Can Ambitious Writers Be Happy, Too?

Filed in The Writing Life, When Writing Is Hard by on November 9, 2015 • views: 2521

Ambition 2My mom raises goats. She enjoys most parts of the process, but there are a few things that get her frustrated.

One of the biggest ones is when one of her goats gets out of the field.

This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s usually because of one thing—the misbehaving goat is convinced the grass on the other side of the fence has to be better tasting than anything she can find in the field she’s in.

Yes, it’s more than a cliché—the grass is always greener. My mom can put the goats in a brand new field that’s been untouched for months and has green stuff growing up to their bellies, but once they have taken a look around, they’ll invariably go back and poke their heads through the fence into the field they just left, certain that if only they could get over there, how much better the food would be!

Alas, it’s not just goats or other grass-eating animals that demonstrate this odd behavior. For many years of my life, all I wanted was to have one of my novels published. I wanted it so badly I could taste it, and I toiled for years trying to achieve my goal, working in the early morning and late night hours on my fiction, going to conferences, working with editors, getting feedback, and writing novel after novel after novel.

Now that I have one novel published and another slated for release next spring, I sometimes wonder what happened to the person I was. I should be ecstatic, right? I reached my goal. I’m finally here!

But that moment of feeling that sense of success lasted maybe…a day? Two, at most? Then the shine wore off. What had I really accomplished? A published book is out there, yes, but what about sales? What about reviews? What about the next book? Now it’s all about marketing and getting readers and tackling that next work and making it better than the last and if only that one could be a bestseller, well now then, things would be really awesome!

I catch myself in this thinking and realize what a merry-go-round we are all on. We all do it. We all reach the big goals we set up for ourselves and then almost instantly turn around and decide that yeah, that was great, but really, things will be so much better when we reach that goal.

Drive is a good thing for artists. Without it, we’d never overcome all the obstacles we need to overcome to succeed. But when does that “grass is greener” thinking start to become destructive? When does our inability to be happy where we are start sabotaging our quality of life?

The “Grass is Greener” Syndrome

They call it the “grass is greener syndrome.” (This is a “syndrome?”) Though the term is more familiar when talking about relationships, it can apply to anything, including the idea that we will be happier when we get to the next stage of our writing careers.

According to Nathan Feiles, LCSW:

“The hallmark of the ‘grass is greener syndrome’ is the idea that there is always something better that we are missing. So rather than experiencing stability, security, and satisfaction in the present environment, the feeling is there is more and better elsewhere, and anything less than ideal won’t do. Whether it’s with relationships, careers, or where you live, there is always one foot out the door.”

He goes on to state the syndrome has two main causes:

  1. Fear
  2. Fantasy

Applying this to writers, we can imagine what fears might be lurking behind the desire to get to the next point and the next and the next. Most of us suffer from self-doubt on occasion, and may fear that if we don’t get published, or don’t sell a lot of books, or don’t become bestsellers, or don’t make a full-time living off of our writing, we’re not good writers. That fear then propels us to work harder and harder to try to get to that place where the grass is greener and we will finally feel the confidence we want to feel.

Or maybe we fear if we don’t get published, our family and friends won’t respect what we do, and we won’t get the social support we crave. Or if we don’t make money from our work, we won’t be able to justify to ourselves continuing to do it. The possibilities are endless.

Then there’s the fantasy part of it. This is the part where we imagine how if we get to that next place, life will be so much better. If we get published, we’ll enjoy that validation of the contract. Or if we self-publish and get a lot of readers, we’ll enjoy the feeling that we made the right decision. Or if we make a lot of money off our work, we’ll be able to quit our jobs and enjoy hurling ourselves into our creative work full-time. Man, won’t things be awesome then!

Though we could say that these sorts of thoughts propel us to work hard to achieve our next goal, they can also keep us eternally dissatisfied.

Ambitious Writers May End Up Unhappy

Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., tells us that “many troubles of the mind involve turning away from reality by being preoccupied with the search for another life, a different life, perhaps a better life somewhere else.” Yet, she reminds us, the “only way to find mental health is to turn toward the life that you have and to deal with it.”

The only way to find mental health is to turn toward the life that you have and to deal with it.

We become troubled, she says, when “we believe the myth that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Though this belief may drive us to change our lives, which can be a good thing, it can also lead us to believe that what we have or what we’ve accomplished is never good enough—which can lead to a loss of focus, hope, and confidence.

