Jared White Photo of Jared

Expressively publishing on the open web since 1996.
Entranced by Portland, Oregon since 2017.

The Three Vital Landmarks Along the Road to Success

There was a time not long ago when my life was in a major upheaval. Signs of online success were slim to none. I wasn’t sure if anyone out there would really care if I were suddenly Thanos-snapped out of existence. Yet the valuable lesson I came to learn during that dreadful time was how to become intrinsically motivated, the significance of value creation, and the trick of cultivating T-shaped skills.

Essay

#creativity #lifehacks

There is an infinite variety of paths to success. There is a myriad of definitions of even what success is. Here is my definition: I enjoy utilizing the skills with which I am imbued, and there is every reason to believe I can continue to pursue my craft long into the future.

How can you orient your lifestyle so that you’re empowered to pursue that which you most enjoy doing? Well, leaving aside your various hobbies (of course there’s nothing wrong with having a hobby!), you won’t be able to keep doing what you enjoy doing unless you’re making money at it. Alas, monetizing skills is often relegated to the realm of “find a job and get yourself hired”—but as we all know, being employed and excelling in your craft are sometimes worlds apart. The top performers in their field seem to “create” their ideal job out of thin air, but that’s certainly not the case once you scratch the surface.

In my experience—and through much trial and error over the years—the path to monetizing your vocation seems to require three vital landmarks in order to achieve lasting success. They are:

  1. Intrinsic Motivation
  2. Value Creation
  3. T-Shaped Skills

Let’s step through these one by one.

1. Intrinsic Motivation

There was a time not long ago when my life was in a major upheaval. My marriage was disintegrating. Signs of online success were slim to none. I wasn’t making the amount of money I felt I genuinely deserved relative to the length of time I’d spent in the industry. I wasn’t sure if anyone out there would really care if I were suddenly Thanos-snapped out of existence. There were dark days when I felt like a huge failure.

Yet the valuable lesson I came to learn during that dreadful time was how to become intrinsically motivated. According to Novella Thompson,

“Intrinsic means internal or inside of yourself. When you are intrinsically motivated, you enjoy an activity, course or skill development solely for the satisfaction of learning and having fun, and you are determined to strive inwardly in order to be competent. There is not external inducement when intrinsic motivation is the key to behavior or outcome.”

The reason why learning how to become intrinsically motivated is so important to success is this: people erroneously assume it takes outside forces to become successful. Some guru must give you the keys to the kingdom. Some head honcho must bless you with accolades. Some gatekeeper must place you in the spotlight. Some BFF must cheer you up when you’re down in the dumps.

No, no, a thousand times no! Everything you need to become successful…you already possess within yourself. I know that sounds like a ridiculous cliché, but I wholeheartedly believe it’s entirely true.

You can’t rely on anyone praising you.

You can’t rely on anyone giving you a high five.

You can’t rely on anyone recognizing your talent.

You can’t rely on anyone rolling out the red carpet for you to waltz right in.

All you can rely on is yourself. As I’ve said before, you HAVE to create—because you CAN’T NOT create. This is where gratitude enters is and proves so important in the healthy life of a creative professional. The more you cultivate an “attitude of gratitude” about what you’re able to accomplish—no matter how small or trivial—the more you’ll focus on your abundance, rather than your lack. And out of a place of abundance, greatness arises. Out of a sense of abundance, you gain the necessary perspective to achieve your life’s work.

Further Resources:

2. Value Creation

Once you’re sufficiently motivated within yourself to create…what is it that you’re creating? It’s easy to assume you’ll be creating the actual thing you’re working on—a play, a business plan, a marketing message, a piece of art, a website, a codebase, whatever.

Nope. That’s a side-effect. The primary thing you’re creating is value. One of the definitions of value is: “worth in usefulness or importance to the possessor; utility or merit.”

What you’re creating has to have some kind of utility or merit for somebody else. They have to feel it’s useful or important or inspiring in some way. What you’re creating has to be worthy.

