The Verdict is in…We’re All Judges

In a couple previous posts, I mentioned going to my first book fairs this spring. Both brought their shares of new experiences, some of which I expected and others I didn’t. One that falls into the latter group was the way I’d feel as I watched customers analyzing my work right before my eyes.

At past signings, I became accustomed to people passing me by, either because they like different genres or because they weren’t prepared to purchase a book when they walked into the library. While at a book fair, however, the judgement in the air is thick. Readers are canvasing the area and taking in covers, synopses, displays, and prices booth by booth. When they approach yours, there’s no way to know their tastes and how you’ll compare to the rest in their estimations.

I’m not spelling this out to scare any of my fellow authors; truly, book fairs and the like are great and rewarding opportunities. But the fact is, whether you’re sitting beside it or not, your book is being judged, perhaps by a prospective, current, or past reader. Even if it’s all alone on a store or library shelf, someone at this very moment could be picking it up and debating if it’s worth his or her time.

Admittedly, I’m a sensitive person, so when it comes to this, I’ve had to develop thicker skin. In truth, I had to start long before I ever released a book. Like many aspiring artists experience, I observed the critical views some manifest about what they consider a waste of time. I expected it, though, so I didn’t make my efforts known to many until I landed my first publishing deal.

Why would a sensitive girl like me pursue a career that comes with so much judgement? Having a disability, I’ve always stood out from the crowd even when I don’t want to. I grew up in a small community and, for a while, was the only disabled student in mainstream school, making me no stranger to feeling like I’m under the microscope. I’ve faced disapproval for some of the most ridiculous things, so when I chose to write, I figured at least I’d be judged for a worthy cause.

The best way I keep my emotions in check is by realizing that I judge, too. As I watched people give my book a glance and continue walking, I looked around me and mmannequin-312526_640used at how few books I myself would buy. Despite all the ones I’ve read in my lifetime, I’ve passed up many thousands, and the same applies to movies, television shows…and even clothes. My closet may be full, but I’ve still overlooked and condemned tons of garments that have a proud designer behind them.

Every day, we all make judgements about an array of subjects, and no matter what we do, we’re going to be judged, as well. When we work in the arts, we’re critiqued at a heightened level, from the time we begin our endeavors to long after we dieif we’re fortunate enough to have works that outlive us. We can’t let others’ lack of interest or unkind remarks dominate us, however. Chances are the ones who pass us by or make a critical statement hardly remember doing so by the day’s end. So why should we mull it over for any longer?

Also See

Profitable versus Rewarding: Is there a Difference?

A Review on Reviews

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My Quote-Worthy Twenties

To my disbelief, I’m well into the last year of my twenties. In retrospect, I’ve learned a lot about myself and life, discovering things like one’s supposed to in the decade. Some matters in my life haven’t turned out the way I wanted, while others have far exceeded my expectations. Like Allen Saunders once said, “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”

In preparing this post, I found many quotes like that of Saunders, and they aptly represent some of the gems of wisdom I’ve picked up during this time. Truth be known, I’m not very familiar with each figure who spoke them, but their words resonate with me, and I’m sure they do with those of all ages.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
~George Bernard Shaw

Because of the limitations my disability has inflicted on me, I wasn’t sure if I could enjoy the self-discovery and new experiences many do in their twenties. I feared my lack of independence would stint me in this area. Gradually, I’ve come to appreciate the truth in Shaw’s statement.

Sure, life hands out some surprising opportunities and gifts you never thought to seek out. For the most part, though, you have to create those chances and the things that give you purpose and joy. Nobody’s lived your tomorrow—including you—, so even if you choose to follow someone else’s example, you still need some creativity and flexibility to make your path work for you.

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”
~Douglas Adams

Growing up, I, like every kid, had all kinds of thoughts about early adulthood. I even recall an assignment in eighth grade where I was asked to write about what I’d be doing in ten years. In an ironic twist, I refrained from saying I’d be an author, figuring that’d be too unrealistic, while I predicted achieving other goals—none of which actually transpired.

