Why Rewards Can Be Toxic to Our Careers and Why Curiosity and Showing Up is Essential

Jane Smiley

Throughout our lives and careers, there are telltale signs that tell us if we’re headed in the right direction or not. An increase in revenue or Amazon reviews or a sudden barrage of likes, pings, traffic, and emails—we’re entitled to believe that we’re doing something right and productive. External validations make sense to the human condition because we’re wired to be social. We desperately seek connection and to be understood, thus making reviews or the smell of a new car all the more desirable and convincing that we’re okay.

In my short writing career thus far, external validation comes in all shapes and sizes, some meaningful and some ultimately meaningless: the number of shares on a post (meaningless); the email I recently received from a reader in Dubai trying to buy my book on Amazon but couldn’t (meaningful); rankings and ratings and reviews; the number of subscribers; Google analytics; someone famous shouting you out.

Some of these are psychic anchors for the artist and entrepreneur, like our morning cup of coffee but for our self-esteem; some are meaningful data where it can make us better, whereas others are the equivalent of flattery. Differentiating the two requires experience and wisdom on what truly matters and what doesn’t. It’s not that we shouldn’t accept or acknowledge external validations, but we mustn’t be so busy in the pursuit of them that we lose sight of our art and why we’re doing it in the first place.

Jane Smiley, an American author and also the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992 for her best-selling novel, A Thousand Acres, beautifully admonishes in Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do on how rewards can be potentially toxic to our careers and why curiosity is the panacea [emphasis mine]:

“I’ve had some rewards. Rewards are fantasies. You can’t wish for an award. You cannot say, ‘My career will finally be worth it if I win the Nobel Prize.’ That’s false consciousness. If your career wasn’t worth it while you were writing those books, then what a sad life you’ve led. For me, it goes back to curiosity. I suppose my career will be over when I look around and say, ‘This is all boring; there’s nothing more that interests me.’ You want your interests to outrun your actual days on earth.”

How do we sustain that kind of curiosity?

By not tying our self-worth to praise and metrics and by honoring our purpose for doing what we do—to truly harness the feeling of being alive when we do the work. At the start of my writing career, my focus was, mistakenly, to make money. My old blog had Google Adwords littering every crevice of white space. It wasn’t until after many failures and re-dos and realizations that I returned to my true purpose: writing to learn, to communicate, generate, and understand the ideas occupying my mind, and in the words of Terry McMillan, to shed dead skin.

However, in a culture where we’re woefully underdeveloped in exercising practical wisdom in our lives and careers, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid false consciousness. When we see people receiving rewards, it’s alluring. When we finally receive one, it becomes addicting. Like a cigarette after a meal, this quiet and destructive habit can form, making us chase reward after reward and slowly disconnecting us from why we sat down in the first place.

Milton Glaser

In How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, Debbie Millman—remarkable interviewer, brilliant author, renown designer—interviews designers of all kinds from a variety of industries, inquiring on what makes a great graphic designer and how these individuals crafted their careers. One of the interviewees is no other than Milton Glaser (think: I ♥ New York, Bob Dylan poster, and many more). Millman was curious as to how Glaser’s career had such longevity and vitality. Glaser responds with true wisdom [emphasis mine]:

“I don’t know. Just staying at the desk turning out the work and trying to do it as well as I can. I am also a very persistent man: a stubborn, persistent man. And the reward is still the same reward: doing things that have quality, that are still powerful, and that reach people. And, of course, the sheer joy of doing it. I love coming in to my office and working.”

And yet, as a culture, we have a hard time internalizing this kind of advice—show up and work (and enjoy it). Both Milton and Smiley had their fair share of rewards in their careers, but their admonishments in our interests outrunning our days on earth and the work being the reward happens to be the root of their success. Once you study interesting careers and see this pattern, it becomes hard to deny that what makes our lives meaningful aren’t the rewards or applause, but the more subtle, behind-the-scenes principles: showing up, loving what you do, and remaining curious.

Seneca on Busyness, Obtaining Wisdom From the Past, and The Shortness Of Life

How do we learn to live well? Who can we turn to for that kind of wisdom—knowledge that matters, that is governed by a moral compass, and considers the human condition?

The Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca wrote a timeless letter to his friend, Paulinas, on the shortness of life. Within this letter, he admonishes to look at the past for wisdom; our access to a multitude of thinkers allows us to cross-pollinate ideas and worldviews to develop our own understanding. This strategy of looking into the past was relevant 2,000 years ago as it is today:

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own. Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders of holy creeds were born for us and prepared for us a way of life. By the toil of others we are led into the presence of things which have been brought from darkness into light. We are excluded from no age, but we have access to them all; and if we are prepared in loftiness of mind to pass beyond the narrow confines of human weakness, there is a long period of time through which we can roam. We can argue with Socrates, express doubt with Carneades, cultivate retirement with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, and exceed its limits with the Cynics. Since nature allows us to enter into a partnership with every age, why not turn from this brief and transient spell of time and give ourselves wholeheartedly to the past, which is limitless and eternal and can be shared with better men than we?”

“A partnership with every age” is a beautiful sentiment, one truer than ever before because of the internet. But as we get more and more access, it is easy to think less and less about what we’re consuming. As Maria Popova said in her fantastic meditation on knowledge versus wisdom:

“We live in a world awash with information, but we seem to face a growing scarcity of wisdom. And what’s worse, we confuse the two. We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true — more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.

This barrage of readily available information has also created an environment where one of the worst social sins is to appear uninformed. Ours is a culture where it’s enormously embarrassing not to have an opinion on something, and in order to seem informed, we form our so-called opinions hastily, based on fragmentary bits of information and superficial impressions rather than true understanding.”

Alongside a culture that is fearful of appearing uninformed is another issue rooted in our fetish for productivity and all its hacks: busyness and the belief that life is too short.

Seneca counters this beautifully in the inception of his letter to Paulinas:

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest of achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Just as when ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.”

Nowadays, the student boasting about studying for 8 hours straight is a sign of a dedicated, hardworking mind. The employee flashing around their badge that showcases a lack of sleep and the amount of coffee consumed is somehow an aspiration to follow? Let’s not sugar coat it: busyness is a farce and a profound lack of respect for how our bodies function day to day. It’s like believing that drinking a gallon of milk a day will somehow turn your bones into adamantium.

Seneca admonished to Paulinas to see things as they are and not as they appear to be:

“So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbour, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.”

The reason why life seems short, according to Seneca, is that we’re consumed in our vices, passions, and delusional busyness. What’s worse, we’re unaware of it [emphasis mine]:

“Why do we complain about nature? She has acted kindly: life is long if you know how to use it. But one man is gripped by insatiable greed, another by a laborious dedication to useless tasks. One man is soaked in wine, another sluggish with idleness. One man is worn out by political ambition, which is always at the mercy of the judgement of others. Another through hope of profit is driven headlong over all lands and seas by the greed of trading. Some are tormented by a passion for army life, always intent on inflicting dangers on others or anxious about danger to themselves. Some are worn out by the self-imposed servitude of thankless attendance on the great. Many are occupied by either pursuing their other people’s money or complaining about their own. Many pursue no fixed goal, but are tossed about in ever-changing designs by a fickleness which is shifting, inconstant and never satisfied with itself. Some have no aims at all for their life’s course, but death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly—so much so that I cannot doubt the truth of that oracular remark of the greatest poets: ‘It is a small part of life we really live.’ Indeed, all the rest of life is not life but merely time. Vices surround and assail men from every side, and do not allow them to rise again and lit their eyes to discern truth, but keep them overwhelmed and rooted in their desires. Never can they recover from their true selves.”

Later in his treatise, he uses Stoic principles to focus on nature and death and uses that to put life into perspective:

“That is the feeling of many people: their desire for their work outlasts their ability to do it. They fight against their own bodily weakness, and they regard old age as a hardship on no other grounds than that it puts them on the shelf. The law does not make a man a soldier after fifty or a senator after sixty: men find it more difficult to gain leisure from themselves than from the law. Meanwhile, as they rob and are robbed, as they disturb each other’s peace, as they make each other miserable, their lives pass without satisfaction, without pleasure, without mental improvement. No one keeps death in view, no one refrains from hopes that look far ahead; indeed, some people even arrange things that are beyond life—massive tombs, dedications of public buildings, shows for their funerals, and ostentatious burials. But in truth, such people’s funerals should be conducted with torches and wax tapers, as though they had lived the shortest of lives.”

