Progress is the single most important motivating factor when it comes to work. That might seem obvious. But what’s not obvious is that we don’t always see our progress. In fact, we’re prone to lose track of it, if we don’t regularly document what’s happening in our lives.
Harvard professor Teresa Amabile has been researching what motivates creatives, and what keeps them going, for years. And it turns out the simple answer is: Keeping a diary.
Here’s what Amabile has to say about the power of diaries in an essay penned with Steven Kramer and Ela Ben-Ur for our new 99U book, Maximize Your Potential:
Creative people frequently work solo, without the benefit of colleagues who could help capture or develop their ideas. But even teams and organizations rarely offer creatives the necessary time, understanding, and patience to nurture their creative seedlings. A diary can help fill the void. It can serve as a sounding board and an alter-ego companion—one who will never forget what you say. What might otherwise have been isolated or passing thoughts become permanent and potentially powerful ideas.
This sounding board can serve a number of functions, the simplest of which is planning. Many entries in “The Daybooks” of Edward Weston reveal him focusing on future actions to capitalize on emerging opportunities:
“The excerpts from my daybook and photographs will be published in the August issue of Creative Art… It seems my fortunes are to change for something better. Now I must spend all my spare time in cutting and correcting my manuscript.” —Edward Weston, May 23, 1928
Of course, Weston could have used a simple calendar or to-do list to plan next steps. But notice his remark that his luck seems to be changing. What a calendar cannot do, and a journal can, is help you reflect on the big picture of your life and your creative work—where it is, what it means, and what direction you want it to take.
Diaries can be particularly helpful tools for accurately capturing positive events. In his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” the psychologist Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between experience and memory, noting that human memory of an experience can easily be altered. Kahneman describes a man who was enjoying a concert immensely until the very end, when there was an obnoxious sound in the concert hall. The man said that the noise ruined the entire concert for him. But it didn’t really, of course; he had enjoyed the concert up until that moment. What it did ruin was his memory of the concert.
By keeping a daily diary, you will reduce the chance that some later event will transform your memory of the day’s experiences. So when you feel you have accomplished something, write it down soon, before a client or critic has the opportunity to say something that diminishes that sense of progress.
You can find the complete essay, as well as contributions from Joshua Foer, Jonathan Fields, and Tony Schwartz and more, in Maximize Your Potential, the latest addition to our 99U book series.
A palliative nurse recorded the most common regrets of the dying and put her findings into a book called The Top Five Regrets of The Dying. Here’s what she found:
Each week, I examine the categories of my life — father, husband, CEO, self — and identify the specific actions that help me feel successful and fulfilled in these capacities. This weekly ritual helps me feel like I’m doing everything in my power to address my needs and the needs of those around me. This is important because I can’t lose sight of the business agenda, and we’ve all seen or read about what it looks like when you lose sight of your family’s needs.
A hidden cost in the pursuit of success is your life’s goals. By breaking life goals into weekly tasks, you’ll avoid waking up one day only to realize that you’ve let major priorities slip.
Ikea’s design manager Marcus Engman believes that transparency between development teams is a great source of inspiration. In an interview with Dezeen Magazine, he explains process behind Ikea’s designs:
We try to be much more transparent so everybody sees what everybody else is doing – because I do believe that that is a good idea, because then you get inspired from each other. So we have a huge space for product development. It’s like 4,000 square metres, where all of the products are, physically. So it starts out from the first initial meeting, then you put up the drawings – the ideas – on a physical space, and then it turns into prototypes. We have our own prototype shop there, with craftsmen for every kind of skill, and 3D printing and everything too.
The company produces 2,000 new products every year along with maintaining and improving their existing 10,000 product line. With a designated space for the development of every single product, each team can see what the next is working on. Inspiration from others can come in many forms: maybe it’s a new material they are exploring or a way they solved a packaging problem. Take a lesson from Ikea and open up your development process to your peers. Inspiration can be found in all stages of the process, not only the end result.
Traveling is at the top of every ‘How to’ list for finding new ideas and inspiration. However, travel for the sake of travel can quickly become a chore-like task when you’re simply checking off landmarks from a city guidebook. Bonnie Reese, a previous design researcher at Frog, recommends making your own “must-see” list based on personal passions instead of the more general ‘Must-See’ recommendations of travel guides. For Reese, that includes hitting up pools and public bathhouses wherever she travels:
Another less academic passion of mine, is bathing in foreign countries – whether for a swim or a wash. I always bring a swimsuit and read up about where to go for a swim or soak. I dove off the diving platform in the Olympic pool in Berlin with a line of impatient teenagers behind me chattering away in German, watched a Turkish mother battle over combing her toddler’s hair in a local bath in Istanbul, swam laps with older women in the middle of Paris, and sat naked for hours with local women in an outdoor spring in the mountains of Japan. My love of a good swim and a hot bath is the farthest thing from an intellectual pursuit but it always yields unique insights and a pleasurable experience. There’s no better way to contemplate cultures than sitting naked with the locals.
