Do you have a job or career path that supports you in doing the best work of your life?
If I were to ask this of various people, some would laugh at the ridiculousness of this question because it’s a standard they’ve never come close to experiencing, so a jaded reply is all they can muster. If I ask certain friends who are very fulfilled by their work, their answers would be something like, “Of course… why would I tolerate any less?”
Consider that if you’re not aligned with this standard of doing your best work, then you’re currently tolerating a lesser standard. For some reason you’re currently okay with not doing your best work. Maybe that doesn’t sit well with you, but you’re still tolerating it.
Why is that? What’s stopping you from doing the best work of your life this month? Why not take on a project that requires the very best you have to offer?
If you do less than your best, you know that you aren’t playing the game of life very well, and that awareness haunts you, and it drags down your motivation and self-esteem.
You’ll likely avoid connecting with more ambitious people as well since you’ll probably feel uncomfortable being reminded that your standards are lower than they could be. If you stick with less ambitious friends, however, you’ll only reinforce the lower standards that keep you stuck. Low standards tend to encourage social cocooning and hiding.
Motivation for High Standards
Where does the motivation come from to maintain high standards then?
Maintaining high standards just for our own personal gratification is tough. It’s also tough to maintain false standards for other people, like pretending to care about issues that don’t align with our values. The sweet spot of motivation is when we can satisfy our most important values and also connect with people who truly care about those values too. This encourages us to maintain high standards because we’re immersed in a circle of caring. We care, and the people around us care.
So there are two parts to a pattern of highly engaged work that brings out your best. First, your work needs to align with your values. Choose projects that matter to you personally, so you’ll care about doing quality work. Second, you need people who will deeply appreciate your work. These people could consist of co-workers, clients, customers, family, or friends, as long as they appreciate and support you in doing your best work.
What if you can’t choose your own projects? Perhaps you’ve temporarily granted someone else the authority to assign work to you, but you retain the option to reclaim that authority whenever you want. You’re not powerless. You can renegotiate the arrangement to get your work aligned with what you really care about. Or you can switch to different work where you can find that alignment, which may involve switching jobs, teams, or companies.
If your boss doesn’t support you in doing your best work, admit that you hired a bad boss, and let that person go. A key reason for hiring a boss is to serve you in doing your best work, so don’t tolerate a boss who falls below this standard. At least talk to your boss, raise a discussion about how to do your very best work, and offer suggestions and guidance for how to make this a reality. Be committed to getting what you need. If your boss isn’t (1) motivated and (2) capable to help you do your best work, that boss needs to go. And if you choose to remain beyond that realization, you can’t possibly continue to blame your boss since you hired that person to begin with, and you can un-hire that person when you’re ready to commit yourself to real professional growth. People of high standards don’t tolerate low performing bosses. If you tolerate a low performing boss, you proclaim to all around you that you’re a low standards person.
What if you got yourself trapped in a situation where no aligned work is possible? Then chalk that up as a bad decision on your part, and lean into the challenging process of correcting that mistake. This is a common mistake indeed, often accompanied by difficult lessons, and it usually takes serious effort to unwind it. But you can unwind it, and it’s wise to do so. The worst thing you can do is keep investing in a misaligned path. Shifting directions will bring relief, even when you must take a step back financially and/or professionally to get unstuck. There’s no shame in taking a step back to adjust course; this is so much better than investing another year being loyal to low standards.
Quite often you won’t even be able to see an aligned path while you remain stuck pursuing a misaligned one. There are many reasons for that. One of the most significant reasons is that people who are doing aligned work won’t normally be interested in making offers to those who maintain lower standards. When you do misaligned work, what you may not realize is that you’re advertising to everyone else that you’re a low standards type of person, and high standards people are likely to avoid connecting with you. In other words, the cool people won’t invite you to be on their teams because you’re making yourself look like a bad investment.