To celebrate his work with a standing ovation, Seneca beautifully captures the one element that dyes our perception, for good or ill:

“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life is 100 pages, a short and beautiful read on topics that should be more readily ruminated—on our attention, our bravado for boasting about busyness, and everything in between such as friendship, philosophy, death, overcoming grief, and more. These philosophical ideas have influenced thinkers from many generations, reverberating throughout time and revealing its practical application in modern times. Perhaps learning how to live requires us to deeply think about what we give our attention to, how we spend our time and for whom, and how much of that is used mindfully or wastefully.

Sir Ken Robinson on the Invention of the IQ Test and How it Permeated Throughout Our Culture

We know what an IQ score test is and what it measures, but we don’t know why it matters. Who really goes around boasting their IQ score?

When we think of a high IQ, we think of Albert Einstein, the genius, and how his unique brain fostered creative scientific laws of the universe. Even easier to condemn yourself and believe that such a level of intelligence is impossible. We focus more on the IQ and less on his environment, upbringing, predilection for science, and dedication to his craft.

Sir Ken Robinson, in Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, explains the invention of the IQ:

“Like the motor car, television, the micro-processor and the Coca-Cola bottle, IQ is one of the most compelling inventions of the modern world. It is an idea in four parts. The first is that each of us is born with a fixed intellectual capacity or quotient: that just as we may have brown eyes or red hair, we have a set amount of intelligence. Second, how much intelligence we have can be calculated by a series of pencil-and-paper tests of the sort illustrated above. The results can be compared against a general scale and given as a number from 0 to 200. That number is your IQ. On this scale, average intelligence is between 80 and 100; above average is between 100 and 120 and anything above 130 gets you into Mensa’s Christmas party. The third idea is that IQ tests can be used to predict children’s performances at school and in later life. For this reason, IQ tests are widely used for school selection and educational planning. Finally, IQ is taken to be an index of general intelligence: that is, these tests are assumed to point to a person’s overall intellectual capacities. Many people now seem to think that it is enough to roll out their IQ score for everyone to grasp how bright they are, or not. As a result of all this, the popular idea of intelligence has become dangerously narrow and other intellectual abilities are either ignored or underestimated. For all these reasons, since the idea of IQ emerged about 100 years ago, it has had explosive consequences for social policy and especially for education.”

Just a 100 years ago…

It’s important to note that Robinson isn’t saying that we have a fixed intellectual capacity—that’s a fixed mindset—but rather the IQ test makes us believe that we do. Any kind of test measuring performance becomes a game, a way to prove to yourself and others that you are indeed born-smart—that’s where the shame lies and where the point is missed. Although the test does measure our overall intelligence (and the measures are relative to the time we’re taking it), it doesn’t mean that we can’t improve our intelligence.

Sadly, many people will live as if they can’t get smarter. The belief that you are the way you are is far more comforting than the belief that you can transform yourself through hard work. This fixed mindset, a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck, is entirely unhelpful in all areas of our lives.

Being aware of an invention, especially one that has taken such root in our culture and is only 100 years old, helps us determine its purpose and meaning. There’s a 99.9% chance that no one will ever ask for your IQ score. But it’s disheartening to realize that it will be asked in the kind of institutions that should be readily ignoring these faux and entirely unhelpful measures of something that isn’t concrete, but rather changes and improves with effort.

Marcus Aurelius On Asking The Impossible

Look at the bad events that happen to us again and again—and to others—and look at how our response usually remains the same. We respond with anger and faulty perceptions.

Someone cuts us off while driving, a customer being an asshole, the bus being late—these things are so common, and yet we remain surprised when it happens to us. There comes a point in life when you’re forced to ask yourself, “Is this how I want to live? Step outside my door and let everything bother me, making me this angry whiner?”

One of the most difficult pieces of wisdom that proves to be exceedingly more difficult as I pay attention to it is said by Marcus Aurelius. He said in Meditations [emphasis mine]:

“When you start to lose your temper, remember: There’s nothing manly about rage. It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being—and a man. That’s who possesses strength and nerves and guts, not the angry whiners. To react like that brings you closer to impassivity—and so to strength. Pain is the opposite of strength, and so is anger. Both are things we suffer from, and yield to.