What we’re talking about here is ambition. Most writers and artists are ambitious. We want to succeed. We want to have our work recognized. We want to live lives as creatives, without having to compromise our energy or time on pursuits we feel aren’t really worthwhile.

Most people would agree, though, that ambition can be both a good and bad thing. Yes, it gives us the drive to work hard toward our goals, but it can also lead to unhappiness. According to a 2012 study by Notre Dame researchers, who followed over 700 people over a period of decades, ambitious folks were more materially successful, achieved higher education, earned higher salaries, and worked in more prestigious occupations—but were not significantly happier than their more relaxed counterparts, and did not live any longer.

Those identified as “most ambitious” actually had a 15.5 percent higher mortality rate than those who were least ambitious.

Why would ambition cause unhappiness? Particularly if it drives us to achieve and reach those greener, grassy areas?

Writers Hold Themselves to High Standards

It all comes down to how we treat ourselves. Ambitious people tend to be tough taskmasters. We set high standards for ourselves and then kick ourselves when we don’t live up to them.

According to lead study author Timothy Judge:

“We think that ambitious people set very high standards for themselves and when they achieve success, they raise those standards further. If this is true, ironically, the very thing that makes people successful is also what tends to negate the ability of those things to make them happy. If the ambitious person keeps raising his or her goals after every success, then it’s a bit like Sisyphus in Greek mythology: He rolls the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll down the hill so as to push it back up again.”

Even more concerning—in the study, researchers found that those ambitious people who failed to reach their self-imposed goals lived even shorter lives and were significantly less happy than others.

In other words, Judge says, “if one is to be ambitious, one had better ensure that they translate it back into success. Otherwise, they may experience the negative effects without any of the positive.”

If one is to be ambitious, one had better ensure that they translate it back into success. Otherwise, they may experience the negative effects without any of the positive.

So if we’re ambitious types, always looking for that greener grass, it sounds like we need to do what we can to reach our goals, as only in reaching them do we have a chance of enjoying the fruits of our labors. But, we also have to realize that our very nature can set us up for being unhappy even if we do reach those goals.

What’s the solution?

Every Writing Milestone Has a Honeymoon Period

That continuous dissatisfaction we can experience despite our accomplishments can come from our inability to nurture where we are at the moment. Sign that publishing contract and you jump into the honeymoon phase. Finally, you’re on your way and everything looks bright.

But then within a few weeks, you realize that you have a lot of work ahead of you. There are the edits. The platform building. The marketing. When the book comes out you have to deal with reviews or no reviews, good or bad reviews, great sales or poor sales, etc. Suddenly, that contract doesn’t seem so shiny and new.

So we start the cycle over again. When we sell more copies, we’ll be happy. When we get a book published by that sort of publisher, then things will be great.

But it’s all an illusion.

“The truth is,” says Feiles, “as human beings, we are all in some ways less than perfect, and therefore, the shiny grass is an illusion.”

As human beings, we are all in some ways less than perfect, and therefore, the shiny grass is an illusion.

Does it help to know this?

It might.

If you’re a driven writer, for instance (and you know who you are), you aren’t likely to become a slacker anytime soon. In fact, according to the study results, it’s probably best if you don’t. If we’re driven to achieve, after all, and we don’t go for it because we hold ourselves back or don’t work hard enough or whatever, we’re likely to suffer more negative consequences than if we embrace that strength and plunge headlong into our journey.

But we could potentially enjoy more satisfying lives if we could stare down our own ambition, and realize what it can and can’t do for us.

5 Ways to be Ambitious and Happy at the Same Time

It would be ideal if we could indulge our ambition and keep seeking that greener grass without letting it blind us to the joy we could find in our lives at the moment.

But that’s a tough balance to achieve. Here are some tips that may help:

