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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.