Last week I received two contrasting pieces of feedback on my article about Leonardo Da Vinci:

Reader #1: ”Most of us cannot understand your essay. Most of us want or need a simple, clear-cut job.”

Reader #2: ”Keep up the great work. You inspire me and all you touch.”

Two responses. Same article.

After a brief back-and-forth, Reader #1 unsubscribed from my blog.

Reader #2 donated $100 to it.

On the surface, this served as a friendly reminder to me: you can’t please everyone, all of the time.

This has been a hard pill for me to swallow. Over the last six years since I started writing publicly, I’ve had to learn how to show up, imperfectly and flawed, again and again, and take the punches when people don’t like, don’t get, or don’t read my work.

Sometimes I get paid to write. Most of the time I don’t. I write because I want to. Because it fulfills something inside me. Because it helps me understand myself and the world. It’s a vehicle to explore topics that matter and connect with people all around the world. It’s a form of unnecessary creation. While my writing and this blog has led to my most exciting paid and unpaid opportunities since its inception, it sits firmly in the “passion project” category.

The biggest risk of the day is using hearts, likes, claps, shares, subscribes, responses, and engagement — and an increasing and accelerating number of those — to judge the success of these passion projects. Of course, they’re useful indicators in understanding if your work is finding an audience and resonating with people. But judging yourself – and as a result, your self worth – by these indicators? A total recipe for misery.

Sounds obvious, but we do it. I do it.

To be sure, Reader #1’s feedback wasn’t even that bad. Still, it affected me. I knew I needed a new yardstick to measure myself, my writing, and all my work. So I asked myself:

By what criteria will I judge myself and my work by?

Here are 4 questions that came to mind:

Is It True?

Am I saying something authentic, real, and as much as I can discern, true to me and my lived experience? Am I speaking my truth? Am I living authentically through this work? Am I risking being seen – really seen? Am I leaning into something that feels revealing and vulnerable? (Or leaning away in order to avoid something that’s raw, honest and true?)

Is It Important?

Am I striving to speak the timeless, not just the timely? I’m sure I’ll get this wrong, but am I saying something that’s not merely fashionable or marketable in the moment, but deeply important – no matter the month, year, decade or century? Not just dancing around the surface of issues, but risking going beyond what might be palpable for others, or even safe for myself to explore? Am I driving toward the essence of what I hope my work, my mission, my purpose, my life to be about?

Is It a Gift?

Is this piece of writing a gift for the reader? Although I write from my perspective, is it for a reader? And while writing can be cathartic and help me understand what I think – is the end result more of a gift than either a) puffing of my own ego or b) merely emoting? (Reminder: I write for me; I edit for you.)

Am I Growing?

Am I stretching myself and improving as a writer? Am I daring to dance with new topics, new ways of writing, new styles? Am I better than I was last week, last month, last year? Am I closing the gap between where I am and where I hope to be? Better yet: am I progressing from where I started?

* * * *

When I passed my Da Vinci article through the 4 questions, it felt like “success.” It was true and authentic. I was writing about something I thought was important. I wrote it as a gift to readers to help distill the genius of Da Vinci and make him more real for us. I was also proud of the writing.

So I republished the article on Medium and submitted it to a popular publication. Luckily it seemed to have found an audience, thankfully more like Reader #2. It has more than 200 “fans” and 1.5k “likes” – making it one of my top 10 most popular on Medium to date.

Not that that’s success or anything…

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