I wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote this post about a thousand times. How the heck do you encapsulate why you do what you do to people who, in most cases, have never met you? What do you say to people that they'll enjoy in the moment and also feel intrigued enough to stick around and explore more of your work?
I tried writing a story or two about creativity in the workplace. (You'll find I do that often.) I tried using a big metaphor to describe the work. (I do that often too.) I even tried shooting a quick video in my office and recording a podcast episode about this email list. But then my beagle-mix interrupted my recordings by dog-screaming at a squirrel. (This time, it feels especially appropriate to say: OFTEN.)
(Speaking of recording stories, I host a narrative-style podcast called Unthinkable, by the way.)
Then, as always, I came back to the core reason I do this work, this weird but wonderful "job" of mine. I call that core reason I do my work my "aspirational anchor."
The aspirational anchor is a concept from my first book, Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work. Whereas a goal describes the future WHAT and WHEN -- a mile marker for your work (or kilometer marker, for my non-American friends), an aspirational anchor forces us to think hard about the HOW and the WHY. What's the change we want to see -- in us, in our organizations, in the world? How does that affect our near-term behavior, and what unique things do we have to offer to reach towards that aspiration?
My aspirational anchor: I want to create a world where every human being feels intrinsically motivated by the work they do.
When we are intrinsically motivated, we become moment-oriented, seeking enjoyment in the here and now. We focus on the process, not the results. In doing so, as a byproduct, we tend to see better results.
The opposite is something called "telic" work. Telic means ending-oriented, or "done to a definite end." Telic work feels like a chore. We'd rather blink our eyes and just be done with it already, so we skip it, delay it, and address it only once it feels too stressful to ignore any longer. We look to outsource it. We focus on the bottom-dollar solution, the lowest-common denominator idea, and of course, we fall victim to the hacks and cheats and get-results-quick schemes pouring onto the internet by the second. And why?
Because we just want the result already.
The problem is, doing the work isn't about reaching future destinations. Our careers aren't vehicles to achieve an outcome. They're just constant motion forward, constantly building our body of work. That's all this stuff really is when you stop to think about it. It's all just the means. We never really reach the ends. The only finish line is the big one, and who knows when that will hit us? But make no mistake, we all reach that one. So we may as well get back to focusing on what feels intrinsically motivating to us. Not only does that feel somewhat more noble, that's all our work really is.
For us, the process of doing the work is its own reward. That's why we do this stuff -- you, me, others on this list. We want to find intrinsic motivation, because when we do, we know we'll naturally become more creative. We'll naturally get better. We'll become service-minded to those around us. We'll regain a sense of wonder at the world, and yes, we'll get better results. See, when something is intrinsically motivating, unlike a chore, we seek it out more, and we seek to improve it. Constantly.
This is my aspirational anchor, to create a world where every human being feels intrinsically motivated by the work they do. How does this change my behavior? I tell stories about work, bringing the full spectrum of emotions to those tales, because we should experience every emotion in our work. I want to bring what Anthony Bourdain did in his stories about food, travel, and culture into the B2B world. (Business and career content tends to be too transactional, dry, and predictable.) So I give keynotes. I write books. I host and produce docuseries about creativity at work, and I teach marketers to make better original series of their own to better serve their audiences.
I know I'll never actually see a world where every single person finds intrinsic motivation in the work, and that's the point. There is no reaching the mountain peak, ever. There is only the constant swinging of my machete, hacking away at the jungle between here and there.
Each email I share with my subscribers and each thing I create are more swings I'm taking, sometimes small, sometimes big, but always in service to the same aspirational anchor.
By the way, everything I've just said so far means I won't ever try to give you a path you can take to skip the work of hacking through the jungle yourself. That's the "one simple solution" mindset, the telic approach, that I simply don't believe in nor embrace. However, I would like to help you identify your own mountain peak. I do want to inspire you to pick up your own machete and start swinging. I am focused on sharpening your tools for the journey and on helping you find joy in your process.
Success for me means that, in the middle of both of us swinging away, I look over to see you smiling wide, dirt and leaves and sweat flying all around your face. You don't care. You just love swinging away.
THAT is a world worth creating with the work I do.
Okay, I better get back to it. Don't misunderstand though: It's not because writing this is delaying my progress. It's just that, if I'm being honest, I just love swinging away.
PS: You can also read more about aspirational anchors right here.
Not a subscriber yet? Get each new idea and story the moment it’s live. I publish a few per week, a few paragraphs at a time. You’ll also get exclusive access, announcements, and projects every few months.