Do You Have to be Unhappy Now if You Want to be Successful Later?

Most of us, at some point or another, think that we will be happy once we achieve a particular goal.

I’ll be happy after I…

  • graduate from college
  • make a million dollars
  • get married
  • lose 40 pounds
  • get a job

…and so on.

To be clear, I have been guilty of this as well. There have been plenty of times that I have assumed that satisfaction and success would come after I won a championship or after I built a successful business or after XYZ goal.

Society tells us that this is a good thing. We hear about athletes that are never satisfied until they have reached the top. We hear about entrepreneurs who worked like crazy to build a business that changed the world. The basic idea is that to be driven, you also have to be dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with second place. Dissatisfied with average.

Then you have the other side of the equation: people who are happy with life as it is. They say that you need to develop the skill of “not wanting more.” That you can be happy where you are right now. That you are already perfect.

The Problem

Here’s the problem: I want both. Maybe you do too.

I like being happy. It’s fun. I don’t want to delay happiness until I reach some milestone. But I also like getting better. I don’t want to settle for less than I can do in life. I’d like to be happy along the way and achieve my goals.

For a long time, it bothered me that being happy (being satisfied) and being driven (being dissatisfied) seemed to be at odds with one another.

I still don’t have a lot of this figured out, but the more I study people who have had a great deal of success, the more I think that it’s possible to be happy and driven.

Here’s how…

Driven and Happy

Let’s start with being driven. If you want to maximize your potential, then you will need to continue to work to become better both before and after you achieve a given goal.

Why would someone do that?

For example, if your goal was to make a million dollars and you made it, why would you keep working hard after that?

The answer is a little more complicated than you might think.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

In economics, there is a fundamental principle known as the Law of Diminishing Returns.

Here’s the short definition: as you get more of something, it becomes less valuable. This isn’t just economic theory, a similar trend happens in real life.

If you have zero money and you make $10,000, then it’s going to be a big deal. But if you have already earned $1 million, then making another $10,000 doesn’t seem as significant. Making each dollar means a lot in the beginning, but less over time.

If you have never won a championship, then that first one is going to be incredible. But if you already have five championship rings, then adding a sixth isn’t going to be as sweet as getting the first. Standing at the top means a lot in the beginning, but less over time.

If you are starting a company, then getting your first customer is an incredible rush. But if you already have 100 paying clients, then adding one more doesn’t provide the same thrill. Landing each client means a lot in the beginning, but less over time.

In other words, the goals and results that seem so valuable to you in the beginning actually become less valuable as you achieve more of them.

How to Stay Driven

So, if the results mean less as you achieve more of them, how do you stay driven?

By loving the practice of what you do. It’s only the people who embrace their work as a craft and fall in love with the boredom of doing it day in and day out that stay driven over the long-term.

Here are some examples…

Richard Branson is already a billionaire. He has already built hundreds of companies. He’s not still doing it because of the money. The money stopped meaning a lot to him a long time ago. He’s doing it because he loves the practice of doing it.

Nick Saban has already won four national championships (1 with LSU and 3 with Alabama). He makes over $5 million dollars per year. He’s not coaching football for the money anymore. He’s not coaching to “make it to the top.” He’s coaching because he loves the process (and he talks about process all the time).

Jack LaLanne was setting fitness records for 40+ years. He wasn’t working out to lose a few pounds. He exercised every day because he loved it.

Summary: the only way to stay driven before and after achieving goals is to love the practice of what you do.

How to Be Happy

Guess what? This answer is now easy. If you love the practice of what you do, if you love the daily work, then you can be happy before and after you achieve your goals.

When you learn to love the process of what you are doing and not focus so much on the goal, you automatically find happiness while staying driven.

If you learn to love the practice of working out, then you’ll be happy right now and you’ll see results later. If you learn to love the practice of marketing your business, then you’ll be happy right now and you’ll see results later. If you learn to love the practice of supporting your friends and family, then you’ll be happy now and see the results later.

Happy and driven. Just one more reason why the system is better than the goal.


  1. Also relevant is positive psychology research that shows that happiness drives performance more than performance (i.e. goal attainment) drives happiness. The effect is twice as great.

  2. I waited for almost 12 hours to read this because of the time difference between America and Africa. Finally, I got my first newsletter today. What a good read! Thanks James.

  3. Hey James, first of all I’d like to say that stumbling upon your blog was a fantastic day for me in hind-sight, I look forward to reading your twice weekly words. You’re one of a few people I follow without fault.

