A writer recently asked an interesting question. I’m paraphrasing, but the general idea was this: “Do you believe that the prerequisite for success as an author is to write X words every year, where X is a very large number?”

My answer was: No, I’d disagree strongly with that statement for several reasons.

1) There are (rare, but existent) authors who produce just one book a year and make a full-time living.
2) I’d have to know how big “X” was, which in this case is sorta like asking “how long is a piece of string?”
3) We all define success differently. My idea of success almost certainly won’t be the same as the person sitting next to me, and *neither of us are wrong* if striving toward our personal goals is making us happy.

All that said, I think there’s a lot to be said for a strong work ethic in whatever profession we choose to work. I work for myself these days, but I spent a lot of time in other careers. The last one before ‘novelist’ was nursing.

As a nurse, if I didn’t show up for work when I was supposed to, I didn’t get paid. In writing, if I don’t show up to write new words when I am supposed to, I don’t get paid.

In nursing, I could generally pick how many hours I wanted to work. Everyone was thrilled to let me work sixty hours a week. They were also OK with letting me eventually drop down as low as twenty-four hours a week as I slowly phased from that career to writing full-time. When I was working 24 hours a week, I earned about half what I did when I was working 50 hours a week; this ought to suprise no one.

The same is generally true of writing. Whatever amount I make from writing new words, if I double the hours I spend doing it I am, generally speaking, going to double (or more) my income.

But what if I was HAPPY at the income level I was making while working 24 hours a week as a nurse? What if I had set up my life so that was enough money to feel successful, and I was enjoying the rest of my free time?

Well, that’s success, too. Same goes for writing. Nobody says you HAVE to make six-figures a year as a writer to feel like a success. We get to define what we see as financial and career success. We get to pick whether we want it to be a main career or a side-career. We’re all going to see our own vision of success – and again, *none of us are wrong*.

But there’s another aspect to all of this.

If I was working as a nurse and started goofing off at work, not doing everything I was supposed to, showing up late or not bothering to show up at all – I’d get fired. Now, nobody gets to fire us as writer/publishers anymore. Instead our income drops, which has a similar impact on our checking accounts.

Just as important: when our actions do not accurately match our aspirations, unhappiness occurs.

Human beings tend to be happiest when our goals/ideals/aspirations match our actions as closely as possible. For example, if I say I want to be a full-time writer, but spend most of each day playing video games instead, I’m setting myself up to be unhappy. (Ask me how I know…) I’m not aligning my actions with my aspirations.

I wouldn’t expect to make a full-time salary as a nurse or any other profession working just four hours a week. Yet at the sedate writing pace of 1000 words per hour, four hours a week is 200,000 words a year, or 2-4 novels. (Yes, we have research, going over edits, marketing, etc., but those should never collectively be more than half our time. They’re like the emails, meetings, and other time-sinks at work that slow productivity rather than fueling it.)

Just imagine what would happen if I sat down to write ten hours a week (working 5-10 more on the “other stuff”). That’s 500,000 words a year, at the modest 1000 word/hr pace. What happens when I get better at this and slowly improve my words per hour? (I write new words at an average of about 2500 words/hour right now; when I started out as a novice, I was about 1200 words/hr. Like most things about writing, this is something which improves with practice.)


OK, what happens if I really go full-time, and write 20 hours a week (spending another 20 on the “other stuff”)? Now I’m writing a million words a year at the slow, sedate pace of 1000 words/hour, or as much as 2.5 million if I can maintain 2500 words/hour. I know folks who average 4-5k words per hour via dictation.

That doesn’t mean I think I need to write 5 million words a year to be a success. 🙂

It DOES mean that it’s possible to do so.

Would I be happier if I did that? I don’t know. It would mean taking less trips and vacations. It would mean less time with my kids. Right now, I can afford the luxury of working at a fraction of that theoretical maximum and still make enough to greatly enjoy life. I’m good with this.

That doesn’t mean the person who strives for more than that is wrong. Nor am I. Nor is someone else whose personal goal for writing isn’t as big as mine. Provided we’re all happy, and we’re all putting in an appropriate amount of effort to achieve our goals, it’s all good.

Where things tend to fall apart is when we don’t allocate enough effort to ahieve whatever our goals are. This is where frustration, disappointment, and disillusionment come into play. And the answer is almost always to right-size things. If our actions and aspirations are out of alignment, one of them needs to change. Either we need to increase action or decrease expectations, if we want to improve happiness.

At the end of the day, happiness is tied to seeing our needs met, and one of those needs is self—actualization. Most human beings need to feel like we are doing or creating something worthwhile which requires us to use our mind and skills maximally if we want to be happy.

We get to decide what that looks like. But once we do, our happiness hinges on applying the appropriate amount of work to attain those goals, whatever they might be.