You Don’t Get To Decide If Your Work Is Any Good.
But you do decide if it’s important.
At the heart of the confusion about whether we only use 10% of our brains or not, is the fact that we spend almost all of our time operating at somewhere around 10% effort.
Life is basically a series of sub-optimal efforts until you die. And that’s mostly the way it should be. There’s a conflict between effort and time, and given that our time is limited, it makes sense that we sacrifice a little effort from time to time. I mean sure, I want the waiter to clean my table, but I don’t want him to do such a good job that it takes him 10 minutes. Neither does his boss. Most of the time, “good enough” is the sweet spot.
But only most of the time. Each of us has something to offer, and when we figure out what it is, we should put 100% effort into that one thing. We should do the thing that only we can do, and we should do it to the best of our ability. That’s when great things happen.
It might not always feel like it though. With great effort does not always come great recognition. Our society isn’t optimised to reward effort. Work that will take a while to pay off, looks a lot like work that simply failed. And it’s up to us to be able to tell the difference. If we can’t, we make the mistake of judging our work by the standards of other people, which is a mistake we’re taught to make pretty much as soon as we’re able to do any work at all.
I mean, aside from a brief grace period from the ages of 0 to around 4, pretty much everything we do is judged for its immediate impact. We might get a pat on the head for effort, but it’s really about results. There might be some consideration of how much we’ve progressed or where we might end up if we persevere, but really it’s about where we are now. And as much as I’m usually an advocate for focusing on the present moment, this approach is sadly misguided when it comes to the defining work of our lives.
When Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa he had no idea that it would be the piece of work he was most famous for. The man revolutionised the arts, made groundbreaking contributions to the fields of biology, palaeontology and engineering, and invented the helicopter 500 years ahead of its time. Yet his most celebrated piece of work is an unfinished portrait of an Italian noblewoman who most people would otherwise never have heard of. Even for one of the greatest geniuses of all time, there was no telling which of his works would get the recognition it deserved.
As Kierkegaard once said: “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Work is pretty much the same way. There’s no way to understand the impact or value of something while we’re doing it. Try as we might. The only way our efforts ever make sense is in hindsight. In the context of the world we live in and how good our timing is, and countless other things that we can’t control.
What we can control is how much effort we put into the things we do. And which things we choose to put that effort into. The things we choose don’t have to make sense to anybody else, we don’t have to justify them, but we do have to recognise that we might not get the recognition we want for them.
But if we do it right, recognition isn’t the reward. It’s impossible to overstate the satisfaction that knowing you gave something everything you have can bring. How it makes questions like “Who made more money?” or “Who finished first?” seem irrelevant. Things that are worth this effort are rare. That’s how it should be. Most things can be done at 10% as long as not all of them are. After all, a life where we always give 100% is impractical. But a life where we never give 100% effort is a terrible waste.