How to Think About Your Life’s Work

Last week, I wrote about getting better at something you’ve done for decades. In my case, writing.

But what does it mean for your work to be “better”? Especially something creative like writing. Is the better author the one who sold more books? Won more awards? Or is it a personal question about the meaning you give your life’s work?

Below, I’d like to outline my thought process for answering this question, with the hope that it may encourage you to think about your process for evaluating the work you do in your life.

The First Rule: There are No Rules

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A knee-jerk reflex when dealing with the question of “better” is to try to define it in words. This is the same impulse that results in so many insipid corporate mission statements full of well-meaning words like “community” or “service.”

The problem isn’t with missions, service or community. Rather, the difficulty is that the goals you have for your life’s work are about something you feel, not something you think. Turning those feelings into bullet points can only leave things out.

The truth is, we don’t perceive any value explicitly through rules and sentences.

This sounds mysterious, but it’s really not. We also don’t taste things through explicit rules. If I gave you some ice cream and asked you to tell me if it were chocolate or vanilla, you wouldn’t consult a 98-point feature chart to decide, you’d just let your tongue do the work.

Similarly, you don’t really evaluate your work by rules either. Instead you create something, and then ask yourself how you feel about it. Sometimes that feeling is good. Sometimes it’s bad. More often, it’s a mix of emotions, with both the things you’re proud of and the potential you didn’t quite feel you reached. None of which is easily expressed in a sentence.

If There Are No Rules, How Do You Get Better?

So if you’re not actually following rules when deciding whether your work is good or not, how can you possibly improve?

This, too, is actually easier than it sounds. We do it all the time.

You make scrambled eggs and they taste better than last time. You don’t need a feature-by-feature breakdown scored by experts to know this. You just chew.

Improving in your work is very similar. Do I like this more than what I made before? Compared to others’ work? What could have been made better? What did I do well?

Some people are uncomfortable approaching things this way. They’ve become so convinced that everything ought to be measured, analyzed and dissected that they forget they can simply taste things.

Why Just Tasting Doesn’t Always Work

The scrambled eggs analogy, however, isn’t a perfect one. Because we don’t just cook for ourselves.

Your work may be driven by your own taste buds, but ultimately its whether other people can stomach it that decides if you can make a living. You may adore your banana jalapeño omelette, but that’s not enough to make you into a chef.

As a result, the meaning of our work always hovers in a fuzzy boundary between personal taste and outside appreciation. The meaning of our work is never entirely decided by us. It’s filtered through the tastes of other people.

This can lead to two different mistakes:

  1. Only following your own taste.
  2. Losing the ability to taste your own work.

Only following your own taste can lead to solipsistic, naval-gazing work that only the artist appreciates. This is a serious problem because, as the creator of something, you are, at least in some ways, never like the people who simply consume it.

Conversely, you can get so focused on the outside that you lose your sense of taste. You chase reviews, acclaim, sales and applause. You want to be respected by others, never asking if you respect yourself.

The challenge is to balance both. To have a refined palette for your own work so you can improve, but at the same time recognize when your tastes diverge from the people you serve.

How to Do Work You Love (That Other People Love Too)

The only solution is to pay attention to both. Cultivate your own sense of taste for your work, but at the same time keep an eye on how others are consuming it.

The first step in balancing these two competing signals is to see when they are likely to fail. Personal taste can be misleading when:

  • Your interests differ from your audience. You may care about something much more or much less than the people you want to reach. You love spice, but your guests can’t take the heat.
  • You know things your audience doesn’t. You may know things about the world your customers don’t. Connoisseurs notice flavors a novice will ignore.
  • You can’t see with fresh eyes. For you, this work might have taken thousands of hours. Chew something over that much and it tastes differently than someone taking the first bite.

Similarly, signals from the outside can also mislead:

  • Sometimes success (or failure) means nothing at all. Some things you do will be popular, some won’t be. Sometimes there’s a lesson to be learned. Sometimes it’s just luck.
  • Most people really do judge books just by their covers. Most will only skim the headline, remember the sound bite, tweet the hashtag. But you want your life’s work to be more than just catchy.
  • They ask for the old, but want it to feel like how it was when it was new. Forever trying to replay your greatest hits repeats the surface forms, not the way people felt about the original.

Balancing personal taste and outside appreciation is hard. It’s easy to swing to one extreme then the other. To be the starving artist who won’t listen to any outside feedback for fear of tainting a personal vision. To check sales, reviews or scores obsessively to validate your worth.

Like the question of taste itself, integrating the two signals is more art than science. I tend to trust my own taste first, but moderate based on outside feedback. If I love something but others don’t, that’s an opportunity to dig deeper to ask why.

Improving Your Sense of Taste

Getting better is a twofold process. First, getting better at your work, as judged by your sense of taste. Second, improving your sense of taste itself.

The first way to have better taste is to consume a lot. If you’re a writer, read. If you’re a painter, look. If you’re a programmer, read other people’s code.

Consuming better work improves your sense of taste in two ways. The most straightforward way is that more data leads to better discrimination. See one good movie, and all the movies you see will be compared to that one. See a thousand good movies, and your appreciation of cinema will be much more nuanced.

The subtler (and sometimes dangerous) way consuming more improves your taste is that you unconsciously imbibe successful styles from the past. You mimic what has worked well for others, while still making it your own.

This second process isn’t without risk. Too much exposure to others and you lose your beginner’s mind. You can no longer see something with fresh eyes, but only through a kaleidoscope of other work.

Rediscovering the Beginner’s Mind

Consuming more isn’t enough. You also need to learn to unsee. To empty your mind of what you’ve filled it with before.

Unlike simply consuming more, this is much harder to do. Talking to people helps. I find travel helps. Ironically, learning something completely new also seems to help, as you return to the starting point of all things.

Better taste isn’t enough for better work. You can have a refined palette but be unable to cook. If you want to get good at making, not just critiquing, then you actually need to make stuff.

The Meaning of Your Life’s Work

Meaning isn’t subjective. But it’s not objective either. It follows patterns, but it doesn’t break down into explicit rules.

So too with the meaning of your work. It’s personal, depending more on taste than recipes. But it’s also not only for you to decide. To matter, it also has to touch the minds of others.

This is challenging, but also exciting. The space of possible things to be made greatly exceeds what will ever be made, both now, and until the end of time. Your work allows you to explore one sliver of possibility, and bring something into the world that, without your care and skill, would never have existed.

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