… and one more thought, from Apollo: That to expect bad people not to injure others is crazy. It’s to ask the impossible. And to let them behave like that to other people but expect them to exempt you is arrogant—the act of a tyrant.”

This wisdom has weight and relevance to our daily lives. Why do we complain when someone cuts us off? Why do we get surprised when an unforeseen event, like the basement flooding or getting a flat tire, happens to us? We are quick to blame karma or the universe, seeking to find some logic in what’s happening, and more specifically, why it’s happening to us right now.

But whether it happens to you at your best or worst, honestly, why does it matter? We have no control over these externalities—but how easy it is to live with this belief that we do. What Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics believed was that what we have control over is how we respond to these events in our lives—in essence, we are in control of the story that we tell ourselves about what’s happening. We can choose to see this breakup or our house burning down as a catastrophe or we can choose to be more mindful of the language we use and focus instead on what’s ahead and not what’s left behind.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus once said:

“Don’t try to make your own rules. Conduct yourself in all matters, grand and public or small and domestic, in accordance with the laws of nature. Harmonizing your will with nature should be your utmost ideal. Where do you practice this ideal? In the particulars of your own daily life with its uniquely personal tasks and duties. When you carry out your tasks, such as taking a bath, do so—to the best of your ability—in harmony with nature. When you eat, do so—to the best of your ability—in harmony with nature, and so on. It is not so much what you are doing as how you are doing it. When we properly understand and live by this principle, while difficulties arise—for they are part of the divine order too—inner peace will still be possible.”

Stop asking the impossible.

This has become a silent mantra that’s repeated in my head to help me manage daily stresses. One day when I was food shopping, two people were complaining about some celebrity divorce. I kept thinking how sheepish people are, how pointless it was to discuss such bullshit matters and pondered why something so meaningless took up so much space in someone’s life.

But how ridiculous it was for me to think that. Who did that help? What did that behavior essentially do for me? Make me better or bitter? To simply accept and live with the fact that people enjoy celebrity gossip, I have to stop asking the impossible. Will the world one day have non-worshippers for celebrities? No—then stop asking the impossible, stop being bothered by it, stop donning meaning to everything that falls under your attention. Will the world one day have no traffic and no bad drivers? No—then stop asking the impossible. Will the airport process get any better? Probably not, so stop asking the impossible.

Indeed, perception is what you tell yourself. Our default reaction to ask the impossible is simply rooted in human nature; it’s the workings of our mind. But learning to pause, to manage our perception, is a skill that can be honed and developed with practice. It’s a skill that helps us become more compassionate, understanding, and mindful.

Let’s first get into why we ask the impossible.

The Most Fundamental Law of Human Nature: Our Desire to Tell Stories

Narrative is one of the most interesting and beautiful concepts of human nature. From the paintings on walls to the tempest of thoughts in our head to digital books, humans are hardwired to tell stories and to seek meaning. When our ancestors felt the ground tremble and the sky flash with blinding light, they didn’t see it objectively, but rather as angry gods or spirits or forces that were unpleased with mortals. Whether they were right or wrong isn’t the point—what’s more interesting to observe was the desire to fabricate a tale.

The purpose of stories is to produce an understanding—to turn chaos into calm. It’s to provide stability of both behavior and the mind. Our brains are processing such an unfathomable amount of information that we naturally reduce things to simpler terms and concepts. Stories are indeed the infrastructure to our conscious experience.

When someone cuts us off, it’s hard to just simply accept it as a vehicle operated by another human merging into your line of sight. Instead, we take it personally, spinning a story on why this person was out to get us, why life is hard, and why they’re the asshole.

And yet… when everything settles, what remains? The person is gone, headed to their destination, while we’re here stressing and our blood boiling. How does that affect our day, our next conversation, our next interaction with a stranger? Must we live like this?

When I finally grasped a glimmer of understanding of this wisdom, I felt relieved. “So I don’t have to react negatively to these everyday occurrences, meaning I actually have some say in it?”

We do. But it takes disciplined daily practice to overcome our deeply rooted, evolutionary behaviors.

