The Paradox of Discipline, and Four Questions to Ask Ourselves

The more I listen to interviews with great creators, the more they echo the same themes. It goes something like this:

The act of creation is exceptionally hard and painful.

Writing, in particular, is torture.

It’s great to have talent, but without a disciplined process for creation, talent means nothing.

We human beings do everything we can to avoid the hard work of creating our art. To counteract this, we must create rituals and structures that make it impossible for us to hide: time every day in which the only thing we can do is produce. (For example, per Neil Gaiman, “I would go down to my lovely little gazebo at the bottom of the garden, sit down, and I’m absolutely allowed not to do anything. I’m allowed to sit at my desk, I’m allowed to stare out at the world, I’m allowed to do anything I like, as long as it isn’t anything. Not allowed to do a crossword, not allowed to read a book, not allowed to phone a friend, not allowed to make a clay model of something. All I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write.”)

We must be forgiving with ourselves when we are creating, and brutally tough on ourselves when we are editing and refining.

This isn’t going to be fun. But if we are to do our best work, if we are to give our gifts to the world, we have to be willing to grind out the effort each and every day, no matter how hard it feels and how little we feel like doing it on that particular day.

Now, I believe that these insights apply to everyone, not just to “creative” types. No one said that doing excellent, meaningful work was going to be easy, and I expect that writers and artists are just living the fully-distilled version of creating work that matters.

If these insights are to apply to all of us—and I believe they do—then we have four questions we need to answer honestly:

  1. Am I willing to care, at a personal level, about my work?
  2. Am I willing to take personal, emotional risk to put my best into my work?
  3. Will engaging in this kind of sustained, daily effort help me grow?
  4. Am I going to decide to learn how to put in sustained effort over time?

This framing feels fundamentally different from conversations about “work-life balance” and the perennial elevator small talk of “just three days until the weekend.”

In one view, work is something to be endured and minimized so we can refresh in our free time, and work being hard is an indication of something being wrong.

In another view, work being hard is the necessary precondition for it being meaningful, because there is nothing worth producing that doesn’t require risk and struggle.

While this doesn’t mean that all work we find hard is rewarding, it means that we cannot use “hard” as a barometer for something being wrong at work.

Somewhere, somehow, each of us has to find our own version of discipline.

For example, I don’t have access to Neil Gaiman’s gazebo, nor do I write fantastical fiction or comics. But both Neil and I need time alone, time to think, time with the proverbial blank page; time when we’re looking straight at a problem we don’t know the answer to; time when our job is to sit there until we produce one thing that is one small step in the right direction.

Discipline is often not fun. It is, at a minimum, the act of sitting with discomfort and delaying gratification because we know that this is what it feels like when we do real work.

Of course, most of us have not figured out what our art is, we don’t know what we are uniquely suited to do in the world.

That’s OK. We don’t need the full answer today. We need, instead, to decide to start doing meaningful, personal work as soon as possible.

And how do we start? Not with musing, reflection or pretending that if we wait long enough inspiration will touch us. That’s a great way of hiding.

Instead, we start with building a practice of creative discipline into our days, weeks and lives: we put ourselves in situations every day where we ask ourselves to make one small thing that we are proud of, one small thing that is over and above the exact thing we were asked to do.

With this mindset, our work becomes something we can take personally, and each thing we ship can be different and better for what we’ve put into it.

From the moment we decide to take our work personally, we start to show up like professionals, and, bit by bit, we watch the yield that comes from refusing to be swayed too quickly by the thoughts that all of us have: this is too hard; this might not be good enough; if I care a little less, then I won’t be hurt if I come up short.

Caring less and risking less are great ways to stay safe in the short term, and even better ways to ensure that we stay where we are in the long term.

Whereas if we shift our attitude towards our work and learn how to build discipline into our days, we set ourselves down the harder but much more rewarding path of sharing what only we have to offer through our work.

My Call

The situation is messy, and it’s unclear who gets to decide.

I’m not sure that I know best – or even enough.

Nevertheless, I recognize that in this situation, a decision has to be made. So I’m using my judgment and I’m making the call. Because ultimately that’s my job: to make tough decisions and be responsible for the consequences.

The most important professional moments are defined by a willingness to step into uncertainty, to act, and hold oneself accountable for outcomes.

Not because we need more people to make good decisions. The answers themselves, whether right or wrong, are a dime a dozen.

What’s scarce is the willingness to take responsibility for success and for failure—to be on the hook for your customers and your team.

At their best

It’s difficult, in the swirl of the day-to-day of getting things done, for everyone in your organization to fully see each other.

What you can look out for, though, are moments of greatness, those glimpses of someone shining in ways only they can shine, delivering something that is truly exceptional.

This reminds us what to look out for, and it reminds us how to get noticed.

“Exceptional” “shining” and “greatness” don’t need to be flashy.

You can be exceptionally responsive, exceptionally amazing at hitting deadlines, exceptionally quick to help out a colleague.

You can shine at research, shine at learning new skills, shine at building relationships of trust that allow your organization to hear real feedback.

You can be great at collaboration, great at giving constructive feedback, and great at helping colleagues be courageous.

Go above and beyond in ways that make a real difference, expect that in yourself and in others, and always be on the lookout for glimpses of people at their best.

 

Tick tock

There’s no half hour longer than the one we spend waiting for something: our table to be ready, the show to start, the gun to go off.

We know this when it comes to the small things, but not the big ones.

