5 difficult things you need to do to succeed on your own terms

Rock and hard place
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For almost eight years, I've been a writer. I write for the internet, for magazines, and for newspapers, and by September 2018 I'll also have written a book. Writing makes me happy and I still can't believe it gets to be my career. But about two years ago, it was a very different story.

At that point, I still gauged my success by what my friends were doing. If I wrote something I was proud of, I'd spend maybe about an hour psyched to share it ... before a friend's bigger and better byline, or job news, became a testament to my inability to do anything quite as cool.

I was fueled by competition and comparison. But I was sure that once I achieved that One Big Thing™ my career would look exactly the way I wanted it to and I'd never feel insecure or stressed again.

Which, obviously, never happened. As time went on, every goal became bigger and every achievement seemed less and less exciting. I worked all the time, I was resentful and jealous, and then I got sick from being so stressed out. Which defeated the point of being a writer in general, since those were my default moods when I worked in retail or at the bank.

And it was on me to get over myself.

Anne T. Donahue
Anne T. Donahue

At some point, I'd signed on to the idea that success had to look a certain way or that life was a series of check marks on an imaginary to-do list. And that's not true. "Success" itself is kind of a myth, or at least that's one of the things I learned about it.

Here are 5 other important things I learned you have to do to succeed.

Realize that One Big Thing™ isn't enough

Big breaks are a myth. I mean, yes, opportunities present themselves. Even the kind of opportunities that open doors and make you feel like everything you've been working towards is finally happening.

But if you're a person who's into setting goals and working hard, you're probably not just going to stand back when something great happens and say, "That's it!" You're likely going to want to keep working and keep challenging yourself.

Also, you will have to do those things because nobody rolls into an industry, gets recognized once and then never has to work again.

Actress Betty White
Amanda Edwards | Getty Images
Actress Betty White

Careers are a marathon, not a sprint, and every new job or byline or whatever-it-is-your-industry-uses-to-measure-achievements simply presents more experiences and chances to grow. I mean, hello, Betty White is over 90 and she's still working every day, thank you.

Stop for a minute and recognize what you've done

Here's a fun fact: If you're getting money to do the thing you love, that's a pretty big deal.

I don't even mean in terms of supporting yourself. If you're working a full-time job that you hate but still helps fund your dreams, that's an accomplishment. Carving out time to do something that means a lot to you is an achievement in and of itself.

"Success isn't a bar only a certain number of people can get into every night."

When I first started writing, I didn't know when to call myself a writer. At the time, I was still working part-time, still trying to get a communications degree and earning maybe $100/month. But a friend reminded me that technicalities don't matter. I only really learned that after I quit school and my job and ended up in piles of debt because I didn't believe I could still be chasing my dreams if I took my time.

Don't compete

It's important to remember that everybody is very preoccupied with themselves, and nobody is looking at you.

I don't mean that in a mean way. I mean that while you may be using your friends' accomplishments as a bar you're expected to leap over, they're likely just focused on what they have to do next. It's easy to fixate on what everyone else is up to and how you pale in comparison, but subscribing to that is only going to lock you into a cyclical, unhealthy mindset of self-doubt.

Jennifer Lawrence as Raven, aka Mystique in a scene from the film 'X-Men: First Class', 2011.
Murray Close | Getty Images
Jennifer Lawrence as Raven, aka Mystique in a scene from the film 'X-Men: First Class', 2011.

Plus, you don't know other people's stories. You don't know how long it took them to get to a certain place, or what they've been through to work with the mindset they do.

Their success doesn't mean you're destined to be a failure: Success isn't a bar only a certain number of people can get into every night.

Success is subjective and ever-changing and no one specific thing. If this were "X-Men," success would by Mystique. To you it's a blue leotard, and to somebody else it's Peter Dinklage.

Don't complain

There are many things worse than hanging with someone who never seems to be happy, but for the sake of this piece let's say doing that is The Worst Ever. We've all been on the receiving end of somebody going on about what they don't have when you're, say, really psyched to have been able to afford to put gas in your car this week.

Actor Peter Dinklage
C Flanigan | Getty Images
Actor Peter Dinklage

Then it gets worse and what they're complaining about is a thing you'd do anything for.

So check yourself. If you're wandering down the road of, "Here's what I don't have, and that's what matters," stop. Now.

For starters, complaining isn't going to get you that thing you want, but your distorted standards may be coming from a real place of privilege you're not being sensitive to. Also, complaining is pointless and super annoying. Stop it.

Remember why you're doing what you're doing

So, why are you doing this, again? That's an awesome question to ask whenever you find yourself spiraling. Even if it means pulling yourself out of an email wormhole or taking a second to refill your water bottle away from your desk, ask yourself why you're here.

If you were a teen and could look at your grown-ass self, would you be proud? Are you doing the thing you set out to do? Are you at the very least taking the steps to do the thing?

If you're even trying your best, you're doing a pretty good job.

Paint that above your desk and look at it whenever you start worrying about Twitter followers or likes or anything that isn't, say, when Harry Styles will finally release his solo album.

So remember: Success isn't an Ikea bookshelf with steps you have to follow to assemble it. Unlike Swedish furniture, your job won't fall apart if you go about it your own way. Work hard, be a kind person, and trust your gut feelings. And keep your eyes on your own paper.

Anne T. Donahue is a writer and person who lives just outside of Toronto and is currently wearing a Leonardo DiCaprio enamel pin.