Keep Going

I’ve always wondered how people continue doing the same work day in and day out (I am talking only about those whose work fulfills them). Don’t they ever find it boring, repetitive, or even monotonous? What is it about their work that keeps them going?

Take the case of Chef Jiro, arguably the greatest sushi master of all time, who starts work in the morning and comes home at night every day; once in a while he might take a day off to visit his home town, but other than that he shows up at work every day continuing to refine his craft. Even after working all these years (he’s now 93), he thinks he hasn’t reached perfection in his work. In that regard, he considers himself to be a disciple of his work (never a teacher).

Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, has been creating a daily comic strip for the past 30 years for his weblog (and syndicated elsewhere). Even after working all these years, he never truly feels he has “arrived”. He says:

Apparently the thing inside me that makes me work so hard is the same thing that keeps me unsatisfied. It’s a package deal. The best you can hope for is a family that understands.

Or take the case of renowned filmmaker (and professor) Spike Lee. He works throughout the week (Sundays included). For him, work isn’t work. That’s what he does. He says:

It’s not like for me Sunday is the Sabbath. I got work to do. For me, it’s not really work. I love what I’m doing.

Actually, that’s exactly what work should feel like for each one of us, but it doesn’t for most of us.

This idea of doing work every day (and by extension, making ideas happen) is true not just for those in the so-called “creative profession”, but even for those whose work may not typically be thought of as “creative”, but they are creative nonetheless (being creative is a verb, not a noun).

For instance, I have a handyman that I call on occasionally for home repair projects. He does the work quickly and charges (justifiably) high fees for it. He never takes a day off from work (Sundays included). He says the best thing he likes about his work is he gets to meet and work for people from all walks of life, and his job enables him to do just that. This way, he says, he also gets to learn more about the world. Of course, his family sometimes complains and wants him to spend more time at home, to which he says he can’t sit idle (at home) for more than an hour. I guess, at some point, work ceases to be work, which means you’ve probably found your calling (if there is such a thing).

One thing you may never find these people say is that they don’t “feel” like doing the work or find it monotonous. These are also the same people who never look forward to taking family vacations. They like their work so much that they think of it as their raison d’être. In other words, they are professionals in the truest sense of the word. They show up and do the work every day whether or not they feel like it.

It’s the same reason I do the work every day. It gives my life meaning, purpose, and fulfillment (not to be confused with happiness). It serves a purpose greater than simply doing the work itself. For me, it’s about being the best I can be and helping others do the same.

The reason we make/do things every day in the first place is to make some kind of change in the world. Is there even another reason for making art?! I suspect deep down we all have a strong Why that has kept us going, even if only a few of us have articulated it explicitly. This is the thing that keeps us going day in and day out — something we care about deeply that serves a greater purpose than simply what we do (for a living), of which making money is simply a result (and not the main reason).

I have long believed that true success cannot be separated from rightful living. For me, that means being the best person one can be in terms of one’s character and contribution. More than anything, it’s that one thing that keeps me going. It keeps me relentless in the pursuit of rightful living. I believe I need to be the change I want to see in the world, paraphrasing Gandhi. In fact, I’ve made it my life’s mission to help others do the same.

For instance, when I finish working on a draft, I look at my editorial calendar and I start on the next one without wasting any time. It can be easy for me to get complacent and to bask in the glory of the work I’ve just completed, but at some point you have to move on. The sooner, the better. In any case, the reward for me is to keep doing the work, and not that a draft was completed. That merely happens to be a result of what I do, which does not motivate me in and of itself.

I show up to do the work day after day, week after week. Why put myself through this daily struggle (because it never gets easier)? Because I get to learn the most when I teach/share by writing, so my interest and motives are purely selfish. If others benefit from my work, then that’s a bonus. But above all, I write for myself. I work to learn (about myself). I write things that I care about or want to learn about so I can live better and help others do the same. There is nothing worse than living an unfulfilled life.

To put it simply, I am like that kid who uses paper to make art and when he’s done, he leaves the paper and moves on to something else. For him, it wasn’t about what was completed (the result); rather, it was about being engaged in the process of doing the work (and by extension, who he was becoming through the process). In that sense, I write drafts fully engaged in the process, then I leave the drafts alone in a way. I abandon them. For me, it was more fulfilling to do the work than to ship it.

I know when I have procrastinated during the day and found myself in some rabbit trail doing something other than what I was supposed to be doing, I almost always feel less than great later on. You see, at the end of the day, we are wired to be useful. When we don’t do those things, we feel something’s gone amiss. In other words, we do things to make our soul grow, as Kurt Vonnegut would say. We do those things to help make a difference in the lives of others through our work.

Here’s another example that comes to mind. When you’re exercising routinely (to be at your physical best, let’s say), it’s easy to expect noticeable results from it in the short term(since you’re putting in all the effort), but then you have to ask yourself about the reason for doing it in the first place. Are you exercising to simply get “results” in the short term, such as losing body fat? Or is there a greater cause behind doing it, like establishing a habit that you know will be great for you in the long term? The latter is the thing that keeps you going, while the former is short-lived and you’re bound to fall out of the habit sooner or later.

My uncle has been a regular practitioner of Yoga for nearly two decades. When I visited him not too long ago, he advised me to keep doing it every week without expecting any results in the short term. He told me the “results” will come in time, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because it’s good for you.

Here’s the thing. It will never get easier (for those doing creative work), but it sure is worth it in the end. There is no finish line. When you finish one project, you get started on the next one. There is no time to waste. You don’t rest on your laurels or get complacent. You don’t take a vacation. The journey (of doing the work) is the reward in itself. There is no destination to arrive at. You just keep doing the work. You just keep going.

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