  1. Be aware of the illusion: As long as you know that things may be different, but not necessarily better, when you achieve your next goal, it may help you to feel a little more confident while going for it. Think of the published author who faces poor sales, or the bestselling author whose next book flops, or the literary master who has to work two jobs to make ends meet. No achievement is ever going to make everything perfect.
  2. Strive for balance: Researchers advise that ambitious people realize that ambition can help you reach your goals, but won’t necessarily make you happy. To do that, you want to nurture the other areas of your life, as well, such as your relationships, hobbies, and personal well being. If you focus entirely on work, or on your creative pursuits, at the expense of other things, you’re setting yourself up for a low level of satisfaction when you do reach your goals.
  3. Create internal stability: Feiles notes that this is the key to counteract that constant feeling of dissatisfaction. Rather than always look for the next big thing out there that’s going to make you happy (or confident), focus on nurturing that feeling inside yourself no matter what’s going on with your creative career. Increase your connection to your personal strengths and the wonderful things you have in your life now.
  4. Celebrate: Truly celebrate your accomplishments. Remember that ambitious people tend to jump from one goal to the next with hardly a blink. If you get that positive comment from an editor, celebrate, and celebrate big! Reward yourself for a job well done. Don’t fall prey to the thinking that it doesn’t really matter if you’re not published yet, or it doesn’t really matter if you’re not a bestseller yet, etc. Take the time to truly celebrate and pat yourself on the back. If you’re wired to achieve, you need this!
  5. Expand your ambition: One way to gain more satisfaction from your goals is to expand them to include others. We all start out wanting to achieve success for ourselves, but after awhile, that can prove a little shallow. If you’re achieving but your achievements no longer bring you the joy or satisfaction you hoped for, it’s time to expand your work to benefit others. Fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss, for example, expanded his work to found “Worldbuilders Inc.,” a nonprofit for fantasy diehards that raises money to fight poverty and hunger. How can you take your creative pursuits to the next level? Think of how you can use your strengths to serve others, or to create an even higher mission than your next novel, or your next painting. Working toward that type of goal is a great way to experience both ambition and contentment in the future.

Are you an ambitious writer who’s always pursuing that greener field of grass? How do you keep the joy in your life? Please share your thoughts.

Alex Crees, “Study: Ambitious people unhappier, don’t live as long,” FoxNews, March 12, 2012,

Nathan Feiles, “The ‘Grass is Greener’ Syndrome,”, March 16, 2013,

Tim Hume, “Why ambition could make you rich, but not happy,” CNN, March 9, 2012,

Judge, T., & Kammeyer-Mueller, J. (2012). On the value of aiming high: The causes and consequences of ambition. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97 (4), 758-775 DOI:10.1037/a0028084,

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Comments (12)

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  1. So true, Colleen! I can make good use of this one, especially the five tips near the end. Instinctively, I’ve realized that celebrating my milestones is key to keeping excited about putting out the effort. This time of year, this is a great reminder to always stop and evaluate what we’ve achieved and to make sure we’re striving for balance. Thanks for a great post!

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Suzanne! Hope you get a chance to really celebrate as I know you’ve been working hard this year!

  2. Chere Hagopian says:

    Excellent post! I’ve found that if I can’t be happy where I am right now, I’ll never be happy no matter what I achieve. Contentment doesn’t mean you don’t try for better, just that your happiness doesn’t hinge on getting that greener grass. Putting off joy until some future time is no fun at all!

  3. Really nice post, Colleen. You encapsulated one of the main traps of being a writer (or creative of any sort, I’m sure!). We work so long and hard on our books, only to then have to turn around and work equally as hard marketing them. And in today’s book climate (15 mil e-books published a year), the bar just keeps getting higher.
    And disappointment is bound to come, no? We want our babies to soar to the heavens. Anything less and . . .
    What is a huge takeaway for me here is : “As long as you know that things may be different, but not necessarily better, when you achieve your next goal, it may help you to feel a little more confident while going for it. ”
    What wonderful words of wisdom. Thank You!

    • Colleen says:

      Thank you so much, Susan. Yes, the “turning around and work equally hard” happens after each milestone. I read an article in Poets & Writers the other day by Melissa Febos that talked about seeking the “permanent comfort,” and thought that applied here too. We want to “arrive!” And REST after, eh? Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Thanks, Colleen–lovely read. We do indeed have to be able to take a step back and evaluate whether what we’re doing is working within the context of our life. And that can indeed give us a perspective that we need to stay sane.

  5. Hi Colleen! I agree that the “grass is always greener” is a problem for writers and most people in general. Fortunately, I think that as I grow older and hopefully a bit wiser, I have discovered that I must make my internal benchmarks instead of being subjected to what others term to be good, successful or worthy. I think in the end that helps my writing and my personal peace of mind to no end. Of course, that’s said after having two books published by companies and then publishing two on my own. As you say, if you are paying attention you learn as you go along and stop expecting that your world will be transformed “when such and such happens.” Thanks for the reminders. Carpe Diem! ~Kathy

  6. jan says:

    Great post – nicely researched and written. I try to think am I content, not happy. I often write about subjects which do not make me happy. But if I don’t, who will so I muscle through it content that I have my friends and my family to bring moments of joy. I just hope for the strength to continue.