How Letting Go of Outcomes Helps Your Work (and why you should try it)

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let go of outcomes

I’ve been struggling with my work. For the past few months I’ve struggled with feeling connected to those on the other side of my work. I see that emails get opened and the blog gets visits. But the response has been difficult to measure.

And this has been challenging for me. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why.

Am I doing something wrong?

Have I lost touch with my readers?

All of this has lead me to evaluate how I think about my work. What if my work at its core was about offering something rather than getting a response?

It’s not about how big your work gets. It’s not about how many people are interested in what you do. It’s not about how much money you make. It’s not even about getting others to participate.

It’s about you doing something that you love and offering it to the world— regardless of its reception.

Steven Pressfield on Letting Go of Outcomes

A theme in Steven Pressfield’s little book, The War of Art, is dedication to your work regardless of the outcome. He emphasizes the roll of routine and habits. He talks about how creativity is about showing up and doing the work, and not waiting for inspiration to strike.

He told a story of a book he spent years writing and the struggle he had along the way. All he did was work on it, and nothing else. But the closer he got to finishing, the harder it became. His fear and resistance became more and more intense.

Eventually the moment came when he finished the book and he felt a rush of victory wash over him.

The next morning he went to a friend’s house and told him that he’d finally finished.

The friend’s reply blew me away. If I were his friend I would tell him: take the rest of the day off— no, take the whole week! Celebrate. Pop a bottle of champaign or pour a glass of whiskey. Etc.

His friend said, “Good for you. Start the next one today.(p. 112)

What?!? Can you imagine it? I couldn’t for some time. But the more I view my work from a process oriented standpoint, the more I understand it.

Pressfield writes to write. Not to create books, get published, or be a famous author.

He writes because he’s a writer and that’s what writers do.
He’s in it for the work itself, not the product of the work. He is dedicated to the work itself, rather than what the work is creating.

That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t celebrate his successes. Or that he doesn’t feel some accomplishment when he finishes a book. It just means that the writing isn’t a means to an end, but is the end in itself.

When I’m in a good creative rhythm and routine, I find that I have more material than I know what to do with. I have more ideas than I have time to develop those ideas. The struggle becomes less about generating new content and more about keeping the routine and finding time to further develop content.

The opposite experience happens when I am out of routine and I realize that I need a blog post for next week. I sit and stare at a blank screen feeling so much pressure. The internal voices tell me things like, “say something worth saying!” and “don’t waste people’s time!” (they always use exclamation marks).

So I have to write, not for the sake of writing, but to create a specific outcome.

And that’s too much pressure.

There’s a balance here. You have to create with some end in mind. But maybe the main purpose should be creating to create, knowing that you’re reach that end eventually.

Jasmine Star, a fantastic wedding photographer and blogger, shared recently on Periscope about how she found traction and started her business. She blogs every day. Not all of it is good. Not all of it helps people find her and choose her. But in her words, “If you throw enough mud at the wall, something will stick.”

For me, it’s time to focus on the throwing, not the sticking.

How about you?

What if your work wasn’t about the response, but about doing the work? What if you did the work because you loved it? What if you didn’t allow how someone else responds to dictate how you feel about what you do? What if you did the work because it’s what you need to do and what you were made to offer the world?

How would things change for you? How could things change?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

Dan Cumberland is on a mission to push you into the places meaning, life, & work intersect. He is the author of The Meaning Manifesto. Read more about him here, and connect with him on facebook and twitter.

There Are 16 Comments On This Post.

  1. Geri Jaeger

    Good post, Dan. I have another friend who has a full-time job with a sports organization in town but also writes. His goal this past month was to write something daily and post it on facebook. He is a really good writer who has had things published but also faces challenges like you and many other writers. This has been a challenge for him but people have responded to his daily posts and many of them are about his observations on life, family, just whatever strikes him. Very good writing and interesting perspectives. I think it becomes a habit over time just like journaling. Pour your soul into it. You are a great writer. Keep up the good work.

  2. Sandy Fick

    Dan, I haven’t had the internal space to read your blog for quite awhile. But today it caught my eye. What if I did ‘the work’ because it’s what I need to do and what I was made to offer the world? Wonderful, encouraging words to take in. For me, I think of ‘the work’ in broad terms, not just my work with survivors of childhood sexual assault, but my engagement in building community with friends and not yet friends. Your thoughts are an oddly satisfying reframe.

    • So glad this was a helpful reframe, Sandy! I find it very helpful to think of work in broad terms as well— it’s not just about having a job, but about using your agency. 🙂

  3. I’m glad your internal voice includes exclamation points. I hope the words it offers you get softer and kinder.
    Thanks for this. I needed it.

  4. If I could really believe the work was worth doing in and of itself, I wouldn’t have to do all the promotion stuff (which I don’t love). But I don’t write not for the sake of writing alone. I write as one way to share ideas with others, and there are too many demands on readers to just hope they stumble across my site.

    (Or maybe this is all despair…)

    • Yes. I get this. I wonder though if what you dislike about the promotion is the slow growth and lack of immediate results? I know that’s where I struggle when it comes to the social media and the blog. Maybe that’s not the case for you. Or maybe it is. Hope that helps!

  5. Great post, Dan! I like your observation: “It’s about you doing something that you love and offering it to the world— regardless of its reception.”

    When we’re doing the thing we love, we are acting from a point of authenticity and our egos are nowhere to be found. That’s when we derive the most satisfaction from our work.

    For most of us, especially those of us raised to think of work as an obligation, i.e. something we must do in order to live up to society’s expectations of us, work is synonymous with “chore”. It’s a role we must play. Because of this, it’s tied strongly to ego. The more “successful” we are, the better we feel about ourselves.

    I like that you write about finding meaning in what you do–or is it finding something to do that means something to you? Either way, I’ll be following your blog. 🙂

    • Hi Annisa! Great thoughts here. I totally agree. I’m all about making work something more than just a chore, as you said.

      And yes, I write about both loving what you do and doing/finding what you love— more of that latter than the former, but they’re often two sides of the same coin.

      So glad to have you with us!

  6. I threw an event this past weekend that was incredibly near to my personality, my line of work, and the connections I’ve made over the past five years. It aligned completely with the work I want to try and keep doing. I LOVED being able to generously invite people to attend, participate, have their eyes opened to the possibilities. I also completely knew that some people definitely wouldn’t come, wouldn’t care, or would do the opposite and mock it. But I really, really didn’t care. Because I knew it was what I had to do, what I was passionate about doing. And if they didn’t respond, the event wasn’t for them anyways.

  7. Thanks Dan, my experiences in Business and Pastoring have all been metric driven. As I enter a season where I’m focusing more on my writing I’m realizing those same tendencies are not helping me enjoy the journey!

    Being Results or “Fruit” driven is inherently bad, but I’m learning that not all fruit is measurable – we may see no numerical growth month over month in our small groups but the level of authenticity in our small group dialogue may get way better – something that’s huge but is an intangible that can’t be measured.

    Anyway love the thought, “I don’t write because I want a readership or to get published, I write because I’m a writer and that’s what writers do.”

    • Love this, Levi! Thanks for reading and sharing. I’m curious if you have your own version of that statement: I write because that’s what writers do?

      • Well in a recent argument with my wife about my onsetting mustache I shouted, “I’m not growing a mustache so people will like it, I growing a mustache because it’s the right thing to do!” …wait, I’m positive that’s not what you were looking for, ha.

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