Reluctant But Resolved: A Challenge To Die Empty

Seyed Mostafa Zamani / Flickr

This morning I was reading Jane Friedman’s excellent post about the over-emphasis on passion, and it resonated deeply. Jane makes the case that our over-emphasis on passion sometimes negates the importance of hard work.

If I were to summarize much of the career advice circulating throughout the web, it would look something like this:

1. Find your passion
(1a. Buy my course for $_9 and I’ll show you how)
2. Quit your job
3. Watch the money flow in

Is passion important? Surely. Is it the most important factor in doing great work? I have my doubts. Some of the most effective contributors throughout time have been marked by two characteristics: they were (a) reluctant, but (b) resolved. They saw the great task before them, but they were determined to surmount obstacles because they recognized an opportunity and felt the urgency of the moment.

Yesterday I jotted a few thoughts about the nature of contribution:

1. Your days are numbered. Finite. They will someday run out.
This is indisputable. We live with the stubborn illusion that we will always have tomorrow to do today’s work. It’s a lie.

2. You have a unique contribution to make to the world.
Your combination of interests, skills and experiences is unique. There is something you can offer that no one else ever could.

3. No one else can make that contribution for you.
Waiting for permission to act on your contribution is the easy way out. So is playing the victim or politics. We all must deal with the time and circumstances we’re dealt.

4. Your contribution is not about you.
You may be recognized for your contribution, and if so that’s fine. You may also labor in obscurity doing brilliant work your entire life, and that’s fine too. There is an over-emphasis on celebrity in our culture, and it will eventually be the death of us.

5. To varying degrees, you have been lied to, dulled, and sold out.
Others do not want you to embrace your contribution, because it puts a mandate on them to do the same. Others want to assimilate you into neat systems that feed their ego. They do this by making you comfortable. The love of comfort is often the enemy of greatness. Break out.

6. The path forward is backward. To discover your contribution you must get to bedrock.
Don’t be a mirror, passively reflecting the priorities of others. To discover your contribution you must (MUST) do some serious excavation. You must get past the rubble to the bedrock principles that will drive your life, come hell or high water.

7. Your contribution is a polaroid, not a digital photo.
Expect that your contribution will become clear over time as you act. It will develop slowly like a polaroid photo, giving you clues as you experiment, fail and succeed. Patience is required. This is a long-arc game, but it must begin now.

8. You must curate your life around your contribution.
What you plant today you reap in a few years. You must structure your life around your contribution, building practices and activities that cause you to take new ground each day.

9. Your contribution will always be a gift to others.
Whatever your contribution, it will be something for others. It may challenge, dispute, encourage or inspire, but it will provide a platform for others to find their contribution as well. Your contribution is one way of loving others.

Don’t go to your grave with your best work still inside of you. Die Empty. – The Accidental Creative, p. 217

10. You have one job: get whatever is in you out.
Your one and only job today, and every day, is to get whatever is in you out. Not tomorrow’s work, not yesterday’s work, but today’s. On my computer monitor is a note that reads, “Can I lay my head down tonight satisfied with the work I did today?” If I have made my contribution that day, I can rest with a clean conscience.

Do not be dulled, friends. Do not allow the lull of comfort to cause you to abdicate your contribution. Stay sharp. Keep your edges. Nothing – NOTHING – is worth giving up the most precious thing you have to offer.

==

Photo Credit: Seyed Mostafa Zamani

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12 Comments

  1. Melissa Amateis Marsh

    Bravo, bravo! I love this post. I really needed the Polaroid reference, too, as I tend to want results NOW instead of letting them develop. I guess it’s that whole mortality thing that gets to me sometimes.

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    It took me five decades to learn the message in these few words…

    Reply
  3. Craig McBreen

    Thanks, Todd.

    I really love this post! It reminds me of the lessons in Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art,” and what he says about the Pro vs. the Dabbler. 

    I think we need to be reminded of the lessons you have here. You certainly can’t rely on the euphoria to push you through, because it simply doesn’t last. If your only focus is the commercial aspect of any endeavor, well, you might be heading to the edge of the cliff without even knowing it. This is why it is important to genuinely love what you’re doing, but you need to really put in the work and hone the craft. If you are only focusing on the finish line, you’ve got it all wrong.

    With that being said, I’m still high on passion. 😉 I’ve discovered mine in my mid-forties through blogging and social media. This realm has been a catalyst for me, but I think passion is a process of discovery, … a result of doing the work!