    A great read and example of this post is Tony Hsieh (CEO Zappos) with his book “Delivering Happiness.” He talks how the success and money can’t be the only thing keeping you in the game, and for him it’s his love for the company and the culture that he’s helped to create. Being surrounded by people you love working with is huge.

    Keep it up man.

  4. This article was one relating closest to myself, thanks for writing on this topic. Although, (looks up at degrees with indifference,)There’s something missing. There is some kind of answer I was hoping to take in, but I didn’t quite find it. I’ll read a few similar articles and hopefully piece together the answer I seek. Still a good article topic.

      • I actually do love my craft very much. I’m not sure I’ve entirely figured out the answer I was hoping to find in the article, but I’ve figured a few things recently.

        My issue is I’m too focused. I’ve accomplished so much, but what I do is shut down the world around me where I can be 2 months with virtually no contact with friends or family and don’t realize until much time has passed. I’m getting things done at a great pace, but in the end it takes a toll on my happiness. I enjoy the process and love what I do, so much so that it becomes the only thing I do, which is not good.

        So something this article could add is to welcome other peoples goals and efforts into your life. Helping a family member or close friend with their goals, even if in a small way, greatly increases your happiness and positivity.

        2. Working consistently on your goals, you think once I accomplish (X) I will be more free to do (Y). So another thing you could mention here is to give yourself small rewards for working so well toward goal (X). A little self reassurance that you know you’re working hard, so even though you havnt accomplished (X) yet, you can still enjoy some of the rewards of your dedication to that goal. Which will keep you happier throughout.

        **Note to James**

        I love all your articles, but one thing I can suggest would be instead of giving more examples and giving a summery at the end, just go into more detail about the points themselves. Examples are good, but sometimes it reduces how much you relate. It’s more hit or miss with examples, compared to just giving more details of the concept in general. I think it may be easier for people to relate it to themselves if its not a specific scenario. Of course it’s just a suggestion/idea. Cheers.

        • Chritaian V, He does an amazing job. Sometimes we need to get the FISH(James Articles) go home and scale it, cook it and eat it (Take it in and see what comes out of it for our personal issues)

          Honestly you answered and asked your own questions and concerns. So he didnt have to go into detail. You figured it out all on your own! no need for him to baby walk you, he clearly states its his opinion and hes not a rocket scientist and that hes still figuring it out.

          IT CALLED the school OF LIFE…. AS time passes you WILL GET YOUR DETAILS that will be personalized JUST FOR YOU!

          but thanks for your comment because it made me realize, the reason i just searched his name in my email just to re-read some articles over. AMAZING! It gets me to start thinking of my OWN DETAILS! … gNITE

  5. This is a wonderful read… I would like to add one more point..
    After achieving all the above said… mentally ( through a prayer or wish )dedicate the fruits of your practice and happiness to the Almighty ( if you believe in One ) or to all those around you…and experience what happens..( in a few weeks / months )

  6. Great insight.

    However, for certain purely result or outcome oriented goals, just loving the practice may make one happy, but it may not help one achieve the end goal. It’s like climbing a huge mountain, one may love the trails round the foothills, but if he never goes beyond what’s comfortable, and truly takes on the path that leads to the top, he will never achieve the goal of summit, though he may achieve happiness. I think my point is that what’s suggested in the postapplies only to process oriented goals, but not result based goals.

    • i like these pictures on which there is something like this:

      you start here -> a miracle happens -> you reach your goal

      and that’s how most people approach their goals. they know how to start and where they want to end up, but little about the steps in the middle or the problems that can occur.

      now if your goal is a process, like writing 500 words a day, and you fall in love with it, then you will – without failure – reach the amount of words needed for a book someday.

      the process is the miracle.

      in your example “walk the trails round the foothills” is no goal, because it has no direction. a goal would be “walk at least 2km on the trails round the foothills every day”, but this wouldn’t allign with the intened goal of “climb a huge mountain”. so the goal could be ” climb at least 1km every day”.

      the process is the goal, or like a famous person once said: the way is the goal.

  7. A very valuable insight. Being happy and driven is certainly the way forward to lead a satisfying life. Thanks James for sharing this wonderful life lesson.

  8. Ok. So I have to chime in… Insightful, yes. However, I would like to add my own perspective. I’ve worked projects over the years where I earn absolutely NOTHING and got more joy and was more motivated than a paid job. I’ve looked for jobs similar to my passion and found nothing in my area. Money never equals happiness. Unless, I believe, you live frugally and give excessively once you hit the “big bucks.” You’ll stay motivated that way. You can never burn out your passion and never give too much. Rules I believe everyone should live by, if blessed that way. That’s why you attempt to achieve goals that will make you happy. You’ll be able to pay forward your happiness and blessings. At least that’s what I believe and how my life was in the past….

