How to add more value to your work - Matt Essam

How to add more value to your work

This is a reflection on why I believe you don’t need to focus on being ‘brilliant’, or even all that ‘talented’, to make an impact with your creative projects and make ripples in the world.  It’s a discussion about how, sometimes, the best work that we can do isn’t necessarily the work that’s screaming to be torn out of our hearts and cast out into the world, but that which the world is begging to receive from us and us alone.

It’s a look at how spending days, weeks, or even months in the ‘ideas stage’ of a project may sometimes make you feel better about yourself but doesn’t really have an effect in terms of the results that you get, or the impact that you make or the waves that you make or, really, anything at all. What we’re looking at here is reality, and reality doesn’t really care about your latest masterpiece; in fact nobody really cares like you do. All reality ‘cares’ about is action and the impact that our actions have on the further actions that are taken in and upon the world around us.

The thing is, “art or creativity for art or creativity’s sake” is a nice idea, and one that has no doubt produced one or two masterpieces over the millennia, but for the average creative professional in a consumerist, capitalistic society, creativity for its own sake is only a first step in the process. The reality of the situation is this: ‘meaning’ doesn’t just exist in your work because you enjoyed creating it; it becomes meaningful when it becomes significant to the lives of others and it becomes significant when it speaks to their purpose and values.

If human reality was comprised only of independent entities that had little to no effect on each other, then maybe we could sit around gazing into our navels until inspiration strikes,  painting pretty picture with our crayons, writing cryptic, esoteric poetry about our ‘feelings’, or whacking out expressive little ditties on the ukulele that we bought from Argos a few Christmases ago, lost on the verge of tears but being ‘creative’ about it.

And though there is nothing really stopping you doing these things, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that consistent ‘creativity’ of this particular flavour is a form of madness. It’s neurotic because it assumes that the end of ourselves is the end of the world. It assumes that the fact that we made something, or produced something, or threw it up, is enough to offer value in the world. But it isn’t. We are all interdependent, whether we like it or not, and so the ‘value’ of our work will always be linked to the value that it either offers others or directs them toward. If it only points back to yourself then the only person who will care about it will most likely be the one and only: ‘You’.

Yes, when you throw up it may seem quite beautiful to you in comparison to what some of the people around you throw out of their inner depths, but if that beauty isn’t also reflected in the eyes of those around you, then all you’re really left with is a stain on your carpet and a funny taste in your mouth.

So how about we try and learn to throw up more efficiently? How about we explore a potentially better option and see where it might take us?

Myths

The age of the Internet means that anybody can create a piece of work and then try to share it with the rest of the world, it also means that we can sell ourselves more easily as being a certain way; that we can ‘hype’ ourselves up and live on personality alone instead of inner character (see my upcoming book Personal Revolutions #166: Character / Personality). We can buy a pack of pencils and tell ourselves and everybody else that we’re ‘artists’; buy a fancy laptop, download Microsoft Word and become ‘writers’, ‘screenwriters’ or ‘novelists’; film things on our phone and upload them to the YouTubes, telling everybody that we’re ‘filmmakers’ – all without ever really graduating on from the level of the dilettante. We live in the Age of Confusion and we’re all a missing piece of the puzzle.

This is what happens when people are brought up buying into the myth that ‘anything is possible’ and that ‘following your dreams’ with fevered tenacity is enough to get you to where you crave to be. This isn’t so say that there aren’t a great deal of things possible for us or that following our dreams is always a road to nowhere; human beings are often capable of so much more than they are often led to believe, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t limits. All I’m really saying is that ‘dreams’ may give us a certain direction to move in, or provide fuel for our excursions elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean that we should continue to cling to them in the face of all evidence provided by reality to the contrary. Reality is usually our friend, but our dreams are most often used to keep us hiding from it.

Reality

Need / Self-Interest

‘Self-gratification is self-perpetuation’. What the hell does this mean? It means that if you’re only creating works of art or producing creative products to indulge your own sense of self, or even worse, ‘self-image’, then you’re usually allowing yourself to fall out-of-synch with a reality that flows and unfolds in an attempt to maintain an idea of who you think you already are. Though it may be helpful to produce a ‘snapshot’ of who we are at present or where we’ve been before, we can both create more of ourselves and our values, expressing ourselves with more resonance and potency, and having a wider impact on others if we learn to make our values valuable to others and produce work based on the criterion of need that exists outside of ourselves, not only the desires and cravings of our inner world in relation to an idealised understanding of who we are or could be.

