Too Much Success: A Multi-Part Series

Guest post by Rena Tom

photo: Rena Tom

"The fortunate people - the truly fortunate - are not so much those who succeed in life as those who succeed in living. There are some who do both; many who do neither, and some who do either one, but not the other. Success in life, so called, can be overdone, but hardly success in living. It seems possible to succeed too much in various lines of attainment, legitimate and sincerely profitable in themselves, but success in living involves getting the most out of life, not in a day or a year or a decade, but in a lifetime. That involves living wisely, and you can't live too wisely."

-- Edward Sanford Martin, "Too Much Success", 1908

Jan asked me to start a conversation about a topic that is multifaceted and complex, yet not often broached online. There are plenty of articles on making your business more successful, but let’s look at the other side. Can you be too successful? And if so, what can you do about it?

As a creative entrepreneur, you might be thinking, "gee, nice problem to have," but be careful what you wish for. If you are not ready for success, you may end up overworked, underperforming and poorer - financially, emotionally, or both - than when you started.

Today I'm going to talk about success in broad terms, how to measure it and and how to achieve work/life balance. In future posts, I'll cover tactical tips for people who have too much success in their business, and then get into technology-based solutions to increase productivity so you can spend more time being creative and enjoying the fruits of your success with your loved ones.

Defining Success

How do you define success? Is it a specific number of units sold, or a dollar amount at the end of the year? Is it getting into your favorite magazine, or being featured on your favorite blog? Is it a really nice compliment about your work, or a warm thank you note from a fan? Or perhaps it's being able to make enough money to stay home and be with your family.

Everybody has a different definition, and the trick is to recognize your own standards and not get sucked into trying to achieve goals that other people set for themselves. Competition can be rather insidious, as this thoughtful article on design*sponge touched on. Focus on your own needs and stop wasting time thinking about the other guy!

To craft your definition, you should take your business goals and blend them with your personal goals. For the former, these tips break things down very nicely, and for the latter, I love how Mighty Girl formulates and achieves her life list. Review your goals at least once a year to see how you've done and also to see if the goals still hold true.

Achieving Balance

If you have hit a lot of your business goals but are still unsatisfied, maybe it's time to address your work/life balance. I talked to Meighan O'Toole who writes the fantastic contemporary art blog My Love for You is a Stampede of Horses. She recently made the decision to cut back on her blogging to three days a week (Monday/Wednesday/Friday).

Meighan O'Toole of My Love for You is a Stampede of Horses

Meighan also has a full-time job that she enjoys and wants to keep, which is sometimes the case – not everyone wants to quit their day job! Finding the sweet spot between hobby and full-blown business can be challenging, and is one instance where too much success with your creative endeavor can be a problem.

Meighan’s new strategy is "to cover the best of the best [to] set me apart from the hundreds of art blogs that have started in the past 2 years" and to stop "posting and posting - trying to keep up with the Joneses." We talked about burning out from trying to post so often and how the decision to go for quality instead of quantity is both less time-consuming and more satisfying.

She now schedules her week to allow time for both work and play, and focuses on her writing on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. On the other days she might do a studio visit but otherwise sees her friends, goes to the gym, et cetera.

Here are a few tips Meighan wanted to share:

  1. Take a minute and enjoy your life in the moment. Refuse to 'capture the moment' to put online.

  2. Make sure you get out & see people, get inspired. The book The Artist's Way says you must continually refill the well to keep putting out creative vibes. If the well dries up, so do you.

  3. Take one day, maybe every week - maybe every two weeks - and do nothing job-related. Read a book, do something nice for yourself like a massage, sleep, watch bad movies. Stay still & let the world come to you for once. DO NOT open your laptop on that day.

I know that monitoring your business 5 (or 7) days a week is still a requirement for many of you, but Meighan's advice to not always frame your actions in a business context is solid. Business may be a very large part of your life, but it is not your entire life. Why be successful if you don't have time to enjoy it?

How do you balance the demands of your business with maintaining your personal life? Do you worry too much about what your competitors are doing? Do you feel successful?


Rena Tom is a retail strategist for creative business owners. She previously owned Rare Device, a boutique and art gallery with locations in New York and San Francisco that was renowned for its carefully edited collection of design objects, books, housewares and accessories, and for supporting small, innovative designers and artists whose work was not easily found in stores.  Rena blogs about personal projects as well as retail trends and small business tips at She lives in San Francisco with her husband and baby boy in an apartment filled with too many laptops, Sprecher root beer, half-finished craft projects and overdue library books.

