“Them” and The Tyranny of Chasing Cool

by | Process

I have lately encountered many people who feel – for lack of a better term – frustrated and like they’re under-performing. But the thing is, in many of these cases the cause – the root – of the issue isn’t some workplace dynamic, lack of resources or lack of ability. Rather, it’s completely, and totally between their ears. They have established false boundaries around their work, and it’s killing their ability to produce.

In fact, these conversations have impacted me so much that over the next three AC podcasts I’m going to talk about the three main sources of these boundaries. (If you’re not a subscriber to the podcast, then you’ll want to subscribe for free.) We’re also going to be diving deeper into these subjects in our AC Engage community.

The first source of these artificial boundaries is them. I’ve lately been hearing a lot of self-qualifying language as others are talking about their work. There is such a paralysis that emerges from a fear of being seen as unhip, or lame in some way, that there is a perceived need to qualify everything in order to not be discounted by the “cool kids”.

In many ways it feels like we’re all back at the junior high dance, and no one is willing to go out on the dance floor and have fun because they don’t want to be seen as uncool by everyone else. So we all just huddle in the corner, talking about how cool “our thing” is and trying our best to preserve our public perception.

For example, here is how this played out recently for me: My first book is about to release through Portfolio in July, and I spent the better part of a year, three hours a day, writing it. As I was huddled away in the corner of the coffee shop at 5:30 in the morning writing, I would occasionally hear these thoughts as they passed through my head: “OH…you can’t write THAT. That’s the first thing they’re going to reference when they write your one star review on Amazon. Why don’t you try something less polarizing?” I was already thinking about how the book was going to be reviewed before the first draft of the manuscript was even completed! For a while, this kind of thinking really hampered by creative process because I was more concerned about how the work was going to be perceived than I was about getting it out there to begin with.

But here’s the thing: it’s not going to be perceived AT ALL if it’s not completed. And sometimes this kind of “THEM-BASED” paralysis prevents us from doing any work at all.

You see, we live with the persistent myth that we will always have tomorrow to do today’s work.

It is a lie. All that matters – ALL THAT MATTERS – is that we do our work today. That we empty ourselves of whatever is inside. That’s all we can do.

So I would rather be ridiculed today, or perceived as not being one of the “cool kids”, than be sitting around tomorrow with all of my work still inside of me. Because those who do the work – those who ship – eventually get to define the conversation.

So here are a few questions to help identify these false “them-based” boundaries:

1. Are there any actions in your life that are solely for the sake of others’ perception?
2. Do you think too much about how your work will be received before it’s even finished?
3. Are you doing your work today, or are you waiting for someone else to give you permission?

Do NOT wait for permission. Do NOT wait for answers. In fact, as I said in a recent post on my personal site, you don’t need to wait for anything. Just act.

Because all of those kids at the junior high dance who awkwardly stand in the corner trying to look cool miss out on a whole lot of fun.

We need to do our work, and stop pointing the finger at “them”.

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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