In life, not just in our creative endeavours, there are a number of paradoxes that we have to accept and live out if we are to stand a chance of living the ‘good life’. Examples of these might be the idea that in order to truly live life, we have to accept our deaths, or that in order to keep learning and growing we have to be ready to unlearn and be open to uncertainty, or to be present whilst also aware of the potential alive in each moment. When it comes to our creative lives the paradox is this: to best serve ourselves we must also learn to serve others, because it is only in serving the needs of others that our work really has any significance. And, as long as we start from the platform of our values, we will not be ‘selling out’, we are simply working in a more efficient manner and connecting with as many others as possible.

Perhaps an example from my own life can demonstrate this point more clearly: Back when I was younger I got the idea in my head that I wanted to be a screenwriter or then a novelist. I picked up a few writing projects (all unproduced) that didn’t really take me anywhere, but they at least taught me the skills and discipline to sit down until completion. Eventually, I plucked up the courage to sit down and write my great novel; I looked at my experience and the things that I was going through at the time and created a thinly-veiled account of my existential tribulations, using as many grandiloquent words as possible, and fitting in a number of esoteric philosophical themes and highfalutin literary devices that I was sure would send my literary career shooting into the stratosphere. And so I wrote and I wrote. And then I released the book to family, friends, and ‘literary associates’ and finally… nothing.

Where did I go wrong? I had focused too much on my own ‘stuff’ and forgotten about the rest of the world. I had written in service of myself instead of the service of myself and others. Though I don’t regret writing the project as it was pretty cathartic and may serve as motivation to eventually write a ‘decent’ novel, I realised that I had started from the concept of ‘expressing myself’ instead of ‘helping others meet their own needs by learning from my experience’ – it’s a subtle shift but one that taught me that, at the very least, your work can meet the needs of others by showing them that they’re not alone, or connecting to what is timeless about us as humans, or anything else that gives them those ‘aha’ moments and helps them to live better lives. When we learn to make our story their story, we instantly start to connect on a deeper level.

My latest project, ‘Personal Revolutions’, is an attempt to look at my own life experience and to relate it to the experience of human beings in general and the human condition. Perhaps that’s a little ambitious and maybe too broad in its scope, but when I started from the assumption that I could give people what they needed from me, instead of what my ego wanted them to want from me to help maintain the tenuous self-image of myself as some Salingeresque literary darling, or whatever the hell, I found that the impact of my work increased tenfold, and the satisfaction I get from sharing and building relationships with others, has been a far more powerful experience. The book isn’t out yet and may fall flat on its face, but at least it has already been significant to those who got a few steps closer to finding themselves, and the world, through it.

Significance /Success

Success is value added to our own lives, significance is value added to the lives of others, as John Maxwell said somewhere. Paradoxically, as mentioned above, looking at ways to make our projects significant to the lives of others often serves to add even more value to our own lives. This is because it means that the work we produce stands a better chance of having an impact on the world around us and the human beings that inhabit it and allowing us to connect in the realest way possible.

One of the most significant things that you can do for other people is to help them to connect to their core values and also to help manifest these values in the world through purposeful action. This is why in Personal Revolutions, we discuss the idea of making your valuables to other people.  I’m going to repeat that because it’s important and basically the point of this whole piece: Make your values valuable to others. Learn to do it and your work will instantly increase in terms of its significance and therefore its value to yourself and others.

The more lives you touch with your work, the more significant you can consider it to be. This is why we said in the previous section on Need/Self-Interest, and in the intro, that ‘talent’ or ‘brilliance’ are not often necessary but rarely sufficient. If the only person who finds any real value in your work is you (as with my depressing existentialist novel), or a select group of elites (yeah, you tell yourself that…) that have a natural inclination towards understanding your ‘artistic’ vision and integrity, then your work is the equivalent of a great painting torn to shreds and hung up on the wall in a dirty, locked away cellar where nobody can really see it. Yes, that may be a tad dramatic but you get the point.

Making our values valuable to others frees us to be more creative because knowing our values means that we do not have to cling to a certain image of ourselves or to certain goals because we feel that the outcome is what defines us.  When we identify with our values, instead of the modes of expression of these values, we are free to experiment and to play with our creative impulses and ideas until we find a project that resonates with the world around us.

