The endless immensity of the sea

One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from the French poet, writer, and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery (yeah, I know). He’s probably best known for writing The Little Prince in 1943, and he said very many memorable things:

A goal without a plan is just a wish.

Love is not just looking at each other, it's looking in the same direction.

He who would travel happily must travel light.

One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes

Grown-ups never understand anything for themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.

The guy could play with words. Great quotes are dense. They contain far more than their measurable size would suggest. Once you let one hit you, you start to unpack a whole lot of stuff. Many of the quotes above fit that category for me, but none are quite as hauntingly beautiful or powerfully relevant to our careers as when he said this:

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

When we do meaningful work, we’re not doing it because we’re told or because we tell others about some measurable goal or number to hit. We’re not doing it because of a carrot or stick. We’re doing it because of that deep internal yearning for change. There’s something better awaiting us, and we want to see it through.

Great work happens not because of great goal-setting, but because of articulating and refining your version of the endless immensity of the sea. What is it? Throw something out there. Use that to guide you for a time, revisiting it and revising it often. Whether you’re leading people, thinking about shaping your career, or both, truly meaningful and world-class work requires an aspirational anchor.

Don’t assign yourself or assign them tasks and work. Long for the endless immensity of whatever it is you seek. Long for the sea, and let that drive you. The results will come if you do.

Posted on October 3, 2019 .