How to Stop Asking the Impossible

To suddenly stop complaining about ordinary, essentially meaningless events requires a drastic behavioral change. What does that life look like? Imagine it: you stop stressing out when you’re driving; you accept that every now and then you’ll have a bad experience at a restaurant; you don’t become surprised anymore that driving between the hours of 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. are the worst; you stop criticizing people who worship celebrities or go shopping on Black Friday for the sake of boosting your own ego and ignoring your own insecurities.

If you’re wondering why I retreat to Aurelius’s wisdom, it’s because of his story and the way his teachings are so easily digestible. Here is a man who rose to power in the most powerful empire in the world. During his reign, he had to face the loss of his wife, war on all ends, and treachery. Did he lose his calm, throw a tantrum, act belligerently? No, Marcus Aurelius wrote in his journal all the teachings throughout his life that focused on persevering through adversity and hardship with courage, humility, duty, self-awareness, justice, and honesty.

The logic, of course, follows: if a man this powerful can overcome threats to his empire, both foreign and personal, while dealing with the loss of his love, then we, too, have the resilience to turn trials into triumph. It’s not based on circumstance—us normal people versus a Roman Emperor—but rather based on human nature: all man’s ability to persevere and to use their perception as both an offense and defense.

The Stoics loved the idea of following nature’s laws to help them understand their own personal lives. Here is a quote from Aurelius that’s a common theme throughout his Meditations focused on stripping everything down to its bare essentials and looking at it for what it is:

“To the stand-bys above, add this one: always to define whatever it is we perceive—to trace its outline—so we can see what it really is: its substance. Stripped bare. As a whole. Unmodified. And to call it by its name—the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return. Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as this capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us. To look at it in such a way that we understand what need it fulfills, and in what kind of world. And its value to that world as a whole and to man in particular—as a citizen of that higher city, of which all other cities are mere households.

What is it—this thing that now forces itself onto my notice? What is it made up of? How long was it designed to last? And what qualities do I need to bring to bear on it—tranquility, courage, honesty, trustworthiness, straightforwardness, independence or what?

So in each case you need to say: ‘This is due to God.’ Or: ‘This is due to the interweavings and intertwinings of fate, to coincidence or chance.’ Or: ‘This is due to a human being. Someone of the same race, the same birth, the same society, but who doesn’t know what nature requires of him. But I do. And so I’ll treat them as the law that binds us—the law of nature—requires. With kindness and with justice. And in inconsequential things? I’ll do my best to treat them as they deserve.”

Believe me, I understand how difficult this mindset can be. It’s difficult to suddenly look at a leather bag as a leather bag with drawings on it versus a Birkin or Louie Vuitton. But that’s the “spiritual” practice: to strip everything down to its essentials, to see it for what it is, not what culture says it is. See what I mean? We take objects and attach meaning to them. That meaning is rooted in a story. But this topic on branding is a whole other story.

So how do we stop asking the impossible? Thus far, we’ve touched up on perception, our nature to tells stories and seek meaning, and the perspective of the Stoics. To not ask the impossible is to simply learn to be more understanding, compassionate, and content. It is to relinquish control to that which we have no control. It helps free the mind from unnecessary burdens and provocations and helps us be vigilant to that which helps us live well, grow, learn, and contribute.

The fault, obviously, is not in our stars but in our perception. Being mindful of our perception is a skill that requires discipline and attention.

I don’t have all the answers and I use what’s been synthesized to help me develop my own mind and understanding, so I’ll end with Aurelius:

“No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts. No retreating into your own soul, or trying to escape it. No overactivity.

They kill you, cut you with knives, shower you with curses. And that somehow cuts your mind off from clearness, and sanity, and self-control, and justice?

A man standing by a spring of clear, sweet water and cursing it. While the fresh water keeps on bubbling up. He can shovel mud into it, or dung, and the stream will carry it away, wash itself clean, remain unstained.

To have that. Not a cistern but a perpetual spring.

How? By working to win your freedom. Hour by hour. Through patience, honesty, and humility.”


(Meditations was one of those books that profoundly changed my life. I reread it from time to time. I have to thank Ryan Holiday for introducing me to this work and to philosophy. Be sure to check out his book, The Obstacle Is The Way.)