Underneath whatever goal we hold for ourselves (‘write a novel’, ‘paint a picture’, create a startup’) there is an undercurrent of core values that are the stream from which these goals shoot up and into the earth. If we value ‘Truth’, for example, we can express this in thousands of different ways,  be it in art, music, literature, or even in creative projects or groups that actively get people to examine the ‘Truth’ under the guise of their opinions (see dialogueschool.org for more on this).

The same holds of any other values that we hold and, if we use these values as our lodestar, we are free to guide ourselves in a direction that helps us to connect with others at the centre of who they are at their most human.  When we do this, we speak to each other in terms of our shared higher human values, not only at the surface level of superficialities that we think define us as individuals; we are free to contribute and participate in everybody’s world, not only observe our own.

Purpose / Meaning

Much modern discussion about ‘creativity’ is that it is a natural solution to the question of ‘meaning’ in the world.  You might hear people saying that ‘art’, ‘creativity’, or anything analogous, make life ‘meaningful’ because they show us the inherent horror or beauty of the world, give us ideals to aspire to, or show us new worlds and new possibilities to work towards bringing into being.

Or sometimes you might find people going to work in the creative industries, expecting their employment in this sector to be an artistic renaissance of the highest order as they sit nobly in their office cubicles and conveyer-belt WordPress template after WordPress template, or Photoshop touch-up after Photoshop touch-up, and wonder why the creative flame that they carried into their cubicles with them isn’t still burning when they leave at the end of the day. If you look for ‘meaning’ through ‘creativity’, at least of this kind,  it will only ever be a short burst at best.

The reality is that creativity in itself doesn’t make life ‘meaningful’; this is achieved by the fruits of our creativity, in terms of the impact it has on others and their actions. Creativity may allow you to enjoy your life for the duration of the time that you spend creating certain things, but these activities don’t have the power to suddenly imbue your life with meaning and to bring everything into a beautiful synthesis (if you don’t believe me, spend a day in an office cubicle applying the same Photoshop filters hour after hour).

Nothing static can make life meaningful because life is 1) in a constant state of flux outside our heads, and 2) ‘meaning’ is something that ultimately exists in our mental representations and interpretations of things – if you want the moment of ‘meaningfulness’ to spill out of your head and into the world, you need to be able to ensure that what you have created speaks to the minds of those around you.

Instead of chasing meaning, a more successful approach may be to create purpose. The only thing that truly makes a difference in a world, the only thing that can have lasting impact, or that can bring out the best in human beings and human values is action. If we accept that life is about figuring out our own values and working a process around realising these values, then we will see that action is the engine that can make this happen. Human beings are built for the hunt, or in more familiar terms, we are built for the journey, not just the destination. Our lives are only really being ‘lived’ if we are in motion, if we are taking steps towards making more of ourselves and the values that we embody, and also towards bringing more of these things into the world around us for those that we share it with.

Ask yourself what you want from your work? What kind of reaction? What can you teach people? The best thing that you can do for yourself as a ‘creative’ is to work a purpose into the things that you create. Become a ‘purposeful’.

A simple and effective way to do this is to start from a premise about yourself, the world, and the other human beings within it. A premise here is simply a sentence, an idea, a message about how things ought to be, or about your vision for humanity in general, that serves as a solid foundation for your creative work and which allows those who understand it to use your work to fuel their own values and process. The premise is basically an argument (eg. Personal Revolutions basically has the premise: ‘Social progress is about relationships and relationships start with the way we communicate with ourselves’). Not everybody will agree with you, but that doesn’t matter, you are fuelling the furnace of progress with your work and helping all of us to keep the fire burning.

Summary

When we know our own values it is easier for us to connect to the values of the people around us by using our creative projects as a bridge between the two. When we help others to bring more of their cherished values into the world, we are performing a significant act of service that helps them to become more of themselves.

If we ‘reverse engineer’ our projects based on the needs that we see in the world over our own self-interest and combine this with our deepest values, we can create work that reverberates out into the world instead of only echoing throughout our own solitary lives.

We create work that is significant to the lives of others, that can make their lives more meaningful, by bringing a process of purposeful action into their lives. Work without a purpose is fine, but when our work has a purpose behind it, it becomes much more significant to the lives of those it touches and therefore usually more ‘successful’.

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