Ok – you’re an entrepreneur, writer, musician, innovator, or creator of some sort (or at least you have aspirations of becoming one), and you’re evaluating a potential venture: a new business, a new book idea, you get my point.
Here’s my question:
What makes a project worth pursuing? How do we judge whether or not we should pursue something?
Let’s start with the practical answer:
We do our research and we make sure that there is a market for what we’re going to make. We “begin with the end in mind” because if we’re going to put our hearts into something we want to at least know that there is a good chance that it can be successful.
Fair enough, success feels great. It gives us a relative way of judging ourselves against each other, and the power of reference is real (at least internally).
Many people’s self-image, and self-confidence for that matter is a direct consequence of how they believe that they compare with others. Also, success allows us to buy and experience things that are comfortable. These “symbols” reinforce our relative sense of self-worth, and we get to see the reaction that other people make towards us. Also it feels great to have people acknowledge our success. It makes us feel really important, and it provides social validation of our place within the hierarchy of society. We feel that our efforts, our sacrifices, our blood, sweat and tears, those early mornings and late nights, they were all worth it.
Well how do we define success? Is it money? Do we judge the success of a venture based on the amount of money that it makes. Is one creative enterprise of less value than another because it doesn’t make as much money?
There are many things in life – non-profit and charity ventures for example – that are worthy pursuits that weren’t created for the purpose of making money. I can also think of many things like Twinkies and Cigarettes that have made millions upon million but haven’t really benefited society on the whole, and they haven’t added any value (other than a momentary fix) to the people who are consuming them. So money can’t be the only factor.
Here’s the other problem with money – can we guarantee, at the start of our project, that the venture will be commercially successful?
Of course not, that is the whole nature of risk.
So we can’t guarantee, even if we do our research, whether a given venture is going to be successful at the beginning. Many people at least have a hope that fortune will smile their way on this project, and if riches don’t flood in, well at least positive acknowledgement.
Let’s up the ante then….
What if we knew, at the beginning of our project that our work would fundamentally influence generations to come, but that we would never experience any of the fruits of our labor.
Do you know the story of Vincent Van Gogh? The Dutch painter. You know Starry Night Over the Rhone?
What if you knew that you would have similar results to him? What if you knew that you were going to toil in obscurity for your entire life creating something that no one would even see or experience value from when you were alive? You would experience no material success or acknowledgement for your creation. Did you know that Van Gogh painted his entire life, and when he died he had created over 2,100 pieces of art including oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, sketches and prints and yet he hardly sold any of them. When he died he was an unknown and had no money.
What if you knew that your fate would be like his? Would you still create your art?”
I think if we knew that it would influence generations to come, then we’d be willing to do it.
Ok then, let’s keep raising the stakes.
What if our life was like Van Gogh’s, we toil in obscurity, and when we die our creation, whatever that is, is obscure, and it remains in obscurity. It will never be found. No one will ever associate our name with talent in the area that we worked painstakingly on.
If this were the case – we get no rewards, and no one ever benefits from our creation – would we still create our art?”
Let’s break it down a little more. How do we define reward?
I think most people would say that it’s something that we get, and that something has value.
Is it possible for some things to be there own reward? It is possible that for some actions in life, we don’t need anything else, some actions are enough?”
Absolutely – often that is where our best work comes from. When we aren’t motivated by the rewards of our actions.
When we are creating for the sake of creating and if something comes of it (from the outside) then good. If it doesn’t then good also, because the act is enough. The act itself refuels us. When we live with this mindset we will continually product our art. We won’t be discouraged at the first sign of failure, or setback or negative criticism. We’ll be undeterred in our motivation.
We’ll be like a moving train that can’t be stopped – and guess what – we may encounter crazy ideas, our creation may take us on a wild ride, but at the end it will all be worth it, regardless of the rewards. Our life will be the accumulation of our days, and as we look back we’ll realize that we spent our time in creative enterprise, and for that we won’t have any regrets. As we think about our life we will realize that each day we were fulfilled. We weren’t living for the future, we were immersed in the present. That is a life that is worthwhile.
There’s also an even more difficult path – the one where you know that you need to pursue an undertaking, and you are almost certain that there won’t be material success, and there is also going to be a lot of resistance as well (and probably even pain) but you do it anyway because you feel compelled by something deep inside of your soul. Maybe you feel it is just your purpose, and you have fully detached from the outcome. This has happened to me before. I’m sure it will happen again.
I don’t know how you decide whether or not to pursue a venture. All of us want success, money, acknowledgement. At some level these are basic human needs. But I’ve learned that my fulfillment on a venture, win or lose, is highest when my motivations are strongly aligned with the potential for intrinsic rewards – that is, when I know that by pursuing a venture the journey itself will make me feel like it was a worthwhile pursuit. So that’s mostly what I try to look for these days.