Again, I didn’t grasp Adams’s sentiment overnight. For half of my twenties, I struggled to find a publisher, and not meeting any of my other goals, I was nowhere near my intended destination. When I signed my first book deal, I thought I had this lesson learned; my dream didn’t come true as soon as I’d hoped, but it came true when it needed to. In reality, the point didn’t hit me like it did two years later, when that company dropped me and any hope to publish the series I began with them. Here, I thought I’d be putting out a book every year for the next few, but instead, I was back on the market.

In this instance especially, I truly agree with Adams. No, I didn’t end up with what I had in mind, but matters turned out just as well, if not better. I found a new publisher I enjoy working with and released a book I once thought would never be anywhere but my shelf. This and other experiences have shown me that some endeavors take time to be realized, and some never are, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make the most of wherever you land.

“Don’t let people change the loving and caring person you are. Don’t let anyone get you down. Use the love and goodness inside you to stay strong.”  

~Brigitte Nicole

This one’s the hardest one of all, at least for me. The world tells high school and college graduates they can be whoever they want to be. In theory, that’s true, but in everyday life…

Like it or not, society and its attitudes rub off on us to various degrees. I walked—honestly, rode—into my twenties believing I could make my life what I wanted just by showing the most care I could. I’d been privy to the opposite, uncaring side plenty already, and I wanted to reach out and show people love. Isn’t that all you need, Paul McCartney?

In short, no. During the past couple years, I’ve observed the world doesn’t reciprocate your kindness. Your smiles often net frowns, and kind deeds don’t always elicit words of appreciation. That can be draining and frustrating, making it easy to conform to the majority. As Ms. Nicole urges, however, we can’t let it. If we adopt the prevalent mentality, we could miss out on someone else’s kindness to us, thereby embittering them.

“Life is a book and there are a thousand pages I have not yet read.”
~Cassandra Clare

I realize turning thirty doesn’t make me an expert. I have a lot of growing to do, and I doubt I’ve even come close to mastering the lessons stated above. Frankly, I’m not sure anyone at any age does, as we experience many eye-opening changes and discoveries throughout a lifetime. To go along with Clare’s comment, we can only keep reading with anticipation and find joy in every chapter.

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The Timeline: A Plot’s Unspoken Character

As readers, we come across a different timeline in each book we pick up. Some stories span just a day or two, others a weeks, and many longer. Because they’re well-crafted and edited by the time we get to see them, we take the element for granted and allow the author to take us however far he or she wishes to.

Coming from the world of a reader to that of a writer, I had a pretty lax view of my stories’ timelines. With my first few manuscripts, I didn’t plan out how long a span I wanted a plot to elapse, that I’d figure it out once I neared the end. Between scenes and chapters, I randomly chose how much time had passed since the last, and often, it was pretty fluid. I carried that through my next two, as it seemed to turn out perfectly fine.

I learned after finishing my second—which took place over a four year period—that my personal style wasn’t suited for a long-term storyline. Some authors pull it off very well, but the lack of structure made me lose my focus, and the end product showed it.

My biggest wake-up call, though, came when I worked with an editor on Husband in Hiding. The mystery followed tampering that was going on in the NBA, and in the first draft, the foul play began long before the playoffs began and lasted through the finals in June. Since the perpetrator’s motive appeared to be knocking the Orlando Magic out of contention, my editor thought it best to center the story around the playoffs, which go on for a long time as it is.

This led to my most difficult challenge to date, given I had to chop off more than a month of my plot; I once deleted 4,000 words with a single stroke. It hurt to watch my hard work vanish like that, but afterwards, I appreciated the value in it. Before, it dragged and was unrealistic, even if I didn’t realize it. Now, the stakes were high and it would keep the reader engaged, as opposed to wondering, “Why haven’t they caught this slow-poke yet?”

Looking back, I suppose I thought the longer it went on, the better. I felt like it somehow reflected my talent as a storyteller. I came to realize, however, that what makes a good storyteller isn’t how long he/she talks but it’s how he/she makes the tale interesting. No one’s entertained by hearing phrases like, “And then,” “The next day,” and “A week later,” time and again. Sure, every book—novels, especially—needs its fair share of transitions, but we never want our readers to see a book’s last page as long-overdue. It we’re tired of writing more filler, they’re probably tired of reading it.

