Take the Work Seriously. Yourself? Not So Much.

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This past week, I wrapped up the first draft of a large writing project. Growth Equation intern, creative director, and all-around utility talent Nate came into town to help. We had eight days to closely edit about sixty-thousand words. Somehow, we did.

(You’ll hear more about the project 18 months or so from now—lead time in publishing is long and gratification must be delayed.)

During our time together, Nate mentioned that he’d recently met a collegiate athletics coach in California who is a super-fan of The Growth Equation. This coach wanted to know more about how we work.

When I think back to last week with Nate, and what allowed us to put in a massive amount of deep-focus effort in a condensed period of time, I keep returning to the contrast between how we approached the work and how we approached ourselves. We took the former very seriously, and the latter not very seriously at all.

When it came time to read and edit, to move paragraphs around and consider the reader’s experience, to strive to create something that might stand the test of time, we were, as Nate likes to say, “locked in.”

Outside of interacting with the text, however, we were anything but locked in. We spent nearly all our non-work time not only having fun, but also making fun of ourselves. As serious as we were about the placement of commas, semi-colons, and em-dashes, we were lighthearted toward each other. It’s clear that the latter enabled the former.

When you are on, you want to be on, and you want to take the work seriously. Regardless of what it is you are doing, if you don’t take it seriously, that’s often a way of protecting yourself from the hurt that comes with potential failure. It’s a cop-out, a way to not give your all. The result is an inferior process and outcome.

But when you are off, you want to be off, and you don’t want to take yourself too seriously. If you can never let go and release, eventually the internal pressure builds to an unhealthy level. You stop having fun. And it’s hard to stay consistent if you aren’t having fun.

Somebody who embodied this principle is the NBA center Bill Walton, who passed away just a few days ago at age 71. On the court, Walton was locked in. He was a two-time NCAA champion, a two-time NBA champion, and a Hall of Fame inductee. Jack Ramsay, who coached him at the Portland Trailblazers, ​said​ “I’ve never coached a better player and I’ve never coached a better competitor.”

But off the court, Walton, who often donned a tie-dye t-shirt, was a 6’11” mountain of fun and light heartedness. The ESPN writer Ryan McGee recently ​recalled:​

“In 2018, I was headed to San Diego to work on a big Walton piece, but news broke about the FBI investigating college hoops programs. I had to pivot to a Syracuse-Duke game to get news reactions from Coach Boeheim and Coach K. I called Bill to apologize.

His response?

Ryan McGee, I would love to tell you that this is the first time that actions of the Federal Bureau of Investigation have altered the best laid plans of one Bill Walton, but that would not be the truth.

A self-important superstar might have been angry that a magazine profile was being delayed, perhaps even killed. But not Walton. He took it as an opportunity to poke fun at himself.

Walton’s words are those of someone who was legendary in large part because he took the work seriously but himself not so much. He’s a role model for all of us. Be like Bill.

​Brad

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