By mixing personal passions with travel, you deepen your experiences and open yourself up to new ones not found in any tour book. On Reese’s trip to Mexico City, she found herself visiting a barn-like structure hidden behind a school on her quest to see as many Diego Rivera’s murals as possible. She never would have discovered this secluded location if it wasn’t for her interest in art.
Visiting textbook locations will still provide an excellent source of inspiration due to the simple change of surroundings; however, more is to be discovered if you commit to a mini mission. For the coffee snob, it could be as simple as finding the best cafe near your work. For the cinephile, it could be exploring your local neighborhoods where movies have been filmed. If you really want to be inspired by your travels, you’re going to have to jump in the water. Nothing inspiring ever happened poolside.
For some of us, the idea of being a “lifer” can be nauseating. You’d much rather do your best work and move on. But the paradox of doing your best work, of being exceptionally good at your job, is that you can be stuck doing it for years longer than you actually should. To avoid developing career intertia, Jayson DeMers, Founder & CEO of AudienceBloom, encourages us to ask ourselves, “What did I learn from yesterday?”
No matter how simple or complex your day was, you must have learned something. Did you master a new skill or learn a new process? Did you find something out about your organization that leads you to better understand your position within it? Did you have an experience that will help you in future, similar situations? Find at least one thing that you learned from the previous day and consider it. On one level, this is going to help you reinforce the new ideas and skills that come to you on a daily basis. On another level, it’s going to help you look for new opportunities to learn. Since you know you’ll be asking yourself this question, you’ll be driven to force yourself to learn something new every day, and you’ll therefore be improving yourself every day.
Millennials value the growth and thrill of professional challenges. Typically in your first year, you learn the ropes. In your second, you hit your stride. And in your third, you make your mark. Beyond that, if you’re not learning, then you’re not growing. Don’t wait for a year-end assessment to determine your next career path. Assess your trajectory every day, or you’ll slip into a pattern of doing the same thing day-in-and-day-out with little or no forward/upward mobility.
If your workplace isn’t fostering innovation, challenging you and providing you opportunities to learn, then don’t feel bad about cutting the cord. Your future self will thank you for it.
“No” can be a time saver, a boundary builder, a reputation protector, and a frustration preventer. But how do you say no gracefully, respectfully, and firmly? Email templates are great, but what about if the ask is in person on the spur of the moment — how do you avoid the automatic guilty yes? Memorize this one-line, knee-jerk response:
“Let me check on something and get back to you.”
This answer breaks the time-worn habit of agreeing to projects or tasks before you have time to truly consider if it’s something you can and want to do. It allows you to acknowledge the request while buying time and the mental space to formulate an informed yes or no down the line. You can use it with colleagues, clients, people you meet at conferences, and even your manager. Take control of your time and your to-do list by saying no to saying yes.
Your IQ (or intelligence quotient) is the abstract capacity at which you are able to process information. While IQ is certainly important for life and work, it turns out that cognitive intelligence isn’t everything when it comes to success.
Just as important as your IQ is your CQ (curiosity, or creativity, quotient) and EQ (emotional quotient). Having exceptional ability in one quotient—like intelligence—is great, but having a good balance between all three areas (ICE) is what helps propel those we call “geniuses” to excel.
Over at the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explains why curiosity and emotional intelligence are just as important as cognitive intelligence:
…People with higher EQ tend to be more entrepreneurial, so they are more proactive at exploiting opportunities, taking risks, and turning creative ideas into actual innovations…
CQ leads to higher levels of intellectual investment and knowledge acquisition over time, especially in formal domains of education, such as science and art…. Knowledge and expertise, much like experience, translate complex situations into familiar ones, so CQ is the ultimate tool to produce simple solutions for complex problems.
In other words: IQ is about managing a lot of information in the short term, while CQ deals with overall knowledge and risk-taking, and EQ entails the ability to perceive and control emotions. Having a high IQ allows you to process rich, complex information better, but the ability to adapt to uncertainty and produce simple solutions for complex situations are all due to high levels of EQ and CQ .
Having the right blend of all three areas—intelligence, curiosity, and empathy—means being able to understand problems, generate novel solutions, and execute on ideas. If you’re lacking in any one area, you can increase your likelihood of having a successful career by making up for it in one of the other areas.
This is greats news for those of us who may have less-than-ideal IQs; since IQ is something research shows we can’t always improve throughout life, while empathy and curiosity can be developed.
To develop your CQ you can’t take things for granted. You must use the feeling of boredom as a flag to explore and learn, and most importantly, to never stop asking questions. To quote Albert Einstein, “The important thing is not to stop questioning… Never lose a holy curiosity.”
To develop your EQ is a little tougher, but still do-able: when people are talking to you, listen intently, try to imagine what those around you are thinking and feeling, and focus on outrospection whenever you find yourself stuck on a problem or situation.
Intelligence certainly matters, but without curiosity and empathy it’s just not as powerful. Focus on building all three areas in order to really thrive and succeed.