Another factor that needs to be considered is your genre. Some call for a shorter timeline than others. For instance, I recently learned cozy mysteries showcase a week or less of a character’s life. Looking at it realistically, that makes sense. After all, one would expect a crime to be solved faster than a couple to fall in love.

All this said, it’s hard to plan out the exact timeline of a story from the beginning. You have to get a feel for the plot and characters first and go from there. Readers depend on authors to take them on a journey, whether it be a pleasant drive through the country or a wild safari. Wherever you choose to take yours, make it full of unforgettable scenery and figure out where’s the best place to conclude the adventure.

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Also See:

The Pressure of Creating a Satisfying Conclusion

It’s that time of year when networks wrap up shows’ seasons and sometimes series altogether. We, viewers, are riveted to see how the plots unfold after months—or years—of watching the characters struggle through obstacles and surprising twists. After the finale’s over, some may be pleased with how things shake out while others wish they could get back the hours they spent tuning into the show.

Though writers like to create a shock factor, the majority don’t intend to disappoint fans. Sure, we enjoy the whole process, but in truth, everything’s leading to that final scene. If you don’t execute it properly, it can ruin the entire work.

Hence, writers of every kind feel the pressure of sculpting that perfect ending. Perfect doesn’t always mean happy; it’s simply the best way you want your story to be represented. After all, the closing words will be the ones most remembered and can define how one views the rest of it.

Early in my writing, I had the hardest time knowing how to end a tale. Even in preschool, I was required to keep a journal and every day failed to come up with a final sentence that wasn’t awkward, like, “That’s all,” or the classic, “The End.” My skills improved over time, but that was mostly because I thought of more awkward endings to use. When I faced having to conclude a novel, then, I trembled in inadequacy.

I, for one, usually have a general idea of a story’s climax long before I make it there, but I never plan out the details. In my opinion, you can’t decide the exact impact all the plot twists will have on the characters chapters in advance. As everything winds down—or up, in many cases—, one has to start deciding where the characters are at and where they will go. You’ve used countless words to foster a bond between readers and characters, so readers will pick up on actions that are contrary to their nature.

Of course, only authors can see what characters and the audience can’t. As mentioned earlier, happily-ever-after’s aren’t always the best or most plausible conclusions, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful and satisfying. Honestly, some of my favorite books don’t end with a HEA. If you choose to take that route, make it meaningful, not irrational. That way, your reader will think over the body of work and, even if they don’t like it, say, “That makes sense,” rather than, “What in the world?!”made-1619751_640

At the risk of sounding cliché, a story’s ending is the bow on top of the gift, the gift you give to readers. Whichever kind you choose, tie it with precision and make sure it suits the overall package well. Then, they’ll look forward to the next.

Bonus:

Here’s an alternate ending to my first novel, Husband in Hiding. I was happy with it, but it left little room for a sequel I later decided to write.

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Want to see the ending that made the cut? Order it on KarinaBartow.com or read it on Kindle.

Profitable versus Rewarding: Is there a Difference?

We’ve all heard of the saying, “Risk versus Reward,” and for those in any business, that’s a guiding principle. Having always had limited means, I take fewer risks than most in marketing, since, by definition, risks don’t offer guarantees. I’ve had to overcome that to a degree, however, as most everything involved in promoting a book calls for risk, even of one’ s time.

Last month, I participated in an author’s panel at an event. One of the topics that came up was the profit the majority of authors make. With less experience than the other three, I sat back and listened with eagerness, wondering if my lackluster earnings were a reflection of my work. To my relief, their responses were laughs and jokes, making it clear that my meager royalty checks were not the exception.

The general public mainly hears about the big-name authors who make millions per bestseller. Like with all industries, though, the top of that pyramid is very narrow. Underneath lie a plethora of contemporaries who will never see that kind of net worth.

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In reality, books don’t sell like hotcakes. Today’s world provides numerous forms of entertainment, not to mention probably the widest array of literature society’s ever known. Thus, it’s difficult to attract readers to pick your book out of the growing mountain.

I became keenly aware of this at the event I mentioned above, which hosted over 150 authors. A book fair, it drew in a record high attendance. We expected a couple thousand, as in years past, so I hoped to have a steady flow of traffic at my table. With the vast supply of options, however, many of the booths—including mine—only had occasional visitors throughout the day.

