What is Your Effort Truly Worth?
Every year an aspiring photographer brought his stack of best prints to an old, honored photographer, seeking his judgment.
Every year the old man studied the prints and painstakingly ordered them into two piles, bad and good.
Every year the old man moved a certain landscape print into the bad stack.
Once, he turned to the young man and said, “You submit this landscape every year, and every year I put it on the bad stack. Why do you like it so much?”
The young photographer said, “Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.”
What the young photographer was politely saying was, “You don’t know how much effort I put in to click the photo.” But he failed to realize that the effort didn’t matter because the photo was bad.
Does Effort Matter More Than Results?
We often assume our effort is directly proportional to the quality of our creation.
If we spend five hours baking a cake, we assume everyone who eats it will praise our culinary skills.
If we spend two days preparing a presentation, we hope our manager will praise us in front of the entire team (and hopefully remember it during our appraisal).
If we splurge on an expensive gift, we expect the receiver to go gaga over it.
This is a subconscious bias, but it’s a bias. When we attach ourselves to the effort, we fuel our ego that says, “Look at me! I’m important!”
In business, there is a saying: If the customer is not satisfied, you don’t get to decide whether your product is good or not. Customer satisfaction, not the number of hours spent coding the software, dictates the quality of the product.
Likewise, the quality of your creation gets dictated by what the person whom it’s meant for thinks, not by your effort. If the cake doesn’t taste good, if the presentation doesn’t convey what it should, if the gift is not useful for the receiver, your effort or your lighter wallet don’t count.
This might sound cruel to many people. “What do you mean my effort doesn’t count? Are you belittling my blood, sweat, and tears? Don’t I deserve appreciation for what I’ve done?”
But astute creators, artists, and entrepreneurs—the ones who’ve done the work and paid their dues for years—understand that a medal or certificate for participation doesn’t hold any value. Standing on the podium… that’s what truly matters. It hurts, but it’s the only way.
Author Ross McCammon shared an insightful story about what happened when he and his agent met publishers to pitch his book. Its working title was The Imposter’s Protocol.
Every editor they met asked some version of, “Are you open to changing the title?” (Imagine how McCammon must have felt, considering he loved the working title.) Eventually, he signed a contract with a publisher.
A couple of days later, his editor emailed him saying they wanted a better title since the current one didn’t convey what he was trying to say in the book. He sent her many more titles, and they finally settled on Works Well With Others.
“I like that title. But I don’t love it. Which, in some way, makes it perfect… The title was one of hundreds of compromises I made to get my project out into the world. And by the time it was out there, it was no longer mine, really. It was the reader’s.”
When I was a ghostwriter, I had a similar learning curve. In the beginning, when clients asked me to change some content that they didn’t understand, I would get upset. “Don’t they know that this is art?”, I thought.
Beneath the surface, however, what I was really thinking was, “Don’t they see how much effort I put in?” My effort made me fall in love with my work, even if it was mediocre.
But here’s the thing. If my clients, whom I could explain my thought process to, struggled to understand what I wrote, how would readers understand it? What was the point then? Fueling my ego?
That’s when I changed my practice. Any part of a draft my clients didn’t understand or find useful was either rephrased or removed without fanfare.
Two Frustrating Obstacles Towards This Approach
It takes practice to feed your soul instead of your ego. When you start, you’ll come across two pitfalls.
The first is the “I-only-create-for-myself” mindset. Such an approach is useful in the beginning because your work is not good. But if you always keep your work locked up, you deprive yourself of the most powerful reward: improvement.
Think about it. How do you really work on yourself? Do you manually rearrange thoughts in your mind? No. You work on yourself when you take action, learn from the results, and apply that learning to similar or different situations in your life. At the gym, in your profession, in what you’re passionate about, and in your relationships.
If you want to witness improvement and enjoy the happiness that accompanies it, put your work out there. Let people see it, contribute to it, and make it better.
“Your big idea is important because it’s a prototype. It’s something that you can grow inside your head until that initial version gains enough momentum to power the next one. Tend to it, show it off, sell it… and then, once someone says they want it, unceremoniously put your original vision away in storage. It’s become something new. You have a new thing to make.” — Ross McCammon
Your idea will often become something new, something you hadn’t originally thought of. That’s ok. Learn from feedback to make yourself better. Let your mirror get polished with every rub. The aim is to make the end result better, to turn an idea into a real thing that helps others. Not to fall in love with your own effort.
Yet, it’s important to know whose opinions to value. This brings me to the second pitfall.
We often ask people we know well for their thoughts on our work. They give their views quickly, but those are not necessarily what you need.
I’ve asked opinions from people who knew nothing about a craft, and their feedback caused more harm than good. They weren’t bad people; they just didn’t know any better than me. As a result, they ended up sharing what they thought was right. Most of it wasn’t just unpleasant, it also sent me down the wrong rabbit hole and left me discouraged.
But when I spoke to experts, they offered clarity. They were (and are) patient, empathic, and specific while telling me what works for them and what doesn’t. Plus, they suggested ways to make it better and left the rest to me.
The best people to ask for inputs on your work are the experts. These are people whose work you appreciate and want to emulate.
I’m done with this article. Done with arguing with myself over what to add, remove, and retain. I’m fairly happy with how it has turned out. Now it’s time for me to let it go, to put it out there, to let the person I made it for—you—decide how it turned out.
As for me, I’ll wait for you to share what you think. Meanwhile, it’s back to the blank page. Back to writing another article, one that’s hopefully better than this one.
Subscribe for weekly posts on creativity, productivity, self-improvement, and other topics that help you become better each day. Just enter your email address and click I’m In!