For me, writing is about maximizing happiness, not income

Photo: Richard Schneider via Wikimedia Commons

I just want to write for the rest of my life. Is that so much to ask?

Despite my training as a mathematician, my first job was as a writer. I’ve written everything but fiction: software manuals, online help files, newsletters, press releases, interactive tutorials, books, newsletters, reports, articles, proposals, ads, memos, emails, speeches, blog posts, tweets, song lyrics.

Every moment that I was putting words together, I was happy. I’m happy writing in my home office, or with people buzzing around me in a workplace, or in a hotel room, or packed like a piece of firewood into an airplane seat. If I’m writing, I’m not actually there. I’m flying.

It’s about solving the puzzle of communication. It’s about fitting together facts and words into stories. It’s about connecting my mind with yours. It’s about the rhythm of language. But those descriptions are incomplete. I like to write the way some people like to dance, and some like to ski, and some like to act in front of an audience. It just fills me with joy and I cannot fully explain it.

In my mid-20s, after I had been working about a year as a technical writer, a guy who ran a financial options valuation company asked me to interview at his office on a Saturday. At the end of the interview, he said he wanted to hire me. He asked how much I wanted to get paid. I took a deep breath and quoted a number that was 50% higher than my salary at the time. He said “Okay, sure.” Then I thought about it. Did I want to spend my days as a “quant,” doing financial calculations? Not really, even if it paid well. So I respectfully said “No, thanks.”

Thirty-five years later, in March of this year, I sort of retired. No more paycheck. Financially, I could coast from here on out, but not really comfortably. My idea of sort-of retiring was to make a living writing. I blog every weekday. While my career has been full of amazing experiences, nothing has made me happier on a day-to-day basis than writing this blog and turning it into a book. The closest comparison was in 2007 and 2008 when my job day-to-day job was researching and writing Groundswell.

In my authors’ group on Facebook I read posts from authors who describe the process of writing books as painful, a task they have to do so they can make a living as thought leaders. I hear you, but my experience is the reverse.

There’s this model that business authors/thought leaders are supposed to follow. First you get smart about something. Then you start consulting. Then you write a book. Then you promote the book. You blog, you write on Forbes, you post videos. Then you get a little famous. Then you make money from speeches, consulting, training, being on boards, or building a business. Then you wait two years. Then you write another book. Or you pay a ghostwriter to write it for you because you are too busy. If you want to follow this model, Bibliomotion or Rohit Bhargava will help you — they’re set up to do that.

I am happy to give speeches and training, since they spread my ideas. I am happy to do consulting, since it helps people. All these things allow me to refine my ideas, which is great. And they pay. But getting paid for these things is not the point. Ideas are. Writing is.

I just turned down a consulting opportunity from an old friend. She thought I was crazy. It was promising, but I have this book to write in the next three months. I need to do that, and the publisher is paying me for it. But really, I really just like writing.

After 57 years, I know what makes me happy. I am in a position to maximize it. I know there are ways to turn this into more money, but more money isn’t my primary driver. Money doesn’t make me happy. Writing does.

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  1. I can relate to everything you just wrote. Even when I am struggling with a chapter (especially writing fiction) and struggle to get a scene or a sentence just right, it isn’t painful. It isn’t a drag. I love it. As frustrating as it is, it’s one of the many things I actually enjoy from crafting a story. (I’ve always enjoyed setting challenges for myself and overcoming them, so it’s probably just a manifestation of that.)

    “I am happy to give speeches and training, since they spread my ideas. I am happy to do consulting, since it helps people. All these things allow me to refine my ideas, which is great. And they pay. But getting paid for these things is not the point. Ideas are. Writing is.”


    As much as I love helping businesses solve problems and basically… fix their shit, as much as I love to teach and learn from others (like you) and spread ideas, I could leave all of that behind to focus exclusively on writing. I would do it in a heartbeat if I could afford to. My plan is a bit like yours: my next career will be to write. I’m just not quite there yet.

    I’m only 44, so I have a few years to catch up to you. Cheers, man. Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s more important than you may realize.

  2. “If I’m writing, I’m not actually there. I’m flying.”

    So on point. What a beautiful way to put it. Thanks for continually sharing your knowledge and thoughts with us. Writing Without Bullshit makes the blogosphere a better place.