I’d be lying if I said my expectations weren’t met in terms of sales. In truth, it took more money for gas to get there than I made in royalties. As far as “risk versus reward” goes, the reward didn’t win out. Or did it?

Contemplating the experience, I came to realize “rewarding” isn’t always the same as “profitable.” Profits are made in your bank account; rewards are made in your heart. The standout example from the day that illustrated that was a reaction I received from a young girl. She skimmed Forgetting My Way Back to You’s synopsis on the back cover, and to my surprise, she clutched it to her chest, telling me how excited she was to read it. During all my years of dreaming about becoming an author, I could merely imagine someone looking at my book that way.

If we just viewed writing from a monetary standpoint, it wouldn’t pass the “risk versus reward” test for a lot of us. I’d shudder to calculate how much I make per week, much less per hour. The figures would be devastating, especially if you factored in marketing.

So, aspiring authors, don’t start a novel to rake in a six or seven digit paycheck. It probably won’t happen. That’s why, as my panel agreed, writers have to enjoy their craft and find fulfillment in the dirty work—namely the solitary hours of typing and imagining. Cherish a reader’s glee when he/she discovers your works or falls in love with a character. Take the time to impart why you love what you do to young ones. Those are the real rewards of writing.

The Worth of Feeling Valued

I recently ran into an old friend, and we had the typical exchange former classmates do. We hugged, caught up on our families, and shared a laugh or two. Most times, even I’d consider such a meeting mundane—or, depending on the person, awkward—, but this one left me feeling anything but bored or uncomfortable.

In my friend’s eyes, I saw an expression I’m not accustomed to in my everyday life. In fact, it took me a moment to identify what it was, which says a lot for one whose work is describing people. I had to consider in whom I’d seen that look before, and at last, I could define what it conveyed—his value for me.

On the last episode of Oprah, Ms. Winfrey made the statement, “I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common—they all wanted validation… They want to know, ‘Do you hear me? Do you see me? Does what I say mean anything to you?’” I’ve never meant Oprah, but I, along with probably everyone else who’s ever lived, yearn to be seen, heard, and valued.

On average, I feel both undervalued and underestimated because of having a disability. My Cerebral Palsy affects my speech, but you could hardly say it sounds like Swahili! To understand me just takes a little extra concentration, which many are willing to give me. Throughout my life, though, I’ve had countless conversations with individuals who pretend to hear my words, but by their insincere nods and lack of appropriate replies, I can tell they really don’t. I appreciate that people are busy and can’t always take the time to ask me to repeat myself, but I often get the idea that some simply deem what I have to say as worthless.

Okay, enough with the pity party. I enjoy beautiful friendships, and we mutually value one another. I realize, too, that able-bodied people have as hard of time as anyone feeling valued. As Oprah observed, everybody seeks validation. While it’s true that you have to value yourself foremost, self-validation and empowerment can only take you so far. We all need someone else to reinforce our worth, whether it be through a spoken word, a note, or a mere look.

There’s no way to write a tutorial about how to show someone you esteem him or her. Each person has his/her own needs and preferences. Regardless of how you express it, valuing a person is rooted in the heart, and you can’t go wrong letting that naturally manifest itself.

This world offers plenty of matters that have little value. Thus, we spend our time discussing them, and in the shuffle, we come out doubting our own worth. Instead of placing them above what really counts, why not focus on showing others we value them? If we don’t, who will?

The Conflict in Conflicts

It’s well known that every story must have conflicts. That’s the reason even most children’s books and movies have at least one argument, bad person, or any twist that elicits an, “Oh no!” Controversy plays a part in everyone’s life, so without it, a plot comes off as unrealistic, uninteresting, and/or even gag-worthy.

Conflict is an aspect of creative writing that takes time to develop, however. When we play pretend as kids, don’t we often throw in obstacle after obstacle? At that age—and beyond—, many of us incorporate that into our writing, putting characters into peril time and again.

I wrote my first draft of what became Forgetting My Way Back to You in my late teens and early twenties, and in retrospect, I saw that I fell victim to this trap. Once I read it the second time, I realized a couple of my characters were a wicked cackle away from being Disney villain! Since I wasn’t going for that vibe, I weeded out a lot of the cruel words and schemes that plagued the manuscript…and eventually removed those personalities altogether.

