Worshiping at the Altar of Hard Work

By Kiri Masters

The ambitious amongst us desperately want to believe that hard work is the key to worldly success — the world is yours for the taking; a meritocracy, where rewards are bestowed by the “Muse of Hustle” to those offering their twenties and thirties to her as an offering of burnt incense.

This idea is certainly empowering. On one hand, it offers egalitarian hope. That anyone can get there if they work hard enough. But the idea also carries a moralistic warning: if you amount to nothing, that’s your own damn fault. 

The belief that hard work shapes upward mobility has itself shaped America. The majority of Americans believe that most people can get ahead if they’re willing to work hard. 

But there is another component to worldly success that is ignored in favor of the Protestant work ethic: the importance of cultural and historical context in one’s success. Said another way: Being in the right place at the right time.

One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon — where extreme hard work obscures the also-necessary serendipity — is the novelist Danielle Steel.  As we’ll discover, both elements were necessary to her wild success. It’s a story that touched me personally, as I have often attributed much of my own (much more modest) success to hard work and talent. When the reality is that I, like most fortunate readers, also happened to be born on third base. 

Recognizing the role of serendipity does not have to be disempowering, however. As you’ll see from Danielle’s story, she recognized the lucky hand she was dealt, and contributed just as much — if not more — back to the pot in terms of hard work.


Danielle Steel is the most prolific writer alive today. She has published more than 170 books during her 50-year career. This prodigiousness has made her very wealthy. In 2023, Forbes estimated her net worth to be $420 million (USD).

Steel, now at the age of 75, has a drive for productivity that rivals the hustle icons of Silicone Valley. Her personal blog, Instagram, and press interviews all glorify her slavish dedication to work. 

“I hover over my typewriter for weeks at a time, working on a first draft, with unbrushed hair, in an ancient nightgown, with every inch of my body aching after typing 20 or 22 hours a day at a stretch.”

She claims to frequently work 20-hour days, take scant vacation days (the only time she permits herself to read other fictional works), and employs two personal assistants to shield her from all the distractions of the outside world. 

Steel clearly wears hard work as a badge of honor. “The most important thing is to work hard,” is the advice she gives to aspiring writers.  

And this level of focus is certainly a requirement for her prolific output. In 2023, she will publish an astounding seven books. This is only slightly above her seven-year average of publishing six books per year.  It is simply not possible to ship this volume of work without putting in the hours, as she has done now for decades. 

There is much to respect about this diminutive, feminine, moderately modest, hard-working woman. A key hook in her life story is the fact that after her first book was published, she spent the next three years writing five more books that publishers rejected. Her seventh book finally hit, and the rest is history. She wrote long into the night in her basement while the children were sleeping, publishing an average of one to two books per year from her 20s through her 40s,  eventually escalating to three per year after her children had flown the nest. Since she turned 69, she has published no less than six books per year. 

But to hang her success on hard work alone is inaccurate. 

Danielle was in the right place, in the right body, at the right time in history.

For context, here’s what was going on in the world in Danielle’s early career.

In 1972, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower introduced a new subgenre of romantic fiction, the “Bodice Ripper.” Prior to this book, romantic fiction was very prim, portraying women in very traditional care-giving roles.

But The Flame and the Flower opened the floodgates for a new type of fiction that women in particular resonated with. Sweeping, exciting, sexy stories with an empowered woman at the center.

Danielle and other female authors at the time like Nora Roberts and Jackie Collins would follow in Woodiwiss’ footsteps with this genre. In fact, Danielle’s first novel was published the very year after The Flame and the Flower. Publishers of romantic fiction, such as Harlequin, started growing quickly.

The real interests of the female reader, long ignored by publishers, was finally acknowledged. Instead of modestly-dressed women gracing the covers of paperbacks, suiting the sensibilities of the male publishing executives, buff men began appearing on the covers. The sexual revolution had finally caught up in the world of fiction, and publishers were now taking note.    

Danielle’s next published novel (1977) was picked up by the mass-market publishing house Dell. In 1978, the editor-in-chief at Dell decided to make a star of Danielle, a figurehead for the house and this popular new genre. The New York Times reported that Dell spent $300,000 promoting Danielle Steel, from television advertising to shopping bags and bookstore displays.

A $1.4 million marketing campaign (in today’s dollars) would inarguably have been a considerable accelerant to Danielle’s early career.

It is hard to imagine today, but the world of media and entertainment in the 70s and 80s was run by gatekeepers. Publishing a book required an actual publisher, not a Kindle Direct Publishing account. Being a writer required writing for an actual newspaper or magazine, not your own blog. Becoming a household name in any field required being chosen.

And so it was that Danielle was plucked from relative obscurity and leveraged as the glamorous, aspirational face to draw in a new and lucrative customer base for publishing houses.

There’s no denying that she had worked very hard to get in a position to be “plucked” in the first place. The late nights, the refusal to give up after years of rejection, her resonance with readers, the love of her craft — all were necessary ingredients for the smiling face of fate to single Danielle out as the enduring icon of romantic fiction.

At least in her public reflections, Danielle’s narrative is that she followed her passion for writing, rather than being an astute observer of cultural shifts that were occuring at the time.

Deliberate or not,  this casts Danielle as having pure intentions. She was not in it for fame or money. She was in it for the love of the craft, and the material success that followed was simply a happy accident.

That the fundamentals of her storylines and writing style have not wavered over the decades may bolster this argument. As a public figure, she has only recently adopted Instagram as a promotional channel, finally abandoning an ancient blog platform that she had used to share updates to her fans for many years.

Whether due to a calculated response to societal shifts, or a happy accident, the fact remains that Danielle was in the right place at the right time. The wave had begun to swell, and Danielle was already paddling fast enough to catch it. She not only maintained a pace to sustain her readers’ interest, but has even accelerated it in her later years. During her child-rearing years, she published a couple of books on average per year. In her 70s, she is averaging six

The trends and shifts in the world around us — whether those are technological or cultural — play an important role in worldly success. Whether that’s an aspiring writer catching  the swelling wave of a new content genre, or a brand that is positioned to take advantage of a major new trend. Serendipity plays more of a role than we like to think, because it cannot be controlled or predicted. We can respond to it, we can prepare ourselves for it by working hard, we can be inventive to increase our odds of striking it, but we cannot control it. 

I find Danielle’s story both inspirational and confronting. On a much smaller scale, I found commercial success when I started a business in a vertical that was on the precipice of rapid growth (an Amazon-focused growth agency). Like Danielle, I much prefer to recall the story as being due to my hard work and talent. But if I’m being honest with myself, the part I could control — my work ethic — is a smaller part of the story than the kismet of being in the right place at the right time

But I also view this as a personal challenge. I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the beginning of a big shift, and so I felt obliged to make the very most of this opportunity. The hard work began before the kismet — and continued long after.

Like Danielle, I feel compelled to take full advantage of the opportunities that I have been granted in my life. The work, I can control. The work is my repayment to the universe. 

If you’re reading this, chances are you were already born on third base, or you have fought to get there.

What will you do today to make the Muse of Hustle smile down on you?

Kiri Masters

Kiri founded an agency in the Amazon and retail media ecosystem called Bobsled Marketing, which she exited in 2022.