On Success and Having Arrived

During a session on Thursday, one of my clients was talking about his feeling that he had “arrived” in his profession. In his mid-30s, he’s well-established now in a competitive field, earning an excellent income and finding himself respected and sought-after as an expert. As I listened to him, I recognized that I had never felt that way, not fully. By just about any standard, I’m successful, leading a comfortable life; I’m valued by my clients and respected by my peers. I’ve written and self-published a book on psychological defense mechanisms that has sold far better than I expected. But I have not felt that I’ve truly arrived, not yet.

Arrival, to me, has always meant being accepted by the New York publishing world as a serious writer. As much as I love my work as a therapist, I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, first and foremost. For me, arrival would mean finding a first-rate literary agent and then securing a book contract with one of the Big Six. This is my definition of success and I’ve been trying very hard for a long time to achieve it. Despite what I wrote in my post about precocity and impatience, around the time I sold Why Do I Do That?, my contract with New Harbinger Publications didn’t really give me that feeling of having arrived, not fully. New Harbinger is a small specialty house based in Oakland, California. And then, I had such an unhappy experience working with their editorial team, who tried to shove me into the cognitive-behavioral box, whatever satisfaction I felt didn’t last.

I’ve mentioned here on the site that I’ve been working on a book about narcissism for a while now. In October, I sent my proposal out to A-list literary agents and actually got to choose between several very good ones who wanted to represent me. Together, my superb new agent Gillian MacKenzie and I worked hard to craft my first draft into the strongest proposal we could devise. I had some excellent and crucial assistance from my friend Emily Heckman, a freelance editor. As always, I had the weekly support and critical feedback of my writer’s group: Laurel Goldman, Angela Davis-Gardner, Peter Filene, Christina Askounis and Peggy Payne. Earlier this month, Gillian finally sent out my book proposal to New York publishers. There was a lot of interest. Bids were due by noon yesterday — the day following the session with my client who felt he had at last arrived. I wanted so much to feel the same way.

I was sick with dread and anticipation yesterday morning, but in the end, my book sold to Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. My editor will be Michelle Howry who also edited my friend Cat Warren’s fine new book, What the Dog Knows. Cat gave Michelle high praise, so I know I’ll be in excellent hands. Touchstone’s offer was strong, indicating a lot of enthusiasm for my book. It will be released in summer 2015.

Anyone who wants to write books and thinks it worthwhile for thousands of people to read them has to have a healthy does narcissism, and I’m no exception. And of course I’ve had those grandiose fantasies about what might happen if my book becomes a best-seller, etc. But what I feel much more is that at last I belong. What I’ve wanted all these years is to have relationships with an agent and an editor I respect and who respect me in return, to participate in the world of writing and publishing. I love books and revere good writing. And when it comes down to it, I don’t feel narcissistic or self-absorbed because I so strongly feel that this success belongs to everyone involved: I could not have done it alone. I feel deeply moved this morning as I write, full of gratitude for the help and praise I received along the way.

And proud of myself. I’ve worked so hard! Here’s what Angela wrote to me in an email this morning: “I’ve been thinking about how several years ago you began to focus, with great care and hard work, on building an online presence, and then launched your blog. Then labored on that, which led to such developments as the Psych Today and Atlantic. It’s wonderful to have witnessed such constant, smart dedication paying off with this sale. Bravo and congratulations!” Thank you, Angela. It feels wonderful.

So now, I can say and truly feel it — I have arrived.

This will be my last post before the New Year. I want to wish all of you a happy holiday season and much success in all your endeavors during 2014!

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


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    It’s good to hear a tale of success after what has been a lot of hard work to get there. Great to see it rewarded. While you are right: it’s rarely about one person, it’s you, and the care, attention and hard work you’ve put in that’s key. I’m with Angela on this one!
    Only question I ask is ‘why the hell the wait?!’

    A combination of my needing to grow as a writer, overcome some character issues (like haste and impatience) and the reality of a very tough publishing market. Some of it’s luck, too — having a book proposal on narcissism when it’s a hot topic.

    I often hear advice that our feelings of success should come from inside, but external validation remains a powerful force in our lives. You knew your work had arrived, but now you have the proof you’ve always wanted. Congratulations!

    I think that’s totally awesome. Congratulations. It’s a very good feeling to be able to acknowledge achievement and to feel good about the place you are in life. I think sometimes for me the times I have felt the most content is when I have seen the life I’ve lived, it all of its challenges and adversities and I know in my heart that in working hard to be the person i became, that I did it, that despite those obstacles, self doubts, protective defenses and hard work, I made success happen. I dont know if this is the same for you but having followed your blog and listened to your thoughts and experiences i just felt happy for you. I hope this feeling lasts a while for you. Merry Christmas, my thoughts are with you.

    Dear Joe, yeah.. Having read some of your angst about not getting published by a big firm,
    and admiring your honesty about the pain involved, it brings me joy to read your work has been taken up by a respected house..I love the insights you offer here, and that others more widely will now ( well in a yr or so), be able to benefit too, is awesome.

    Congrats Dr. Burgo. I’m so happy to see such and honest, caring and earnest writer (and therapist), have success. It is more gratifying knowing that you are not interested in pandering to the populace, you are interested in the truth (and truth does seem to be a hard sell). Integrity is hard to come by. I have to say though that I think there is a debate to be had about you or anyone “arriving”. I think I know what you mean but the term feels to confining, like it is the end of something when it really is the beginning. Your potential has barely been tapped. I am so glad that you are finally reveling in one of your successes though. Keep it coming!

    Thanks, Kim. I understand your point about the word “arriving,” and you’re right, it is actually a beginning. At least I hope it is. I intend to work as hard as I possibly can to make sure it IS a beginning, and I can just go on writing and publishing books for the rest of my life.

    I knew I’d stumbled upon something special when I found your website, Dr. Burgo. Dreams really can come true, eh? Congratulations!

    Congratulations on your good news!

    None of us can really know exactly what this unique definition of success means to you. Of course, you can generalize that “a writer needs an audience, and the imprimatur of the publishing house still confers legitimacy”, but this could mean so many different things to so many people (e.g. finding a public voice/ being visibly placed within a tradition/obtaining a new social status…). I’m not so much intrigued by your individual reasons, though I am sure these are deep and interesting, but by how a therapist works with clients to help them to identify what success in their life actually means to them. I don’t think I yet “arrived” professionally either (in objective terms, it could be said that I had, but not subjectively) but for me I “arrived” in life by having children.

    It’s an interesting point. We all have our own individually crafted definitions of what it means to “arrive.” We find self-fulfillment in so different ways. I also felt that being a father has been hugely important to my idea of myself as a “successful” (using that term loosely) person, but there was always his unfinished business, this unachieved goal (until now) that has gnawed at me.

    Welcome to the wonderful world of Big Six publishers. Now wait for the experience of holding your breath to see what Kirkus Reviews, PW, Booklist, et. al. has to say about that which you’ve been slaving over for thousands of hours, and which a reviewer who has read it pretty darn fast can make or break in 200 words. :)

    Seriously. Happy New Year. You’ve earned it.

    I know, I know! It’s frightening that reviewers can so easily make short shrift of all one’s hard work. I’m not going to think about it now but just try to do the best job I can.

    Welcome to the club. All we can do is feel good for a day (hopefully), feel bad for a day (hopefully, no longerr than that), and keep writing.