I ran into this issue with Husband in Hiding, as well. A few readers grew tired of the protagonists’ arguments. While I felt that I’d limited them and only placed them in suitable contexts, those opinions helped me to see that entertainment is an escape from reality. Thus, some might not enjoy reading about all the traits real life has to offer.

Another caveat that needs to be considered besides the quantity of conflicts is the quality of them. We’ve all had the experience of listening to somebody else venting about a disagreement or problem they have with another and wondered what the big deal was. Everyone has their own triggers, and naturally, so will our characters. To cultivate a reader’s empathy for them, then, we have to either make their struggles relatable to most people or give sufficient background information that illustrates what makes the character tick—or have a tick, in some cases.

In an effort to keep a plot both realistic and pleasurable, an author needs to find a balance. Of course, certain genres call for more conflict than others. Regardless, it’s another instance where we have to know our readers and put ourselves in their shoes. In turn, they’ll step into the world we’ve created and go through the story’s conflicts and victories with us.

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The Fleeting Lifespan of a Book

We all know the literary classics we’re assigned to read in school—Tom Sawyer, Pride & Prejudice­, almost anything by Shakespeare, and the list goes on. Twenty years or so later, our kids are reading them, and decades after that, their youngsters are. If you’re one who already has dreams of becoming an author, you envision having your work someday pass through generations like such tales.

I didn’t enjoy every classic I was required to read, but I admired their longevity and yearned to pen something that would stand the test of time. Truth be known, I’d be happy if one of my books would survive through just one generation. As I became more serious about my pursuit to write, however, I realized even that was a stretch.

While preparing for my first book release in 2015, I was stunned to discover from my research that the general lifespan for marketing a book is a single year. That means you have just twelve months to convince readers to read it, booksellers to buy it, and—if you’re fortunate—make the media notice it. Upon learning this, I didn’t want to believe it, reasoning it was a mere opinion and perhaps from authors whose books weren’t so great.

Looking at it as a reader, though, I began to understand its validity. Several times, I’ve rushed to buy my favorite author’s book, read it, and three months later, forgot he released it such a short time ago. The world moves quickly, especially since technology has boomed and allowed us to change conversations and tasks every few seconds. When somebody ‘likes’ a photo you posted three days earlier on social media, doesn’t it seem like old news?

With our constant stream of information and entertainment, I’d dare to say a book’s lifespan is ever dwindling. Regardless of how famous an author is, much of the hype of a new release wanes within weeks. So, does this mean we’re all doomed?

No, but it forces us to work harder and with more expedience. In the case of my debut novel, it didn’t take me long to see the truth in the one-year rule. While I had success early on with lining up signings, the interest in such dried up before too many months had passed. I also wasn’t proactive enough in seeking out book awards and fairs, which often require entries to be under a year old. There was no getting those opportunities back. I missed a one-way boat.

It’s almost been six months since my second novel came out, so the halfway mark is looming. To this point, I can report that my marketing efforts have been more efficient and—hopefully—more skillful. That said, I’ve had my share of disappointments, as many of them haven’t met with success. However, I’m pleased my taking the initiative has paid off on other fronts, including my acceptances into two book fairs this coming month.

The realization that the clock is ticking on your book promotion is a bit daunting, but we can’t let it distract us. Instead, we can only do our best to make the limited time we have count. Like with everything in life, there’ll be victories and fails, but gratitude and satisfaction is always within our reach.

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Can One Write While Uninspired?

It’s well known that there’s a close link between emotions and art. An artist throws in one or often many emotions into his/her work. In turn, that can translate to his audience, creating a stir of sentiments in them, as well.

Emotions are delicate, which makes what they inspire equally fragile. A sudden event can transform a masterpiece before its conception. For instance, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” was inspired by his observing the blood red colored sunset and a faint creaking noise in the distance. The experience made him feel like nature was screaming out to him, impelling him to paint the famous scene.

Suppose he hadn’t heard that sound, and instead, maybe he heard a baby’s cry. Would we now know of The Cry or would the painting cease to exist? I doubt even Munch could tell us.

