29 Aug

Measuring Success

Posted in DIY MFA, Goals, Process

One topic that we’ll come back to many times in the DIY MFA is this idea of measuring success.  Unlike a typical MFA, where you can measure your success through grades, a diploma or post-graduation opportunities, the DIY MFA is, by definition, un-measurable since different people would consider different things to be “success.”

This brings me to a concept that I first learned about in Psychology 101 in college: Operational Definition.  In psychology, you’re usually dealing with outcome variables that are very abstract and difficult to measure.  Stress.  Anger.  Fear.  Part of the reason these variables are so hard to measure is because different people experience them in different ways.  It’s up to the psychologist to find another variable–one that’s concrete and easy to measure–to approximate the variable we really care about.

For instance, you can’t ask a bunny if it’s hungry because it’s a bunny and it doesn’t speak English.  You can, however, count how many carrots it eats in a given time period.  More carrots = more hungry.

Similarly, while you can ask human subjects if they were hungry (say on a 1-10 scale), you could run into problems.  First: what might be a 4 on the scale for one person might be a 2 on a hunger scale for someone else.  Second: people sometimes lie.  If, however, you give everyone the same “snack” during the experiment and then secretly measure how much food is left at the end, you can have a reasonable indicator of who was hungry and who was not.  When you spread that data over a large sample, you can account for individual discrepancies and your concrete measure (weight of leftover snack) actually becomes a very good indicator for your abstract variable (hunger).

OK, I didn’t mean to get overly technical, but there’s a reason I’m going into all this detail.  The fact is, DIY MFA success is an abstract outcome variable, making it difficult to measure.  If we set smaller, concrete goals, on the other hand, we can have a pretty good indication of whether we’ve succeeded or not.  As we work on putting together our DIY MFA individualized programs, remind yourself to keep your goals concrete.

Why is it so important that goals be concrete?

  1. Abstract goals are hard to measure.  Telling yourself “I’m going to become a better writer” is all well and good, but how will you know when you get there?  Instead, you could try: “I’ll write and edit three stories in the next three months” or “I’ll submit one story to 10 literary magazines.”  Then with a simple checklist you’ll know if you’ve succeeded or not.
  2. Vague goals are scary.  OK, maybe I’m more of a wimp than most people but nothing freaks me out more than a vague goal.  If the goal is too amorphous, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, but if the goal is concrete, it automatically becomes more doable.  “Write a novel someday” sounds scary.  But “write five pages a day”?  Well, I know I can write 5 pages today and I guess I could do it tomorrow too and probably the next day… and you get the idea.
  3. Checking things off the list feels good.  If you’re measuring success with small, concrete goals, it means you get to check things off the list more often than if you look at it as just one vague goal.  If you look at success as one big goal, then that’s only one thing you get to check off the list but think of how many checks you’d get if you broke down that goal into small, concrete goals.
  4. Concrete goals make it easier to track your progress.  Say your goal is to write a novel, but you break it down to 5 pages per day, six days per week.  That means, in 8-10 weeks you should be pretty close to finishing the whole thing.  If you stick to your weekly goals, you should have a good measure of how close you are to finishing your progress.

During DIY MFA month, I want to accomplish the following abstract goals (broken down into concrete goals):

  • Finish my novel (8 chapters left – 2 chapters or approx. 4000 words per week words for 4 weeks)
  • Read more (one book per week for 4 weeks)
  • Submit a short story (Submit A.H. to 5 markets per week for 4 weeks, total of 20 magazines)

What abstract goals can you break down into concrete goals for DIY MFA?


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