Jan Halvarson


Liz said...

Wow what amazing post. I've been trying to get business up and running for a while now while holding down a full time job - hard. But these are really important things to keep in mind. Unless you qualify what success means to you, you can't pat yourself on the back for achieving it!

I can highly recommend the artists way to anyone who is thinking about or already involved in a creative pursuit. I never manage to finish the 12 weeks though, one day!

Alicia said...

Thanks for starting this conversation here. I'm really struggling with this at the moment and would love to hear how other's are managing it as well.

Michelle said...

Thanks for this great post. I'm just starting to take my creative business into a full time pursuit and this is amazing advice to remember.

I'll have to find that book as well.....

rachel said...

I can entirely relate to this. Last holiday season, about a month before Christmas, my Etsy sales quadrupled. It was great the first few days, but after a few weeks of this, I was unbelievably stressed out. I was getting further and further behind -- yet everyone wanted their order delivered asap because it was a gift for Christmas. All I can remember about that month was working, working, and working.

(This holiday season, I'll be as prepared as I can in advance. Still, I can't help dread the rush a little.)

dahlhaus said...

I think this is a great conversation to have and fully appreciate the suggestion of a balanced life. Having kids has really forced me to take one day totally off a week and besides that, some down time in between busy seasons.
For me the harder part to becoming more 'successful' is making some of the larger decisions about growth. Do I just keep upping my prices so I sell less and have to make less? Do I get more help in the studio to make more? Do I get a larger studio to accommodate more production or out-source some of the production?
Well there seems to be a lot of options out there along with some of the pros and cons of all of them. I'm looking forward to hearing from other people's experience on some of the decisions they've made! Great series!

Dave Conrey said...

Personally, the reason I think people don't broach this subject is because you risk sounding like a complete douche to the people that are struggling just as hard, but not successful yet.

Yes, work/life balance is important, but you signed up for this willingly, so fix the problems and move on, but don't tell me about it. If you don't want that level of success send it my direction and get out of the way. I'll gladly run with the ball if you don't want it.

annamaria potamiti said...

I really relate to the points covered here- I erroneously got myself caught in the 'one painting a day' thing - and it really did not work for me at all- my artwork suffered from it- my home life suffered from it- I finally decided to try to find my own personal rythm of working and stick to that even if it is much slower than the trendy mad-speed artmaking. I also decided to take time off and visit my favorite coffee shop alone just to take time out to think. I still jot down ideas but much more relaxed. The final result is that ideas come much more frequently than before, when I was trying to squeeze my brain out.Thank you for this post. Good stuff!

Jan Halvarson said...

Dave - i think you're right - we all have these problems at whatever level we're at - starting out, etc. but i'm sure the advice rena will give will be helpful at any point one is at.

Chroma Lab said...

Awesome advice from Meighan. Take time to walk in the park, and you don't have to blog it! :)

thesmitt said...

I liked rena's advice about defining success and would also like to do more of Meighan's tips!
I struggle with trying to achieve overall business/life balance. Sure, I try to take the time to close the laptop switch off the phone get out and about, but then after awhile I start to have feelings of guilt that I should be on my laptop working, and then I'm back where I started!
So thanks so much for opening up this topic, looking forward to further posts and much needed advice.

Debbe said...

When you run a busy shop, I've learned customers expect to see the owner every time they stop by. They also expect the owner to be relaxed, smiling and have time to talk endlessly. I do my best to be all things, but to do so I find myself working 7 days a week, always checking email, ordering products, paying bills, doing all the website work/blog/social media required for the 'success' achieved. I think my new personal success will be in being able to create time for myself each week where I can walk away and not hear those customers in the back of my mind. . . .

Mod Nest said...

Love this! Totally looking forward to future posts on this subject. I do think it's funny that no one else is writing about this, but so happy to find it here. Thanks!

Kelly Lynn Jones said...

This is a great and extremely relevant post. I appreciate both Rena and Meighan's insight as I share similar views and problems. Trying to find balance is something I am always seeking, both in owning an online shop/ arts organization as well as being an artist. Finding time to that is not related to art and my business (which are completely interconnected) is sometimes challenging and creates a dichotomy where I want to have all that I have built for myself over the past 8 years and keep striving for more and more, though sometimes I just want to get some land and run away from it...and yes in the end finding a balance is key. Thanks ladies.