So we’re content to sit back and wait for that next big project to land on our laps. We’re happy to cool our heels until we get promoted, because we believe the new title will get folks to listen to us in a new way.  We’re OK with holding court at the water cooler while we wait for our boss to figure out what we already know.

Speak up.  Act now.  Stop waiting.

Something to Push Against

It is natural to seek out the roadblock, the check-point, the official approval gate: someone whose job it is to green light your idea, give you your next gig, say yes.

The search for something to push against, a hurdle to overcome, is also a chance to hide: to take small steps, to describe nothing more than the bit that could get an OK within the confines of how things work today.

At its worst, seeking out a “yes” can even  be a clever, acceptable way of being OK with a “no.” It’s a way to hide, to shift blame, to take on too little, to search for a wall to point to that we couldn’t break through.

“They wouldn’t let me do this” is often just another form of “I was afraid to see what would happen if I tried to pull this off without someone else’s cover.”

CEO of me

Each person we meet in a professional setting sees two things: the person we are and the role we play. Often, that role casts a long shadow, as people are quick to look for shortcuts in figuring out who they’re talking to and what that person brings to the table.

When my business card said, for five years, that I was head of fundraising at Acumen, I felt like my first job in every meeting was to convey to someone that I wasn’t “just the” fundraiser (indeed every great fundraiser I know says that they “aren’t a traditional fundraiser.”) There was and is a lot of baggage associated with being a fundraiser – many philanthropists would tell me that they experienced many fundraisers as seeing them as nothing more than big wallets waiting to be cracked, which itself tells you something about how we all tend to caricature people. Indeed it was always a sign that things were going well when someone would say to me, often with a hint of hesitation, “Uh, so, how did you get into fundraising anyway?”

The pernicious, less obvious constraints are those we place on ourselves. We let a narrow definition of a role or a title create boundaries around the way we see ourselves, how we walk in the world, and impact we dare to have.

To be clear, in any organization our first job is to do the job that our organization hired us to do – indeed, if we don’t do that with excellence, professionalism and precision then we haven’t paid the table stakes for a broader conversation.

At the same time, we are often the ones who box ourselves in, waiting for someone’s OK to even begin to think bigger in anything but the most private ways.

What would happen if you sent yourself an email signed:

Sincerely,

Your name

CEO of me

The best part is when, somewhere down the line, the bigger, more audacious, more impactful version of how you play the role helps you, and others, reconsider how they mistakenly categorized the role in the first place.

Turning Down the Strawberries

My three-year-old daughter has a funny way of turning down food. “No thanks,” she says, when presented with strawberries, which for reasons no one knows she’s decided she does not eat. “I’ll have them later.”

Most of the time, when we say we will do something “later” it means one of two things:

  1. This isn’t important enough for me to do at all, I’m just not willing to tell you that directly; OR
  2. Before doing this I need to check with three people so I don’t have to make the decision alone.

Yes, you might have a system in place to organize your work, so that “later” actually means “I will do this at 3pm” but when “later” is vague and loose, it is a quiet, subtle way to practice taking yourself off the hook, even for small things. And this sort of habit builds up until it becomes how we orient ourselves in the face of things that are ours to do.

It is so rarely the case that we need to you play smaller and ask for permission more.

Yes, consult when you need real input from people who will make your thinking better, but please don’t ask around in search of a lukewarm “no.”

If you find yourself snowed in by Juno today, then today might be the perfect time to practice starting to say “yes” and “now” and “this is up to me” more often.

Pass the strawberries, please.

The hard parts

The parts that are uncomfortable

The bits that no one else really wants to do

The things that make you feel exposed

And stretched

And outside of your comfort zone

The things that make it clear that what you thought it was going to take to get this done wasn’t right at all.  The funding isn’t there. The strategy hasn’t been sorted out. The roles and responsibilities aren’t clear enough. The team is too small and it doesn’t have all the right skills.  We’re just not where we need to be, and fixing things is going to be a heck of a lot harder than we expected.

All this really messy stuff?

That’s why we need you.

It’s because it’s hard that the work hasn’t been done….yet.

It used to be

It used to be that you could go to a meeting, or a job interview, without having really prepared in advance: without looking up the details of who someone is, what they’ve done, and where they’ve worked; without checking out their organization, the role they play, and who they work with; without skimming their LinkedIn profile, reading a few of their blog posts, and watching a video of them speaking; without seeing who they’ve helped along the way, or checking out the interesting, generous things that they’re involved with in their free time.

Now, skipping those steps is not allowed.  Now, it’s a sign that you’re unprepared and care less.  Now it’s a missed opportunity to have a conversation that’s more relevant to both of you.

The other side of this coin, lest we forget, is that just like you’re using The Google to figure out who you’re meeting and what their story is, people are doing the same thing before meeting you.

It used to be that them discovering nothing about you other than the boxes you’ve checked was enough.  It used to be, but it isn’t any more.

33 voices

Moe Abdou runs a site called 33 voices and he recently posted an interview we did there.  It was a far-flung conversation and Moe does the heavy lifting of boiling that down to 10 maxims – in addition to posting the full audio of our conversation.

Actually interesting to see someone boil down a conversation to just 10 things, and makes me wonder how those 10 things might change over time, as well as depending on who you’re speaking with.

I do like the “best advice” Moe said I gave: Trust yourself and quiet the voice that’s telling you that you can’t do it.  Advice to myself as much as to anyone else.

33 voices mission is to educate, connect and inspire – lots of great content there including interviews with Babson College President Leonard Schlesinger on teaching entrepreneurship and with venture capitalist Tony Tjan on self-awareness.  Hope you find some good stuff there.