How to Achieve Your Full Potential as a Writer

Carol Tice

Are you the best, most creative, prolific, and successful writer you could be?

If not, it’s probably because some critical need you have is not being met.

This lack in your life is preventing you from becoming your best, most productive self.

The good news is that if you identify and address your problem, you can take your writing, and your life, to a whole new level of satisfaction and success.

What might you be missing that you need?

In a 1943 paper, the psychologist Abraham Maslow posited a theory of human self-actualization. By studying successful, creatively fulfilled people, Maslow came up with a hierarchy of needs that must be met in order to live fully and achieve our full potential.

It’s often depicted as a pyramid. First, you need a large, critical foundation of basic needs met. Without that, you can’t build a successful life.

Once those basic needs are met, you can move on to addressing more sophisticated needs, and so on, until you reach the top level of achievement, where all your needs are satisfied and you can attain self-actualization.

What people need

Here is a rundown on Maslow’s hierarchy (which was expanded in the 1970s from a five-step to a seven-step process). Take a look at this checklist of needs and see if you spot something that’s missing from your life:

  1. Survival: Basics such as air, drink, food, clothing, and sleep (Interestingly, the hierarchy also places sex here.)
  2. Comfort: Warmth and protection from the elements, the rule of law, feeling safe from danger
  3. Belonging: The need to feel part of a community, to have relationships, and feel loved
  4. Competence: We long to have accomplishments and be recognized for them
  5. Cognition: The need to explore new ideas, learn and understand
  6. Aesthetics: We crave symmetry, order, and beauty in our world
  7. Self-actualization: With these needs met, we can fulfill our potential

Once you’re at the top of this pyramid, the next step in the hierarchy is transcendence — moving beyond the pursuit of achieving your own potential to helping others achieve theirs.

I don’t know about you, but reading over this list I felt both some elation, and some sadness.

On the one hand, in some aspects I feel like I am achieving self-actualization, or at least getting in the ballpark. I look at what I’m writing and the response it gets from readers and often feel like I’m at the top of my game.

I love the work I do and the clients I write for. I’m well-paid and able to pick and choose clients.

But then…I see areas where there’s a lack in my life. If my household could be more calm and less cluttered, for instance, would my mind be more fully alive? Or if I made the time to cultivate more and deeper personal friendships?

I could probably come up with amazing new ideas that would take my writing career to a new high. Maybe I’d have already written that tantalizing young-adult novel idea I keep tossing around with my daughter, for instance.

Who knows what heights my writing might achieve, under more ideal circumstances.

The habits of self-actualized people

Besides addressing these needs so that we can create from a more secure base to support our creativity, what else can we do to achieve our potential?

Maslow identified a set of traits common in self-actualized people. I found them similar to the traits we often talk about a lot here on the blog when our subject is overcoming fears and obstacles to achieve your writing dreams. His list:

  • Experiencing life in a childlike way, fully absorbed in our task and open to new experiences
  • Trying new things instead of sticking to safe paths
  • Listening to your inner voice rather than authority figures or the majority
  • Honesty with yourself and others
  • A willingness to be unpopular if your views are different
  • Hard-working and responsible
  • Breaking down defenses and moving out of comfort zones to take on new challenges

Everyone gets there in their own way, Maslow reported, but these were traits seemed to be indicators that a person could take advantage of the satisfaction of their needs to unleash their creativity.

This second list challenges me in so many ways. I’m hard-working and responsible yes, but am I doing enough to break out of habits and walk new paths?

For sure, I don’t spend enough time listening to that little voice inside.

How about you?

What do you need to achieve your potential? Leave a comment and tell us what’s missing.



  1. Carol Anne

    Like you, a clean house would help a lot! But for me the main area I’m lacking in is recognition for competenance — I just don’t get that here in the cube farm. Which is why I’m looking to branch out. I’d like to hear a “wow” or even a “nice!” instead of groans when I hand off something I’ve written – groans because it means work the other person now has to do because I completed my task on time/early and with accuracy.