Anonymous said...

Dave - I think it's important to talk about balance & i don't think it means one doesn't want that level of success. This is not a case of 'poor, little rich girl' it's dealing with things that happen to people when they run their own business or side project -- burnout, poor time management, exhaustion, etc -- whether or not they are raking in the dough (I'm certainly not) or are 'successful' by traditional standards. By nature I am a workaholic, no matter what I do -- no matter if I have been 'successful' in past jobs or not, my nature is to burn the candle at both ends always -- these are tools I have learned through trial and error. And sometimes those errors have really hurt my 'success'. I think these kinds of posts are really important, especially in this day & age when we are bombarded with being on, on, on.

Rena said...

Thanks all for chiming in on this one. It's a pretty big topic so I'm taking it slow. So many business-oriented blog posts try to offer quick fixes - "7 easy ways to improve this" or "the 5 things you must do to achieve that" - but solutions are rarely that simple in the real world.

To Dave - I think in order to "fix the problems and move on" you sometimes need help, and you have touched on the reason why people are afraid to ask for help. Hopefully I can share some useful information to help folks avoid disappointing a customer or completely stressing out when they do reach that level of success.

Desiree @ Mano y Metal said...

This is just what I needed to hear (read). It is comforting to know that others struggle with finding balance, but double comforting to know others demand balance.
Thank you so much for this post.


Gussy Sews said...

two of my favorite parts:

"Why be successful if you don't have time to enjoy it?"


"3. Take one day, maybe every week - maybe every two weeks - and do nothing job-related. Read a book, do something nice for yourself like a massage, sleep, watch bad movies. Stay still & let the world come to you for once. DO NOT open your laptop on that day."

yes! yes! :)

Barn Owl Primitives said...

so glad a stumbled upon this tonight. thanks so much for taking the time to share it.

Love this one:
1. Take a minute and enjoy your life in the moment. Refuse to 'capture the moment' to put online.

i'm struggling with the work/life balance. it's so comforting to connect with others who are experiencing the same thing!

RTaylor said...

This particular series can relate to so many facets of our lives. I am not a blogger but a follower. As a person on the outside looking in, I know why I am not a blogger & I am grateful you are. As much as I have a passion for decorating, I am an all or nothing type of person and a complete people pleaser. I know human nature would take over and it would completely consume me. My own personal experience with this article, is so far from blog land that some may think it's silly. Although it has some similarities I promise...even being the team manager for my daughter's competitive U16 soccer team required so much arragements for the whole team, documentation deadlines for tournaments, money collecting, sending out endless emails on directions, fields, game times, travel arrangements not to mention all the things I had to prepare for during & between the games, I could go on and on. It was strictly a voluteer position, and felt I was at the mercy of 18 girls plus their families, and I didn't want to fail anyone especially my daughter. In the end that's exactly what I did. I also had a real job I had to work to pay bills & to pay for soccer. I'm not complaining about it I enjoyed it very much @ the time. I decided to take a day off and announced it was a 'no soccer day' no talking, no thinking, no doing soccer related things. It turned out that I didn't even know how to to talk about anything else... BUT soccer to my family...that was a harsh reality...this whole time I was volunteering/working so hard because I wanted the best for my daughter...when along the way I had really lost touch with her on real life things...that really hit home! It wasn't just my daughter, it was my husband who patiently stood by me, we all thought this was the normal way of living life. Thank goodness we realized it that day. Some do not & no matter what you say to them they won't until it's their time or their 'ah ha' moment. I lived with regret for ignoring my family, but the best thing I can do is move forward and just say 'no' to certain things because we have more beautiful things to spend our time on...our family. The soccer season starts again soon and it will be the first year I get to sit on the sidelines and enjoy watching my daughter play:) I look forward to reading the rest of this series a having some more 'ah ha' moments.

Anonymous said...

Thanks everyone! It was really nice to chat (not to mention an honor to be asked) with Rena about this issue -- I think we all deal with it no matter what our job is. It's great we all can come online and share our experience.

Thanks Jan & Rena!

belinda marshall said...

great topic! i love hearing other people's views on things like this, thanks to all. i've recently made more time for excercise and tried to separate work and family time and so far it has helped! balance is so tricky when you're really into what you do!!