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Trophies, Metrics, and Great Work

by | Mindset

Danielle LaPorte has spent the last several years building a thriving audience for her work. She’s excavated and refined her voice, and has done a remarkable job of building a platform that inspires the people she serves. Last week, Danielle released a book called The Firestarter Sessions  and thousands of copies flew off the shelves. Apparently not the “right” shelves. Yesterday, Danielle released a brilliant post on her blog about how her book – even though it sold enough copies – was excluded from the NY Times Bestseller list due to invisible criteria beyond her control. (She goes on to discuss how she’s found satisfaction in having served her audience with her work.)

There are few things more nausea-inducing than putting your work on display for the world to poke at, deconstruct, and critique. This is especially true when there are certain culturally-agreed-upon metrics that are supposed to indicate your level of success or failure. Sometimes it can feel like you’re aiming at multiple goals: do great work, but also (somehow) hit the metrics that provide social proof for success.

In truth, most of us want recognition for our work. There’s nothing wrong with that. We want to know that others see the value of what we do and we want to feel like our contribution is significant in some way, but the reality is that only a small percentage of what we do – even our most brilliant work – will ever be recognized broadly. If our main ambition is to be celebrated, or to hit some kind of metric for social proof, then we are setting ourselves up for a life of frustration and disappointment.

Hurry ruins saints as well as artists. They want quick success, and they are in such a hurry to get it that they cannot take time to be true to themselves. And when the madness is upon them, they argue that their very haste is a species of integrity. – Thomas Merton

Are there areas of your life where you’re aiming for trophies rather than living in the satisfaction of doing great work? I know there are in mine. I try to weed these sinister, soul-sucking desires out, but they’re there nonetheless. It is an everyday struggle to commit myself to the work and not to the judging eyes of others. Others analyze my work using metrics I can’t control, and at the end of the day these judgments will serve no purpose but to drive me insane. The one thing I can control? Pouring myself into my work and making it as great as possible.

But there is never – ever – a shortcut to great work. It always requires walking a path through the dark places. Through the ambiguity, the discomfort of fear, dissonance, and judgment. You must venture through the fire, but you will come out on the other side refined. The creative process is the perpetual assault on the beachhead of apathy.

So don’t worry about the trophies – they’ll take care of themselves. Do brilliant work that will stand the test of time, and let everyone else fight over the recognition.

That’s what Danielle has decided to do, and that really fires me up.

Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.

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  1. Rdopping

    Brilliant post. This captures the essence of what is most critical to success. Money, fame and your trophies are a by-product of what you do not the driver for what you do. The more people that realize that the better off we will all be.

    Thanks again for sticking to your principles. Fantastic post.

    • Todd Henry

      Thanks so much. It’s a daily struggle to stay aligned to what’s truly important versus the lure of social proof. There is a lot of overlap, which is where the tension lives.

  2. SusanR

    Thanks for the reminder.  I’m sewing a very complicated quilt for my sons for his HS graduation.  It’s tedious and taxing to sew it precisely aligned.  I have had to reconstruct many squares, slowly removing threads by hand to recreate more perfect squares.  The love and creative joy I feel, knowing I’m creating a snuggly keepsake to accompany his college voyage, ameliorates my pain and prevents hurrying.  Thanks for the post!  

    • Todd Henry

      Thanks, Susan. It is often more difficult when our work is a labor of love for someone we care about versus a “gun for hire” project!

  3. Terri Bleeker

    Thank you for sharing this. I really needed this reminder today. I wish Danielle great happiness in knowing that her book was a labor of love and a wholehearted success because of that.

  4. fjr

    I agree with everything you have said here. Broadening the topic a bit, it is critical to recognize whose metrics or feedback contribute to our creative growth in what we do, whose are truly irrelevant to what we are trying to do, and whose are a destructive force that attempts to steer us off course. There are some people who take feedback from outside too seriously, not discriminating among the sources according to their quality of judgment. There are others who run clear of all feedback or outside judgment, regardless of its source or potential value. The latter could, I think, be a form of Resistance that sharply reduces the chance of breakthrough work.

    • Todd Henry

      Absolutely true. This isn’t to discount all metrics. It’s good to have a healthy sense of progress, growth, and even – gasp! – effectiveness. All of this is essential if we’re creative pros (emphasis on the pro.) But sometimes external recognition/celebration becomes more of a driver than effectiveness and it begins to disproportionately shape our process. That was the primary dynamic I was emphasizing here.

  5. Craig McBreen

    Hi Todd,

    If you’re looking for some type of reward, money or long for recognition, you’re heading in the wrong direction. For success and happiness you must focus on what makes you sing. And realize there is no “arriving.” The pro’s train doesn’t stop, right?

    Love this, thanks!

    • Todd Henry

      That is very true. The train never arrives at the station. Thanks, Craig!

  6. Cbarnes Art

    I very much needed to read these words today. As an artist I too often get tied up with who might like this and who won’t, will it stand the “test” (whatever that might be!) this was a heart check for me. Thank you.

  7. Kerri

    This is brilliant!   I’ve been struggling with this since I started my blog – should I create what’s true to my heart or what everyone else keeps telling me I need to create in order to make money and build an audience.  Thanks for affirming in me my desire to be authentic over becoming famous and making heaps of money (though I wouldn’t mind either of those too!) ;-P
    Thanks heaps for sharing this post!

    • Todd Henry

      Nothing necessarily wrong with the second option, as long as that’s what you’re aiming for and you’re honest with yourself about it. The in-between zone is where it seems to get very complicated. The best solution is to develop your voice, find others who resonate with it, and have the best of both worlds, no? ;)

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