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Is Your Work Day Filled With Unwanted Obligation or a Burning Desire to Improve?

Are you feeling overwhelmed? Not enough time for your writing, for your job, for your family, to maintain your household, for friends, for hobbies, for rest, and for exercising.

Too many people focus on managing their time. But motivation is the key. Your creative energy.

I work with lots of writers and publishers to help them develop an audience for their work. To ensure that their books and organizations have a positive EFFECT, and don’t just become another commodity in the marketplace; an unread book next to thousands of other unread books.

As you wake up each day faced with all of these responsibilities, all of these goals, all of these dreams – how will you manage it all? How will you find growth, and the ability to focus on strategy, not just the hamster wheel of the same tactics day in and day out? How will you be able to find the room to connect with your audience in a meaningful fashion, not just creating a product to deliver to them? How will you battle irrelevance amidst all of this endless, tireless work you are performing?

In this week’s New Yorker, there is a profile on the fancy New York restaurant 11 Madison Park. This was formerly owned by famed restauranteur Danny Meyer, and was bought by his chef and general manager not too long ago. I have eaten at this restaurant a few times, always on someone else’s expense account. At the time I went, several years ago, it had a stellar reputation.

The article illustrates how the new owners completely revamped the restaurant to even higher praise. I think there is a lot to learn from this process. When the owners were looking for more critical respect, they read a review which said the restaurant “felt stodgy and needed a “bit of Miles Davis.” What they did with this vague suggestion was really intriguing to me:

“We had no idea what that meant,” Guidara says, laughing, “but we started to listen to a lot of Miles and read about him.” They made a list of words to define Davis’ music – “cool,” “collaborative,” “fresh,” “vibrant,” “spontaneous” – and hung them, along with a photograph of the musician, in the restaurants kitchen.”

Here was a highly successful restaurant who was so completely open to change. The owners took a tiny reference from a review, and challenged themselves and their staff to figure out how to live up to it.

Why is this intriguing to me? Because it illustrates the difference between obligation and desire. That the owners didn’t care about saving face in front of their staff, disregarding the review. They didn’t just post copies of OTHER, more favorable reviews in their kitchen. They had a desire to find new opportunities, not prove that their methods were already they best.

For writers, for really any professional, how would you live up to this challenge? Are you as open to change? Are you motivated by a constant desire to explore, to improve? Or does it seem merely like an obligation? Something that perhaps you WOULD do, if only you had the time and resources. If only you weren’t so swamped running around on that hamster wheel trying to keep everything moving. It would have been so easy to see a vague reference to Miles Davis in a review of your work, and just disregard it saying “Whatever… I have more important things to focus on.”

  • Desire: “A longing or craving, as for something that brings satisfaction or enjoyment.”
  • Obligation: “Something by which a person is bound or obliged to do certain things, and which arises out of a sense of duty or results from custom, law, etc.”

I have spoken with many authors who feel that connecting with their readers is an unwanted obligation. They want to just write, alone, in solitude, and not have to worry about finding an audience. Don’t get me wrong – they WANT an audience – they just want someone else to develop it, and someone else to really talk with those people.

But I love seeing examples of authors who value the way that digital media has more deeply connected them to their readers. People such as:

Neil and Susan find opportunity and joy where others find drudgery and misery. Just look at their Twitter feeds, filled not just with status updates and ReTweets, but tons of @replies where they are having conversations with their audience. Not out of obligation, but out of desire.

These two authors are already “successful,” they don’t need to prove that they can develop followers on Twitter. They are both obviously very busy in their careers and family. And yet, they connect with their readers online via social media.

You can imagine if they did so out of a sense of obligation, they would half-ass it. They would do the minimum required number of Tweets per day, that would all contain the standard press release information their publicist prepared for them. They would be cardboard cutouts of themselves.

What is the distinction between someone who knows how to develop an audience vs someone who fails? A sense of unwanted obligation vs a feeling of desire to do so.

With unwanted obligation, you need to be convinced at every step of the process that this is worthwhile. You look for objections. You count the minutes that the activity takes. You search for signs and proof that it isn’t working, just as you suspected all along. Obligation means you will find challenges and roadblocks where others find opportunity and serendipity.

What is most interesting to me about all of this is that authors such as Neil and Susan, and restaurants such as 11 Madison Park clearly have a lot of obligations. Things they MUST do even when they find it boring. Even when they would prefer not to. But you never see that on the surface. They use their desire to supersede the unwanted obligations.

This is not about bestseller lists, book sales, digital downloads or the size of an advance. This is about caring and about connection. That your legacy is measured in the impact you have on people’s lives on a daily basis. That your work and your passion is a bright spot in their day. That your legacy is built in the thousands of interactions, in the tiniest of moments.


  • Julie Catherine

    Excellent post, Dan – and one I’m in total agreement with! Communicating with enthusiasm is key, IMHO! ~ Julie 🙂

  • Hi Dan. I thank you for your thoughts on audience and legacy and connection. You have (with your posts and your e-book too) inspired me to dig in and find out why I am really doing this thing, even when it’s hard and boring, ESPECIALLY when it’s hard and boring. What am I trying to say? Who am I going to reach with that message? I am one of those authors who has a book out that few have read. Sometimes this business seems more like buying a lottery ticket than applying hard work and talent, but that’s only if you’re asking the wrong questions…

    • Kecia,
      Thank you so much. You are right, it is all about the right questions and doing the hard work. Much appreciated!

  • Jeffrey Haste

    Hi Dan, I usually post a link to your page when i get the notice because I think you have good insights. almost al the time when you speak about creativity (writing) you have leave us with the food for positive thought. And in this case, too, you are right about impact, which can build the social capital that can make the difference, especially when one of us gets much needed feedback about something we are doing.
    As a publisher though, I think of the reinvention of or facelift of the restaurant being a major investment. Something I want to do but can’t, until I can raise he money. But the message as a parallel is still valuable to persevere and put our best foot forward. It can be tough when you’re the only one answering the phone (or not), dong the mailing, writing content, designing, sending out for reviews. So, the reminders you bring up are golden.

    • Jeffrey,
      GREAT point about the need for investment, and how hard that can be as a sole proprietor. As a business owner myself, I go through this. I have tried to build in seasonal reviews for my brand and my business, thought carefully about where to invest, and am ALWAYS listening to my audience and clients more and more so that I can change to better serve them.

      It’s actually a really nice process, but one that must become something of a system. For me, at least. Thanks!