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Todd Henry

      Thanks, Craig. I agree completely with your assertions here, and I also believe in passion as an important motivating force, though one that must be culled and focused. My only concern is the increasing emphasis on “following your passions” as an ethic for life. I’m quite certain that a plethora individuals who have advanced civilization weren’t always “passionate” about the path in front of them, but they walked it because they had an opportunity to contribute something to the greater good.

      Reply
  4. Jill Chivers

    Todd, deep appreciation for this post, which I have shared far and wide with my network.  I appreciated your take on passion and, like you, have found myself shaking my head at the commoditising of “passion”.  In your list, the one that really jumped off the screen at me was #7 — that your contribution will develop like a polaroid — over time as you take action. 

    The speed of our digital connections can sometimes mislead us into thinking that the speed of our human connections and contribution has also accelerated.  And of course, they haven’t – it’s just the mechanism that has gathered speed, thanks for the internet.  The speed with which human contribution and connection happen have not fundamentally changed, despite the dizzying pace of the online world. 

    Wonderful post – together with Jane’s on the diminishing meaning of the word passion, this post has made me think and feel differently (better) about my own contribution.  Thank you

    Reply
    • Todd Henry

      Thank you, Jill. The polaroid thing is something that’s taken me (a self-diagnosed speed addict) quite a while to learn…

      Reply
  5. Taslim Jaffer

    Thanks for this post that I’m sure will make people take a look at what they are contributing to their families and communities.  You might say I’m one of those passion people who is dedicating a large amount of time to encouraging people to recognize and follow their passions – though I don’t tell people they have to quit their jobs.  Nor do I ask for a crazy amount of money to give people answers they already know.
    Passions seem to be getting a reputation of being self-serving and I think nothing is farther from the truth.  Everything you have mentioned about contributions here can be applied to passions – in fact, I have a difficult time separating the two.  I think when you spend some time pursuing a keen interest, even as a hobby, you are energizing yourself to live a happy, healthy and fulfilling life – you are better able to contribute to your families and community in all the many roles you play.  A stay-at-home mom who reviews books on her blog once in awhile will take that pleasurable experience into her daily interactions with her kids.  A businessman who takes some time to actively pursue his passion of golf will feel refreshed and energized in his work environment.  Passions aren’t a get-rich-quick scheme – they’re a stay-happy-and-healthy tool.   
    Some people are lucky enough to be able to take their passion for helping others and create non-profit organizations, or use their obsession with biology and make amazing discoveries in science.  Exploring a passion and using it in service of others takes an incredible amount of work but the end result is an amazing sense of fulfillment.   
    Is passion the most important factor in doing great work, as you ask?  In my personal experience, I have never wanted to work harder, jump out of bed to get the day going, until the day I accepted my own uniqueness (passion) and felt blessed to be able to contribute to my community.  To get a job done, sure, it primarily takes hard work.  To get a job done well, consistently, and with a longer lasting sense of accomplishment, it’s got to be fuelled by passion.
     

    Reply
    • Todd Henry

      Taslim, your point is well-taken. It is very difficult to parse “passion” and “contribution”, and I don’t disagree that passion can play an important role in driving great work.
      What I probably didn’t articulate well is that I in no way believe passions to be irrelevant. I am mostly concerned about the increasing amount of posts and content I’m seeing that insinuates that the *most* important thing is to feel fulfilled and thoroughly passionate about your work at all times. Passion in these settings often means “I want to do this because it makes me feel good”, rather than “I see a great contribution I can make here with my talents” or “there is a wrong I can right, even though it may cost me something.” I simply believe that our commitment to our work and our dedication to making a contribution should trump our desire for comfort. There’s nothing wrong with fulfillment, but it cannot be the goal. I believe it must be a side benefit of full engagement. I believe – in many ways – we are saying the same thing.
      Passion of this kind is forged in the fires of turmoil, which means a daily battle with Resistance, and a commitment to the work. It is earned via a daily assault on the beachhead of apathy.
      Thanks for your thoughts.

      Reply
  6. Shirley Sorbello

    Powerful motivation to allow your own uniqueness to shine!

    Reply
  7. Jane Friedman

    Fabulous! So true, that 3-step list that seems to circulate everywhere. I love how you frame the issue as what one can contribute. So much more valuable.

    Reply
    • Todd Henry

      Thank you, Jane. Again, excellent (EXCELLENT!) post.

      Reply

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I'm Todd Henry.

I'm Todd Henry.

I write books, speak internationally on productivity, creativity, leadership, and passion for work, and help people and teams generate brilliant ideas. More

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