You want to create Great Work.
You want to make a difference in the world.
It’s a grand endeavour, and, frequently, a frustrating one. Such passion for change and the pursuit of excellence often inspires a fervent sense of urgency.
We get it. When we want something, we want it now. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how much time, effort, or love you put into your work if your sole driver is reaching your goal as quickly as possible. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “great haste makes great waste”.
Humans simply aren’t designed to keep their eye on the prize. Those that try to are often the first to fall.
These people succumb to what’s called hyperbolic discounting – the psychological phenomenon that shapes our perception of value. You know those scenes on television when the character, facing an important decision, suddenly finds an angel whispering advice in one ear, and a demon trying to corrupt him in the other? Well hyperbolic discounting is the demon.
It’s the instinct that tells a small reward now is better than a large reward later. The reason some people rack up huge credit card bills on unnecessary purchases, or eat junk food in excess.
It’s also why many give up on their Great Work. Hyperbolic discounting informs them that it’s not the process of taking of steps on the road to success that matter, but how many they can take at a time (and whether it would be easier to just call an Uber). They may ignore it for a time, but when that day comes that they stumble, and look up to see something of interest, but of far less importance, upon a branching path, they take it without thought. Not all will ever return to the road. Few will stay on it all the way.
This may short-sighted, but don’t blame them. It’s simple psychology that gets to even the best of us sometimes. Fortunately, understanding hyperbolic discounting goes a long way towards overcoming it.
In 2011, researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer wrote a book about what they termed The Progress Principle:
“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform”.
You might not reach your ultimate goal today, or tomorrow, but recognising that each step is important progress in and of itself is what will keep you on track. Such an attitude breeds the creativity, innovation, and happiness that will make the next step possible.
Sounds obvious, right? And yet we stoke ourselves on fear and guilt on days that don’t go exactly according to plan. We ignore minor achievements, and abandon our sense of purpose under a mound of pressure.
That needs to stop. The only way to realise our Great Work is to commit with fortitude and grit. Some days it may feel like we’re going nowhere in a hurry. But the only way to truly succeed is to keep at it.