    • you should fall in love with the work and not with the money you get for the work. the money can be just an indicator for wether you do your work good or not.

      and there’s not only one job that could be the perfect fit. there can be a whole range of jobs, which have things in common that are very important for your happyness. you just have to find out: which things are very important for your happyness?

  9. Spot on! I have come to a number of conclusions about being happy. The main one being that happiness comes before everything. Being happy brings health, being happy brings wealth and being happy brings happiness.

    But more important being habit is merely a habit that can be developed just like any other habit.

    But consider this — right at this moment in time does your life situation change for the better by being sad or happy. I would suggest it makes no difference so why not BE HAPPY! Have a happy day.

  10. Great post that links to the first post I found of yours – the one on boredom. However, I have a question. How does one actually fall in love with boredom? I am a writer. To use a famous quote, I love having written. The process of writing itself – don’t love that so much. Sometimes it’s teeth-grindingly tedious and frustrating. So even though I’m following my passion and I’m not doing it for the money (*hollow laugh*), I still get bored. How do you push on at those times, that’s what I’m trying to work out. Any advice?


  11. Great article! I was just asking my husband this weekend, “Why can’t I just be happy?” It seems that no matter where I am in life, I’m never satisfied. I’m always working toward some goal, and I’m not happy until I reach it. Then I find another goal to work toward. Most people I know seem content to live the same day over and over. I believe we should always be evolving and improving.

  12. Thank you, James, for such a great message; one of my favorites so far! Perhaps an additional way to say it is, “Love the practice, and you will win the game”.

    You caused a picture in my mind of a line graph of Happiness and Achievement (the X-axis representing time, and the Y-axis representing the amount of each). Both of these you would want to move up and to the right; but as you point out, so many people assume that the Achievement line must reach a certain level before the Happiness line can. The difference between that mindset and the one you describe above is that the Happiness line can be (and should be) the leader.

  13. Yep. Some people think that they will be happy after they reach that goal, but when they are not happy before they reach it, the way to the goal will be hardcore. And the goal does not make them happy (for long time).

  14. And, sorry for double comment, do you know, James, why I soo like your blog (OK, articles may be shorter)? Because I still dont see monetization. No ads, no paid book, no paid content. Still waiting, when the moment of monetization comes. Or you are doing it because you love it and dont need money?

  15. You can be successful and happy! That is my conclusion.

    Happiness means different things to different people at different times. Our goals change when our circumstances change. It is true that when we have achieved our goals, life is not exciting any more. I have at one time reached all my goals (being a millionaire is not one of them) I felt that I have nothing else to achieve.

    I took some serious change in my circumstance to reset my goals, new goals that kept me going.

    In Buddhism, it is said that one must be rid of desire to reach enlightenment and be happy. However, the desire to get rid of desire is also a desire. So actually achieving one’s desire is enlightenment. Not achieving one’s desire is a suffering.

    The issue is then the DESIRE that you set for your self. Will attaining that desire bring you happiness? Will the action that you take to achieve your goals bring your the happiness your want? That is the Big Question.

    Only you will know. But how will you know? By raising your life condition to that of Buddha-hood helps as it will give you wisdom to do the things that is right for you, your environment and the community.

    It is a long explanation, with more to go, and I shall end here.

  16. Hi James,
    I really like your writing and thank you for the insights in your newsletters. One small cprrection, Jack LaLanne was quoted saying more than once “I hate working out. But I love the results.”

    So perhaps, at least sometimes, it’s about the results. But not as one time event but rather as a “virtuous cycle” that keeps you wanting to come back for more.

    All the best,

  17. James,

    Wow, what a great post to sum up how I’ve been feeling lately. I read a lot of books about entrepreneurship, influence, and growing a business … and a lot about mindfulness, Zen, and meditation.

    2 seemingly conflicting subject areas, right?

    It’s difficult because on one hand, you want to reach for the stars, keep improving, and change the world.

    On the other, you want to sit back and smell the roses and be happy in the moment and thankful for all the awesome experiences of your life.

    I go through conflicting emotions about this all the time, and I’m glad I’m not alone.

    I think finding the balance between the two that works for you as an individual is the answer.

    Excellent, thought-provoking post here. Well done.

  18. James,

    This article comes at a time when I am in transition, and while I love what I do, it’s the both the loss of my business and the transition of what I’m doing that has me … well … UNhappy. But, when I clear out the BS (i.e, the worry, the lack of momentary financial concerns, etc.) and focus on the training that I’m putting myself through, what you’ve written here makes perfect sense, and does in fact provide some happiness knowing that I’m learning and enjoying the process.

