If you patrol the web for only a few brief minutes, you stumble onto a lot of articles about achieving success, whipping your productive self into shape, and living the dream.
Many of these articles list steps or secrets – typically “things you never knew about…” – for realizing your ambitions. They are shortcuts to reaching objectives. Quick(er) paths to success.
For creative pros – those charged with turning our thoughts into value every day – the promise of a quick path to successful work is alluring. If there were proven ways to avoid the uncertainty and pain of the process, they would be worth their weight in gold.
Unfortunately, they don’t exist. Not really, anyway.
There are no secrets or shortcuts to creating valuable work. I think we waste a lot of energy trying to figure out better ways of doing our work instead of letting the work tell us what it needs. We fall prey to a few fallacies:
We celebrate the peaks of success – after the fact – but ignore the valleys
The other night a colleague was in town speaking to a group in my home city (Cincinnati). I respect this person very much, because not only has he led a team in the effort to build something amazing, he’s still intensely focused on the mission of his organization even though the company has been acquired, which is the exit ramp – at least emotionally – for many entrepreneurs. At dinner that evening, he shared with me a little about his early journey building the company, how the founders and early employees took meager salaries so that the business could grow, and how they held off from seeking investment until very late so that they could pursue the cause they were deeply passionate about without the interference of VC’s.
From the outside, the company seemed to grow very quickly and with little friction. From the inside, it was intensity, toil, persistence, risk, and fierce commitment to a vast goal. There were no shortcuts. No secrets. Just grit, focus, smart decision making, and passionate commitment to an outcome. It’s never simple.
When these kinds of stories are told in retrospect, we often focus on the path to success but ignore the pain and the pitfalls along the way. We do ourselves a disservice when we do this, because we are ignoring a key reality: no two paths will ever look the same. Life asks different things of each of us, and we have to respond to the circumstances and opportunities in front of us. There are no templates, and we shouldn’t try to make them. Instead, we need frameworks for decision making, and strong relational mirrors to help us stay on track.
We fall in love with the trappings rather than the process
Many people are miserable in their work because they haven’t figured out how to fall in love with process. Instead, they are motivated by the trappings of their work (pay, prestige, etc.) rather than the outcome their trying to achieve. When you aren’t personally committed to an outcome, you will seek shortcuts to help you circumnavigate the pain points of your work rather than pushing through them on the path to contribution. You have to commit to outcomes that exist beyond your own personal gratification. Your contribution is not about you, it’s about others.
We confuse trophies with impact
Trophies do not signify impact. My new book Die Empty was the #1 business audiobook for a few weeks on iTunes, and something like #10 overall. It was #1 in several of its categories on Amazon.com for a while too. Those numbers are fine trophies, but they really don’t mean much of anything in terms of impact. What counts is when people read and apply the principles in the book, and change their lives and subsequently their workplace and the world. That’s impact. That’s what I want. It would really grieve me if the thousands of people who have bought the book promptly placed it on their bookshelf and forgot about it. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing the achievement of a goal, but you can’t fixate on numbers unless they really signify that you’re moving the needle on your desired outcome.
As creatives, we must embrace uncertainty rather than running from it. There are no guarantees on the other side of our effort. We may work hard, pour ourselves fully into our work, and fail miserably. Seeking a shortcut or secret to success is often nothing more than the attempt to avoid muddling through the uncertainty in the awkward attempt to add value. We have not only the opportunity, but the responsibility to plumb the depths of our capabilities and bring them out in to the world. The most reliable path to success is straight through the heart of our uncertainty.