redolent with promise. I have always felt similarly about “success” while recognizing rationally that meeting the challenges in life as well as I possibly could was my first job and (so it seemed) the furthest activity from responding to the “prize-winning” motivation that dwelt down there in my subconscious under the ashes of silly dreams. Then, when I was 68, I actually discovered something of staggering importance. So much so that my husband, who honestly thinks I deserve a Nobel Prize, was willing with me to take on a ridiculous debt burden (at the age when many are cruising and golfing and seeking the sunny climes) so that we could publish my book about it. And I do not intend to discuss my discoveries or flog my writing here. I just want you to know that your longing for huge success is a kind of idealism within you that may not be inappropriate to your abilities and that whatever you do, that idealism and inner sense that you actually could do something spectacular for the world may yet lead you to a truly soul-satisfying accomplishment: the realization that the ancient massive diamond is real and is yours. While I have yet to reach many with my new knowledge, I have answered questions that have driven me since childhood and that in itself is profoundly gratifying: I know my massive ancient diamond is real. The logical final stage of my discovery is to share it with the world and that is comical because while I learned something about writing and publishing on my quest journey I missed the course on selling ancient, massive diamonds! This is not something I want to keep like a pet rock. The journey continues . . . . My very best wishes to you as you follow your dreams.

  31. Kate responded on 25 Mar 2012 at 7:10 pm #

    @San D
    That is a fantastic story!! I loled. And I could see it perfectly :-)

  32. Kate responded on 25 Mar 2012 at 7:13 pm #

    I agree. Sometimes there really is a diamond. Or maybe more than one! I know I’m a writer, and I know I have to write. But what I really love about your story is that an important part of it begins when you were 68. That’s really encouraging. Dreams don’t have expiration dates. And I want to think it’s OK to focus on the dream without needing it to come true NOW.
    I wish you tons of luck. And I have to say– I’m so curious about your project!!

  33. Sheryl responded on 26 Mar 2012 at 11:52 am #

    I used to look at success as being entirely about my future, imaginary career and reaching all those milestones. It was that final step of the mountain and staring down and saying “HA! I conquered you!”

    Now, not so much. Careers? They don’t go as planned. Life? It unfolds in ways that you would never imagine.

    Now, success is doing something with my day that makes me happy, setting a goal and reaching for it – even if I fall short, it’s pushing myself and supporting my fiance and being happy with my life.

    What does it matter if I get a Pulitzer, if I’m not happy and growing as I get there?

  34. Eat the Damn Cake » I don’t want to want to have a baby responded on 02 Apr 2012 at 1:00 pm #

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  35. Eat the Damn Cake » time responded on 09 Apr 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    [...] running out, I am delaying. I can’t do this other life thing, until I am really successful! I don’t know exactly what really successful looks like, but I am relatively certain it comes with the ability to write your own movie, which James Cameron [...]

  36. Eat the Damn Cake » Little Victories: how am I not jealous right now? responded on 11 Apr 2012 at 8:20 pm #

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  37. May responded on 02 May 2012 at 3:08 am #

    @Kate for this:
    “It occurred to me that because there are no guarantees in this game of trying to make it as a writer, the thing that fills the space instead is hope.”

    And @Lora for this:
    “I currently define success as the ability to sit in the landscape of my life as it is, no matter what is happening, and accept it, take it in, and still say “yes, come on in!” when something new knocks at my door.”

    Thank you!

    I actually don’t have many good thoughts on this one. All I know is that the other day I had this moment when I was *acutely* aware of how much my success (and my ability to think of myself as a success or a failure) is related to my job, and specifically two things- status and salary. And I became painfully aware that I absolutely define myself through my job. Of course I immediately wanted to sever this tie but at that thought I was struck by fear that if I don’t define myself through my job I don’t know how to measure myself. I don’t know how to decide if I’m successful or not. And of course, I need that validation.
    (It’s kinda funny how many emotions you can feel deeply and how many things you can realize in a moment of insight)

    Since then I have been thinking about the Buddhist idea of no-self (I know, I’m not digging this newagey phase either, but I do live in a Buddhist country, so I think I deserve a break there). I used to think that it was a really scary idea, because of course I have a self and it’s coherent and important. But sometimes I think how freeing it would be to not believe that I am coherent and important, which would also make me incapable of being a success or a failure… So I guess what I’m saying basically is maybe there’s some loophole that can get me around the idea of having to measure my success at all.

  38. Eat the Damn Cake » why you should fail at things a lot responded on 11 Jul 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    [...] So don’t wait for someone to accept you. Do something you love anyway. I mean, keep sending in those applications, of course, but at the same time, if you possibly can, try to find a thing that you can work on just because you like the way it feels to get better at it. Just because you feel that you know yourself a little better the more you do it. Just because you are already pretty good at it. Chances are, it relates to your dream job anyway. Think of it as an investment in your future. And then, when you fail, keep going. That is absolutely the only way to get to success. And actually, I think it’s a kind of success itself. [...]

  39. What’s Better for You: Personal or Public Creativity? | INK: debra liese responded on 13 Sep 2013 at 3:12 pm #

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