Misaligned work drags down your energy, and people pick up on this. In fact it’s pretty obvious if you shift between circles of high standards and low standards people. People who are doing their best work tend to broadcast certain frequencies of emotional energy and enthusiasm. Those who aren’t aligned with such standards tend to broadcast some restlessness or discomfort with their work instead, often without being consciously aware of it.
You almost always have to say a genuine no to the misaligned path before life will show you what the aligned path looks like. Quit the old first. Then work on building the new. I know that seems scary sometimes, but it works. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your energy and self-esteem can pop back up once you leave misaligned work behind. Life tends to respect those who commit to keeping their work standards high.
It would be nice if this alone were enough, but it isn’t. The next major point of stuckness is when you gain the freedom to do aligned work but still don’t feel the drive and motivation to do your very best. This is especially common among people who quit unfulfilling jobs to do something independent. After the newness of the transition wears off, they’re struggling to be productive.
The issue here is that even though the work itself may feel aligned, there may not be a strong enough connection to the people who will most appreciate it.
Initially you may try sharing value with the people that are most accessible, but you’ll usually get a ho-hum response in return. Selling can feel especially difficult when you’re trying to sell to people who are only semi-aligned with what you’re doing, even if many of those people are generally supportive of you (like old friends and family).
This is a good time to pause and ask questions like these:
- If I do my very best work, which people would deeply appreciate and value it?
- If I do my very best work, which people will only semi-appreciate it?
- How can I scare off the second group, so I can only deal with the first group?
I imagine that the first question sits well with you, but the third question probably seems a bit harsh. Why should you scare off people who will semi-appreciate your work? Can’t you serve them too? Isn’t it better to serve more people, even if some aren’t receiving 100% of the value?
I understand this type of reasoning. It seems reasonable to want to serve as many people as you can. Of course some people will deeply appreciate your work, and some will only semi-appreciate it. But there’s a serious risk if you try to serve both groups equally, and that risk is that your standards will drift downwards.
The people who semi-appreciate your work will likely to be the larger group. You’ll get more feedback from them over time than you will from the most aligned people. They’ll influence your standards more than any other group if you let them. This is true of semi-appreciative bosses, teams, friends, relatives, co-workers, customers, clients, etc. Semi-appreciative matches are more common than deeply appreciative ones.
Semi-appreciative ultimately means misaligned though, but the misalignments won’t all be in the same direction. In order to improve at serving the semi-appreciative people, you’ll have to make concessions in opposing directions. You’ll always be trying to balance degrading your service to some of them with upgrading your service to others. The realization that it’s impossible to really please this group will degrade your own alignment with your work. You can’t powerfully serve the semi-appreciative group and still do your best work. By definition if you do your best work, the semi-appreciative will only semi-appreciate it. Usually this leads to blocks like procrastination and perfectionism.
Being semi-appreciated is only semi-satisfying. If you try to achieve more satisfaction or appreciation from serving this group, you’ll have to do work that feels less aligned, but that won’t satisfy you internally. There’s no way to win with this approach. At best you’ll have to disconnect from caring about serving these people and just do your own thing regardless of how they feel. But wouldn’t it be better if you could have both: inner alignment with your values and deep appreciation from the people you serve?
That’s possible, but in order to get there, you’ll want to focus on serving the most aligned people. When you do your best work, those people are delighted. However, you’ll get more feedback from the semi-appreciative, and they won’t be fully pleased with your best work, so they’ll suggest lots of conflicting changes in different directions. They’ll invite you to become someone you’d rather not become. And you’ll be tempted to serve them because there are more of them, and their feedback is the most frequent. If you prioritize numbers over alignment, you’ll automatically drift away from doing your best work. How many times have we seen this pattern play out in creative fields?
Instead of trying to serve the semi-appreciative outright, it’s easier and more fulfilling in the long run if you make it clear that you’re not going to adapt to serving them. This may seem like a bad idea at first, but the positive side effect is that when you demonstrate that you’re not aligned with serving the semi-appreciative, you’ll demonstrate that you’re an even better match for the deeply appreciative.