    I have been unhappy for a good number of years now, and part of that has come from never having the satisfaction I’d hoped for with my business. Your article has given me a different perspective, and for that I’m very grateful. Thank you.

    Keep up the great work!

  19. Great post, James! Love the process. That’s what life is about- loving what you do, enjoying the experience, and success becomes just an accompanying attribute of following your passion! :)

  20. James,

    I just read through the comments above and I can see why you speak with such passion about what you are doing day-to-day. The level of new readers, committed readers, positive reinforcement, and useful critiques is astounding. What better way to show happiness in action then to see a continued outpouring of appreciation for your work and how it can help people achieve their goals, and even enjoy the journey along the way.

    I was reading this evening and came upon a quote that connected to this article and related to the level of control we exhibit in pursuing happiness. When you clear your mind and clearly envision your goals, “your motives make a rare and dramatic shift from seeking happiness to creating it.” This is a craft we can all commit time to.

  21. Hi James,

    First of all: thanks for sharing your inspiration with us. I like most of the articles you send me but with this one I have my doubts.

    Indeed it’s good to join the process instead of focusing only on the goal. But the examples you give are from people who doesn’t have to concern about the money etc.

    But when you’re working hard on your own company, and doing what you love everyday, it’s easy to be unhappy if you don’t earn any money from it while bills are delivered daily.

    Don’t get me wrong, it was my choice and I don’t regret it, but sometimes I don’t like the process that much because it has no outcome (yet).

    I’d rather be doing the things I love everyday and enjoy it without having the scared thoughts it’s not going to work.

    Keep it up, I’ll be waiting on your next post.


  22. James,

    What a great piece of advice. Loving the process rather than the results. So simple, yet so elegant. People get caught up with the achievements so easily, and while having goals is great, being able to enjoy the process is far better and is something that can really last. Love your real world examples too.

  23. Another great post! It’s so very true. It’s so easy to think that reaching some goal will make you happy. I’ve thought that if I made a certain amount of money, had a certain title, dropped my golf handicap a specific amount, etc that I’d be “happy”, but there is only momentary satisfaction. Now I realize that there is (or should be) joy in the pursuit or process of the goals.

  24. Thanks James for a wonderful article. and for all the insight you give on the art of daily living ,but I have a question or rather want your advice… you see I’m a medical student and want to impliment things in this article (i.e. I will have to love the process of studying to be the best doctor) — but the problem is how can I learn to love this process (in my case studying)? A big thank you James and awaiting your reply.

  25. Nice one. First of all, I would like to say that not to love what you do, but do what you love. Secondly, what if you are forced to do what you hate the most due to the circumstances around you? Then you can follow the above advice.

  26. This post reminded me of Russ Harris and his book: “The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT”

    As the title says he is a supporter of ACT (Acceptance Commitment Therapy). A large part in his book discusses a value driven life/lifestyle. In that you don’t have to achieve certain goals in your life, but try to live it according to your inner values. Because a simple goal can be accomplished, but you cannot reach a certain value you can only strive to live according to it. So in your example of Mr. Branson, his value could be to have an entrepreneur-lifestyle and bring constantly new ideas to success. In this case he could get up every morning and live to his value, whereas when he had only the goal of becoming a billionaire, he could have stopped after the first billion.

    Hope this made sense to you. ;)

    Maybe you give this book a read, it gave me some really good suggestions. Greetings from Berlin.

  27. Hey James! Just wanted to say that your blog resonates with me a lot, and it helps me understand the complications of life a little better. Thank you so much for these wonderful reads.
    Also wanted to say that I totally agree that you have to fall in love with the routine, to achieve higher than your goals. But is that something you can teach yourself? Isn’t that a pre-requisite before choosing a field, that you love doing something and get attracted to it naturally! And if you can, how do you do it? How do you motivate yourself other than the promise of future glory? I hope you can write an article elaborating on it too.

  28. I think this discussion and related argument is the essence of being ‘called’ vs. driven.

    It probably demands a certain level of faith to believe in the notion, but I think it is a key to happiness. Working, even toiling, in an area you feel uniquely fits you and your purpose in life drives satisfaction from the moment you begin…long before goals are accomplished, milestones achieved, etc.

    It truly connects you to the journey vs. a destination.

  29. Just wanted to say thanks for writing this! It really resonated with me a lot. It’s a great life checkpoint to pause every so often and ask yourself if you are enjoying the process of attaining your goals. Whenever the answer is no, it’s time to reevaluate.

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