Based on a tip from a reader, I recently tumbled down an esoteric rabbit hole aimed at the writing habits of the novelist Danielle Steel. Even if you don’t read Steel, you’ve almost certainly heard of her work. One of the best-selling authors of all time, Steel has written more than 190 books that have cumulatively sold over 800 million copies. She publishes multiple titles per year, often juggling up to five projects simultaneously. Unlike James Patterson, however, who also pushes out multiple books per year, Steel writes every word of every manuscript by herself.
How does she pull this off? She works all the time. According to a 2019 Glamour profile, Steel starts writing at 8:30 am and will continue all day and into the night. It’s not unusual for her to spend 20 to 22 hours at her desk. She eats one piece of toast for breakfast and nibbles on bittersweet chocolate bars for lunch. A sign in her office reads: “There are no miracles. There is only discipline.”
These details fascinate me. Steel is phenomenally successful, but her story reads like a Greek tragedy. She could, of course, decide to only write a single book per year, and still be a fabulously bestselling author, while also, you know, sleeping. Indeed, her cultural impact might even increase if she slowed down, as this extra breathing room might allow her to more carefully apply her abundant talent.
But there’s a primal action-reward feedback loop embedded into the experience of disciplined effort leading to success. Once you experience its pleasures it’s natural to crave more. For Steel, this dynamic seems to have spiraled out of control. Like King Midas, lost in his gilded loneliness, Steel cannot leave the typewriter. She earned everything she hoped for, but in the process she lost the ability to step away and enjoy it.
I think this dynamic, to one degree or another, impacts anyone who has been fortunate enough to experience some success in their field. Doing important work matters and sometimes this requires sacrifices. But there’s also a deep part of our humanity that responds to these successes — and the positive feedback they generate — by pushing us to seek this high at ever-increasing frequencies.
One of the keys to cultivating a deep life seems to be figuring out how to ride this razor’s edge; to avoid the easy cynicism of dismissing effort altogether, while also avoiding Steel’s 20-hour days. This is an incredibly hard challenge, yet it’s one that receives limited attention and generates almost no formal instruction. I don’t have a simple solution but I thought it was worth emphasizing. For a notable subset of talented individuals burnout is less about their exploitation by others than it is their uneasy dialogue with themselves.