By making a bigger commitment to doing your best work, you may repel some semi-appreciative folks, but you’ll become that much more attractive to the deeply appreciative. This will make it easier for the most aligned people to recognize you as someone rare and special. It will help them feel more excited about investing in a long-term professional relationship with you. Quality invitations and opportunities will flow through them. You’ll also see more referrals from these deeply appreciative people.
Over time this will change the flavor of your life and work. The semi-appreciative may still engage with you, but they won’t be as front and center as before. Their presence will tend to recede into the background, crowded out by lots of highly engaged and deeply appreciative people. You won’t feel motivated to connect as much with the semi-appreciative when your life is rich in people who deeply appreciate your work. Most of your creative energy will flow into serving the deeply appreciative.
You won’t necessarily need a huge volume of deeply appreciative people, although this depends on what kind of work you do. Even if you only have a few people who deeply appreciate your best work, like a few co-workers or team members, that can make all the difference in the world. How many people would you really need to sustain yourself professionally?
Maybe you could even have a great career serving just one person – if it was the right person who had the motivation and the means to fully support you professionally. If you only served one person on earth in the most powerful and aligned way you could, who would that person be? If you can gain some clarity on that answer, it may help you identify a larger group of people who’d deeply appreciate your work as well.
All else being equal, would you rather serve the people who will deeply appreciate your work, or would you rather serve those who won’t? Do you really think you’ll do the best work of your life without the flow of that appreciation? If so, how’s that mindset working for you so far?
Saying No Before Finding the Yes
How do you reach the point of aligning your work with your values and serving the most appreciative people? Usually this involves saying no to the misaligned and the semi-appreciative. Stop capitulating to misaligned invitations. Stop trying so hard to please and satisfy the semi-appreciative.
If you have an offer to do something that won’t bring out your very best work, decline that offer. But also learn from that offer. What was misaligned about it? What would a better offer look like?
Tolerating lower standards isn’t a path to higher standards. So think about becoming less tolerant of the misaligned. This will reclaim some wasted energy that you can reinvest in a more aligned path. A common complaint from those who are doing misaligned work is that they don’t have the time and energy to pursue anything better. Of course they don’t – their time and energy is being drained away. It’s wise to plug that drain first, and then the energy and motivation can start to rise.
There are consequences when you shift directions, but the consequences of staying stuck are generally much worse. You may have some bills that go unpaid for a while, which is really no big deal in the grand scheme of life. A difficult transition is still a transition. What matters is simply that you make it happen. It doesn’t have to be pretty.
I’m not suggesting that you adopt a “screw the world for not appreciating me” attitude and just do your own thing regardless of what people think. We live in a social world, and we depend on each other. I invite you to engage with the world, not to retreat from it. No one engages with everyone on earth; we all engage with subsets of humanity. Which subset would most appreciate the work you could do? Which subset would you be delighted to serve?
If you find a subset of humanity that deeply appreciates your best work, that’s a good arrangement for you and for the people you serve. But it’s also good for the semi-appreciative and others who may seem less aligned with your work. By setting a high standard for serving the most aligned and focusing on them first and foremost, you’ll still serve many of the semi-aligned anyway. Moreover, you’ll be setting a positive example that will encourage others to raise their standards as well. This is generally good for all of us. We’ll all benefit from seeing more people doing their best work in the world, even if their specific work doesn’t inspire us personally.
Have you ever felt elevated and inspired by a world class performer in a different field than you’d ever pursue? Can you still appreciate and respect when someone does their best work, even if it doesn’t completely align with your values and preferences? If you follow the path of doing your own best work, you’ll elevate and inspire many more people along the way, including people in different fields. But if you hold back and tolerate misalignment instead, you may long regret that you missed out on a deeper level of fulfillment, despite many invitations from life to play in a bigger game. In the long run, the difficult alignment work is worth the effort, especially when you consider the types of ripples you’ll create either way.
Receive Steve's new articles by email.