    • Carol Tice

      I feel lucky in that I’ve always been pretty internally driven and wanting to come up to my own standards, rather than focused on outside recognition. The funny thing is, I think when you focus on self-improvement and competing with your own past work and making the next piece better…you end up getting recognition.

      The writing you do at work may not be a good example of getting writing feedback, also…think you have to look to other writing you do elsewhere, like maybe your own blog or guest posting for a start.

  2. Ali

    Carol, I think I’ve already requested it once before; Since our beloved MakeALivingWritig is a mentoring blog and at the end of the day, quite a few people (including me) ask you questions in the comments. But this is what usually happens, I ask you a question, you reply but I never come to know about it. I don’t want to get 50 other comments in my inbox, so I don’t normally check “notify me of the follow up comments”.
    Why don’t you check out this free plugin: Comment Reply Notifier ( It’ll send us an email whenever you reply to our comments. This will be a huge favor for me and hopefully for many others 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      I hear ya – I’ll ask my webmaster to look into it!

  3. Liesa Malik

    Hi Carol. What a great topic! I think this is where we run into “writer’s block” causes a lot. Me? I have a hard time with Maslow’s level 2 — feeling safe. Growing up in a world that had a lot of negative surprises, I constantly seek security. This affects my writing because I will jot down something that MIGHT offend a reader, then cross it out and start again. Currently, I’m working on a Writer’s Block talk, using a few books I’ve read, and tips of my own. If good with you, I’d like to be able to quote from this post as well. Thanks for keeping such a great blog going.

    • Carol Tice

      Link away!

      I think that fear of being attacked or criticized for something we write is a common one, Liesa.

  4. Flora Morris Brown


    I’ve referred to Maslow’s hierarchy many times, and completely agree that we can’t get to the higher needs until the lower ones are met.

    Less clutter and more order around my office, house and on my computer would surely clear my mind and let more creative ideas through. I go through periods of cleaning (never as thorough as I used to) but soon the books, articles, and things build up that I want to revisit.

    From the habits of self-actualized list I need to move out of my comfort zone and be willing to take on more challenges. I love to explore new ideas, but acting on them takes more effort than it once did, especially they require me to stretch.

    Thanks for stirring up these thoughts.

  5. Joann

    Like many writers, I like to write…not to market myself. That’s my main issue.

    I found the list of what people need so interesting. It would be a great thing for managers to read, because I think they often overlook some of the simple things that make employees feel good (and be more productive). Creating a sense of community and recognizing people’s accomplishments sure can go a long way.

    BTW, I am finding all of your advice helpful and motivating…there’s some recognition for you. 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      Well, that’s why I have the Den — that’s the community I thought was lacking in the freelance writing world…and seems like 500+ writers agree it’s something they needed.

      Glad you’re finding the blog useful!

  6. Louis

    Thinking about this list makes me see why I’m nowhere near reaching my potential right now. The only steps on Maslow’s hierarchy I have at present are 1 and 2. I have a bit of #4 at work but it’s not for my writing. Maybe I need to work harder on the habits you list below. Thanks for listing them.

  7. Rob Schneider

    Great blog about a great person. It inspired a blog-length response from me.

    • Carol Tice

      Interesting post Rob — didn’t know you were into Maslow! But I do think his structure gives me answers to where I can improve my life, and then my writing.

  8. Sophie Lizard

    Whenever I read the words, “out of your comfort zone,” I feel like running away.

    “Noooo! Don’t wanna!”, my comfortable self whines. I have a minor freakout before every interview, because any kind of public speaking is outside my comfort zone. That’s why I became a writer in the first place, right?

    I’m still showing up, though. I hope with time I’ll get to be childishly open to the experience, and stop getting the shakes as soon as I open my mouth!

