Do the Work

Too often we worry about the outcome of our work without actually putting in the hours to do the work.

The only way we can truly influence the outcome we want is to show up and do the work. That’s all you can really do — think about it. It’s good to begin with the end in mind, but it’s the dwelling on the end that becomes the problem.

Instead, I suggest that we start with the end in mind first, and then shift our focus to doing the work. Starting with the end in mind effectively leads us. Moving in the direction of that end is managing ourselves by doing whatever is required to get us to the end goal, letting the journey determine the outcome of our work. That would mean showing up every day to do work that matters to you. It’s time to stop making excuses and start doing work every day.

As Woody Allen said:

80 percent of success is just showing up.

If you’re waiting to be inspired to do work, you’re just an amateur. Motivation follows action, not vice versa.

As Chuck Close said:

Motivation is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.

Creativity is a habit. Unless you’re showing up every day, creativity won’t show up. Only when you show up and do the work do you have any chance of producing something great, because unless you’re prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. This is another example of divergence and convergence.

I show up every day at my office workstation at the same time and do the work. Because I’m a pro. I’m not waiting for inspiration to strike me. I strike it by showing up.

For instance, as part of doing creative work, I write every day even though I publish only once a week here. I know that if I want to publish one good piece every week, I’ll have to write a lot more than once. I’m not saying that’s the only way; that’s what works for me. In other words, when I’ve committed to showing up regularly to do the work, I give myself a chance to produce a piece that, in my eyes, is worth publishing once a week.

Another instance of this is when I write Morning Pages first thing in the morning every day. It’s a daily practice that I’ve been doing, and one which has led me to being more creative.

There’re a few reasons why you might want to do work every day:

  • We do the work because that’s who we are and that’s what we do. That’s also part of being a pro. For instance, I’m a writer, solopreneur, and a polymath. That’s not just what I do, that’s who I am. And I’m being those things when I do them. It makes me who I am. That said, I’m greater than the sum of all those things. We all are.

For instance, I don’t write here primarily to get validation in the form of attention, acclaim, or traffic, though all of those things would be nice because it feels nice to be appreciated. Sure, I’d like to have as many people as possible read my weblog and apply those ideas to their lives, which is thrilling, but that’s not fundamentally why I write.

I write for myself first, and then for others. I write because that’s who I am, not just what I do. I write to make my soul grow. I write to help others and to add value to their lives with my writing. And when my readers find my writing useful and apply my ideas to their lives, it’s a win-win for both myself and my readers.

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in a letter to Xavier High School:

Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

  • We’re wired with a desire to feel useful and to make and provide things for others. Doing the work gives meaning and direction to our lives; it also creates a life of happiness and fulfillment. When the work you’re doing does not give you that sense of satisfaction, you’re probably in the wrong line of work, and you should change that immediately.

As Buddha said:

Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.

Happiness is a choice you make every day, not some destination you arrive at someday.

Author and Executive Coach Marshall Goldsmith said:

Happiness is a process in life, not a result. Ironically, this helps us achieve more in life rather than less.

In life, what’s important is that we do our best. If we do our best and win, we should be happy. If we don’t do our best and win, we’ve nothing to be proud of. And if we do our best and lose, we shouldn’t be ashamed. Why? Because we did our best.

Do your duty. Do your best. You can’t change the past, and you can’t change the results of the past. All you can do in life is do your best and focus on the future.

American philosopher, William James distills this down further into a single sentence:

Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.

  • Doing the work should be the reward in itself (simple to understand, though hard to practice). We want to do the work because we believe in a higher or noble cause that is larger than ourselves. That will give us energy and help us strive to be our best, particularly when times are difficult. We need to be pulled toward our mission rather than push ourselves toward it.

Like the great Lord Krishna said to the warrior Arjuna in Bhagavad Gita, he had the right to work, but never the right to the fruit of his work. He should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should he long for inaction.

Author Steven Pressfield wrote in Turning Pro:

When we do the work for itself alone, our pursuit of a career (or a living or fame or wealth or notoriety) turns into something else, something loftier and nobler, which we may never even have thought about or aspired to at the beginning. It turns into a practice.

In his book, Mastery, George Leonard wrote:

Love of your work, willingness to stay with it even in the absence of extrinsic reward, is good food and drink.

Doing the work may or may not result in extrinsic reward such as money, praise, acclaim, or attention, but one thing is guaranteed: there will be no reward when we don’t do the work.

  • Another reason to do work every day is to close the gap between your talent and your taste.

As Ira Glass, once said:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will still be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

  • Doing the work is part of being a pro. He does not wait for motivation to strike. Instead, he shows up every day at the same time and does the work. Doing the work motivates him. He’s not doing the work because he’s motivated.

Your job as a pro is to show up every day at the same time and do the work. Forget about results. Just focus on doing the work, and the results will come (or, they may not).

Being a pro is doing the hard thing, being an amateur is doing the easy thing. I’ve been on both sides; I can attest that being a pro is better. Like Seth Godin said, “The struggle is the point”. If you’re not afraid of whatever it is you’re doing, then it’s likely not worth pursuing. When that thing makes you uncomfortable, that’s what makes you strive harder and pushes you out of your comfort zone, and that’s the thing worth pursuing. In other words, that struggle is exactly the point. That’s where you grow. That’s where the magic happens. In order to get to that point, you need to show up every day. You need to be prepared to be lucky. The only way to prepare yourself to be lucky is to work hard.

As Coleman Cox wrote:

I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.

In order for you do the work, you have to first define what your work entails. That can only happen when you have thought about your work first. For more on this, please read thinking and doing.

Once you’ve defined your work, then it’s a matter of allocating time for it. One way to do that is to determine your areas of focus. For more on this, please read getting work done.

Once you’ve figured out what your work entails and when you’re going to do it, then all you want to do is show up and do the work at the same place and time.

As Steven Pressfield writes in The War of Art, Resistance is your greatest enemy when it comes to making art that matters. Sure, you can conquer it through daily practice, but it never leaves you. Resistance can come in the form of fear, self-doubt, distractions, perfectionism, procrastination, etc. You overcome it by acknowledging it and doing your work.

That’s what makes you a pro, in his parlance.

We don’t realize that doing the work is often easier than resisting it. It takes more energy to resist than to simply do the work.

Show up every day and do the work. Don’t worry about the outcome. Let the process of showing up to do the work determine the outcome. Build a body of work day by day to close the gap between your talent and your taste. In the end, that’s the only way to influence the outcome you want.

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