Trophies, Metrics, and Great Work

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.

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