Success Lessons from a Famous Ghostwriter

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Sometimes we meet in person in spacious hotel suites or in houses with panoramic views. Other times we meet on screen, their images appearing from crumpled beds, infinity pools, or boats bigger than my apartment. The dynamic is always different, ranging from stiff and transactional to warm and intimate, but either way our interactions are largely one-sided — they share, I back off. Good ghostwriters are invisible, giving our best lines without leaving a trace of ourselves.

As a famous ghostwriter, my career has been an unwitting masterclass in ambition, providing intimate glimpses into who is best at what they do. Over many hours of interviews, I piece together their memories, stories, and personal philosophies and turn them into cohesive, often uncredited, narratives. I’ve worked with an array of talents, from artists to athletes to entrepreneurs, many of whom unironically call themselves “game changers” and “thought leaders.” Together we wrote memoirs, how-to guides and self-help manuals, promising all their secrets to winning in life.

My friends are always after the gossip. “Who’s nice and who’s a freak?” “Why did they really break up?” I never write or tell – not just out of professionalism, but because these stories aren’t that compelling. The fodder of the tabloids can never be compared to the wonderment that witnesses their conduct in action.

In my experience, there are core tenets of the Über-ambitious – bile, courage, and common sense – but their motivation is never fame or fortune, although those are welcome by-products. There is always a deeper why, an emotional force that keeps the engine running. Often it’s invisible, a gnawing desire, or an inner conflict that can never be resolved. It can be an absent or critical parent or a bully whose words are deep. To honor a beloved mentor or maintain a family heirloom. To increase representation, to become the role model they wish they had as children.

Once their eyes are on the prize, everything else hangs in the balance. “The most important thing is to be clear about what you want,” says a wellness mogul. “It creates instant boundaries and helps eliminate distractions. Before agreeing to anything, I ask, ‘Will this bring me closer to my goal?’ If the answer is no, I don’t.

I once came across some sort of to-do list while using an actor’s bathroom. (For the record, I wasn’t spying; it was taped to the mirror and impossible to miss.) Where we mortals can list things like chores and errands, it reads like a step-by-step plan for world domination. This included winning awards, directing a feature film, and launching a lifestyle brand with the power players to call upon to make it happen. I’ve seen this attitude over and over again, albeit in different guises: approaching life like a video game, a challenge in which you are constantly trying to level up. One entrepreneur shared how she jumped from job to job, not thinking about blowing up her resume and reputation when something didn’t align with her hard-to-achieve ideals.

Of course, all of this effort comes with a fair amount of sacrifice. “I haven’t seen my children for weeks,” sighs a multi-hyphenate, whose social networks are full of heartwarming photos taken by their nanny. Missing out on life’s big moments is part of the course – vacations, formative experiences, family milestones, even postponing your own wedding to fit in a grueling work schedule. Where balance is virtually non-existent, relationships often suffer. I’ve seen similarly driven partners drift apart, each pursuing their own goals, while dissimilar couples can leave one partner feeling left behind.

For many reasons, ambitious people are often in the company of like-minded people. As one Hollywood idol told me, his entourage is carefully curated. He surrounds himself with people who are relentlessly positive, driven and energetic, essentially recruiting a full-time hype team. “Their energy is rubbing off on me,” he explains. “Their success gives me focus and makes me want to get things done.”

I can attest to the power of closeness, because sitting on the sidelines of megahits made me want to get started. For years, invisibility provided a safe and comfortable place to land without endangering myself. But when you hang out with those who reside in the spotlight, you can’t help but feel drawn to its glow.

One morning I met a beloved television personality for breakfast. As we sat tucked into a corner cubicle, his cap and sunglasses doing nothing to deter prying eyes, the conversation veered into unfamiliar territory. “What is your dream?” he asked, slicing a stack of pancakes. I hesitated, not sure if I had heard correctly. “I mean, you can’t want to do this forever, can you?” What do you really want?”

As her kind face waited for a response, I realized it would be easier to divulge my deepest fears or weirdest sexual encounters. I knew the shape of my dream, its outlines as sharp and clear as its features before me, but I couldn’t force my lips to speak it. Like many people, I had internalized the belief that giving voice to my aspirations was rude, obnoxious, and selfish. Especially as a woman.

Until this morning, I always thought I was ambitious. Now I saw that I wasn’t even close. How had I not noticed that my own desires were mired in shame? When people asked me what I did for a living, I often put “writer” in quotes, even though it was my full-time job. Who was I to want a voice, an audience, to put my name on the cover of a book? Who was I to pursue the same things that I regularly helped others create? Coming home after breakfast, I decided it was time for a change.

The most powerful tool of truly ambitious people is that they are not shy about expressing or pursuing what they want. That doesn’t mean they never struggle with insecurity or impostor syndrome or even fear of failure. But when the opportunity comes, they never ask, Why me?

One of my favorite questions to ask clients is if they were surprised by their accomplishments. I have never encountered false modesty. “Honestly…”, they always begin, before confessing an intuition about predestined greatness.

I write more as myself these days, but their words still resonate in my mind. I hear their stories of detours and obstacles and how they forged ahead despite everything, always searching for what makes them feel alive. I’d like to believe it’s possible for all of us, whether your definition of success includes yachts and Oscars or nachos and relative sanity: giving us permission to try.

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