My point is when one isn’t feeling the proper emotions, it can all too easily impede his creative process. Those of us who are authors fear the notorious ‘Writer’s Block.’ Some may think this is a mental problem, but in my opinion, it’s an emotional one. When our writing is an outlet for our feelings, it only stands to reason that it’ll suffer if we don’t have any we want to express. Our creativity may still be there, but there’s no spark to bring it to life.

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Sometimes, even happiness can squelch inspiration, as one may not need that escape to release their tender feelings if they have joy. In my decade of writing, though, I’ve run across the opposite more often. Like anybody, I’ve gone through various ups and downs, and the latter is a real inspiration-crusher.

My first experience of this came only a few months after I started writing, when two friends of mine were killed in horrific accidents nine days apart. So limited on experience, I took a longer period to recuperate and return to my manuscript than I ever have since. Other challenges—even one within the past week—have dampened my creativity, and I’ve learned not to be ashamed to take a short break to allow myself to heal.

Something else I’ve realized, however, is how writing can help in that healing process. Sure, it’s hard to go back to imagining fun stories when your world has imploded. Never underestimate, though, the power of one little idea. It can blossom into something you didn’t expect and get you right back on track where you left off.

What’s more, you can use whatever you’re feeling to breathe life into your writing. This happened to me as I was finishing Forgetting My Way Back to You. An upsetting development occurred at that crucial point, and initially, I wanted to give up on writing altogether. After the shock wore off, however, I chose to use the misery I felt to create what became—in my opinion—the book’s most powerful moment.

As this has highlighted, our emotions play a huge part in our works, and that’s what makes them live. When they end up hindering our process, we need to be patient with ourselves for a while…but not too long. Being uninspired can sometimes turn into just the inspiration you need. This very post is a testament to that!

See also: The Therapeutic Benefits of Writing

Driven to Success or Running from Failure: Which is the Better Motivator?

Throughout my life, I’ve often been called an inspiration. While I’m accustomed to the flattering title now, I can’t say I’m comfortable with it. I have a variety of reasons for this, but the biggest one is that I haven’t made any of my pursuits because of extraordinary ambition or talent. Rather, I’ve done it all with one of the few goals everybody shares—to be happy and fulfilled.

That motivation, in itself, has given me the needed boost to strive for a productive life. As highlighted in the About page, my parents didn’t raise me to focus on my limitations. They adapted opportunities instead of denying them, so I’ve always seen more prospects for myself than others might. Those prospects usually need some tweaks, but my upbringing gave me the willpower to make them.

At the same time, I must admit I’ve always had something to prove. As discussed in previous posts, people stereotype me because of my Cerebral Palsy, and from an early age, I’ve been eager to prove them wrong. I’ve even wanted to prove professionals’ expectations wrong. For instance, my neurologist told my parents I may start to walk on my own by my late teens. My competitive and contrary soul, however, yearned to blow that prediction out of the water by walking before I hit thirteen. Though I didn’t accomplish that, I still relished in beating his prediction by a few years.

Fast-forward to my early adulthood, and I had ever more to prove. I graduated seventh in my high school class, so there were differing opinions on what path I should pursue. I disappointed some by not going to college, and this led several—with good intentions—to plot out my ‘Plan B.’

One professional I was required to meet with offered options that do help many but that didn’t fit in with the life neither my family nor I had in mind. She didn’t seem to appreciate our declining her suggestions, and initially, I was crushed by her bleak view of my future and potential. Once the emotion wore off, my misery turned to determination to have a better life and career than she could imagine.

Returning to the theme of this post, I’m unsure if one would say I’m a driven individual or just a rascally and stubborn mule! In light of my confessions, am I really an inspiration?

No need to assure me either way, as I don’t truly aspire to be one. Like I stated earlier, I’ve reached for my achievements for my own well-being, and that’s still the case. I’m no more certain of my future triumphs or failures than anyone is, so I take the steps I can today to better my life tomorrow.

To answer the question in the title, I believe one needs to both reach for success and run from failure. In some instances, one is stronger than the other, but coupled together, they keep us focused to continue in our endeavors. Like a quirky and complex Rube Goldberg machine, we all need pushes and pulls of one sort or another in our quest for success.

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Photo credit: Flickr