    • Carol Tice

      I’d love to just get over the massive complex I have whenever I have to write a first piece for a new client. MASSIVE. COMPLEX. Just takes forever to write because it HAS to really knock their eyes out.


  9. Sandra

    I definitely need to deepen certain relationships and sometimes be willing to try new things. I find that as I get older, I’m more likely to use age as an excuse for sticking to “my way” of doing things. Thanks for posting this.
    BTW, I picked up a copy of Make a Living and am enjoying it. Some great information that I’m looking forward to applying soon.

    • Carol Tice

      Awesome — really appreciate the feedback!

      My sad situation is that I had a best friend…but she died of cancer last May. I’m shopping for new best friends…need to get out there.

      • Sandra

        I’m sorry to hear that, it must not have been easy.

        Getting out there, as you say….not easy either, especially with family responsibilities.

  10. Ann Shannon

    I’m working on the ability to listen to the “still small voice ” and become obedient to it.I have learned that the “reasoning mind” may have its say whenever. I believe in learning how to trust myself even with my writing that I am open to new ideas and that inner guidance.

  11. Mike Shurtleff

    Thanks Carol: This is a very nice work you put forth. Now I have to seek out more Maslownianisms. Hee-hee. You’re a wonderful resource for a newbie like me and along with Mary Jaksch@ Write To Done my confidence is building to the point where I’m pitching work that just a month ago would have seemed too, too out of my league.

    Even though I’m not getting the jobs, (I did get a direct mail piece-about 650 words at .08 cents per and a DTP menu-my first two paying writing gigs!) I’m not giving up and actually find myself writing more and more. I have Strunk & White’s “little book” at hand and refer to it often. Proper use of punctuation is my BIGGEST peeve.

    With resources like you around I’m looking forward to banking enough for some one on one mentoring.

    Thank you Carol

    • Carol Tice

      That’s so cool, Mike — thanks for sharing your first successes.

      Did you notice what had to change for you to do these gigs? Only your feelings about yourself. Like they said to Dorothy, you had the power to do this all along…

      I always feel the biggest thing holding writers back is between their ears. We like to blame the economy, or that we live in a small town, or a foreign country, or whatever…but we’ve met the enemy and he is us, as an old cartoon used to say.

  12. Anne Grant

    I thought you were reading my mind when my tired brain interpreted “everyone gets there in their own way” as “everyone gets in their own way”…since I take that concept to new heights.
    Anyway, thanks for bringing back these insights I had heard long ago. Now that I’m in a different place in my life, it’s all new.

    • Carol Tice

      Haha! No doubt that second read of it is true as well.

  13. Linda Bryant

    What a great post. I concur with feeling a strange mix of elation and sadness. The beauty/order/symmetry part really does make me sad. There is too much chaos in my surroundings, and it really does weigh on me. I have the power to take that weight off my shoulders.

  14. Anne Galivan

    I think we can’t wait until all those “needs” are met before we just go ahead and do stuff. For most of us, that would mean never taking on challenges, because having all those needs met, all at the same time, is a pretty tall order, even for those in places where basic necessities are taken for granted.

    As far as the second list, I feel like I do pretty well on most of the seven, however, I am lately realizing I need to throw myself at challenges and say to heck with the fear. Whether it’s the fear of change or the fear of failure or the fear of putting myself out there and risking ridicule. I’m tired of living a life of fear. I’m tired of settling.

    Just as we only get physically stronger by exercising our muscles, we will only get stronger within if we exercise the muscles of our will and our spirit. That’s something I am committing myself to do. And I’m finding that just as our muscles complain if we haven’t worked them in a long time, our will and spirit might just complain a little at getting a work-out. So be it! Carpe diem!

    • Carol Tice

      Oh, I’m definitely not suggesting anybody should wait until they’ve got all these ducks in a row.

      I just think contemplating this list helps us identify where we could resolve underlying problems that would make us even more successful and creative.


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