Once you have birthed something tangible that others consider worthy, you have two choices: give it away or sell it. There are legitimate pros and cons to each. Content creation strategies often hinge on the right balance between the two. Get folks hooked on your free stuff so you can charge them for the really good stuff.

However you are directly benefiting people through some combination of free and paid output, you are creating value. And that’s the name of the game. As I’ve become more and more “successful” and feel less and less like a “failure” (bear in mind these are entirely subjective terms), my tolerance for working on things which aren’t obviously creating a large amount of value lowers precipitously. Because when I work on things without creating value: that’s called a hobby. Again—nothing wrong with having hobbies! But maybe if I want a fun hobby, I’ll…oh I dunno…go boating…rather than, say, stress out yet again about posting another video on YouTube which will only get a mere handful of likes. (Where’s the value in that?)

Or in hippie terms, you gotta go where the love is man. Find the love.

3. T-Shaped Skills

You’re likely familiar with this concept. It’s all about the relationship between depth of knowledge and breadth of knowledge.

“The vertical bar on the letter T represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own.” –Wikipedia

You could be a software engineer with a broad amount of knowledge about the field in general, but have a deep well of knowledge in a particular technology or technique. You could be an artist with a broad amount of knowledge about a wide variety of media and traditions, but specialize in one distinct form of art.

I’ll be honest, this is an area I’ve really struggled in over the years. You see, I’m what they call a multipotentialite. I don’t like having to specialize! As soon as you try to pin me down into a rigid role or label me as “the guy who’s good at X”, I immediately recoil from such notions.

Unfortunately, society doesn’t typically reward those who are—pardon the pretentious turn of phrase—“renaissance” people. You’re generally better off picking one thing and sticking to it. If you’re into photography, you’re a photographer. If you’re into financial research and statistics, you’re an economist. Nobody knows what to do with “an economist who loves photography and is a wood-worker who competes in dragon boat racing while also contributing to the translation efforts of pre-Christian Irish poetry.”

But I’ve finally figured it out. And the answer is: I cheat. I’m still a multipotentialite, but I’ve learned to put a bit more muscle behind a narrow scope of endeavor at any given time. Try to get really good at this one thing, or try to become “known” for that one thing, right now. Note that I’m not saying I limit myself solely to that. And I’m not saying it has to be set in stone forever. It’s just for a season. And you’ll know when it’s time to shift gears. You begin to develop an instinct for it.

So I encourage you to embrace the “t-shaped skills” paradigm. It’s OK to have a multiplicity of interests, and it’s only natural to hesitate letting any particular pursuit suffer much at the hands of all the others. BUT you do need to focus extra hard on a particular vocation, a particular technique, a particular marketable skill—and yes, become known as the “domain expert” in that unique area of specialty. That is the base formula for a lasting career.

It All Blends Together

Intrinsic motivation, value creation, and t-shaped skills aren’t just three separate concepts. They all feed off each other to become a collective “force multiplier” in your life. As you practice becoming intrinsically motivated, you begin to shift your focus away from “how come nobody loves my art?!” to “how am I creating value for people through my art?” Then in the effort to provide greater value for people, you identify those areas where you’ll need to specialize and increase your depth of knowledge. And the more you get really, really skilled in those areas, you’ll revel in the satisfaction of providing value to people as you share your expertise and your creativity…which in turns makes it easier to stay motivated. It’s a virtuous circle.

Don’t be surprised if it takes time for this process to kick into high gear. After all, it’s taken me years—decades even—to feel like I’m not simply spinning my wheels and waiting for something to happen. Give your efforts some breathing room and get ready to experiment. A lot. Patience may be a virtue, but showing up every day ready to be the best creative version of yourself is a potent force for change. And as long as you are able to recognize and acknowledge the three landmarks along the road to success, you’ll know if you’re on the right track.


Photo credit: Chong Wei on Unsplash


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