Doing the Work

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My friend Sarah, who has worked in theatre in New York for many years, told me that a well known director once told her and a room full of hopeful interns that the key to success was simply to be the person who keeps all the balls in the air. That it’s not about being the most brilliant, the most creative, or even the most strategic...it’s about making sure all the balls are in the air at all times.

Sure, this might oversimplify things. Like, what if your idea is bad, and no one likes what you’re doing? Keep those balls in the air all you want, but sheer juggling ability isn’t going to change that. But, since I started trying to have a business three years ago, a business that I believe enough people want to see come into being for it to be worth the effort, this piece of wisdom sounds pretty much right to me. But what it actually takes to keep all those balls aloft is different from what I used to think.

I thought for a long time that keeping all aspects of the business moving forward—by allocating my attention to the right things at the right time—simply required traits like organizational ability, long- and short-term planning skills, and seeing whether and when to delegate tasks. Of course those things are needed to get a business or any ambitious project off the ground, but if that were all that’s needed, a lot more of us would be successful in starting businesses.

The fact is, many, many people give up on their business dreams when they’ve barely just begun. In fact, I gave up on my business for pretty much all of 2016, only a few months after I’d put up a website, hauled my wares to a holiday market, and taken my first tentative steps into the frightening land of Instagram. Then I froze. For many months, I dreaded people asking me how my business was going, because the fact was it was not going anywhere at all. And this wasn’t because I had failed to stay organized, or that I forgot how to use a computer or a sewing machine. It was because I had completely psyched myself out, and convinced myself that there was some magical key that I was missing that would make everything fall into place, that would make everything less hard. And, since I couldn’t find the key, I should give up. That story was easier to tell myself than the truth, which was that I feared I was not capable of succeeding, because I wasn’t capable of doing the hard work. So, I dropped every last ball.

And when I picked things up again, in late 2016, it wasn’t the result of a major revelation or breakthrough, where everything “clicked” and it became easy. I just...started working again. I accepted that it just wasn’t easy, that I wasn’t missing some key that would make it effortless. I had better support (e.g., my future husband) and generally a better outlook. I had a job that paid the bills but allowed me time for other things. The conditions were better for me to be able to face the scariest part of the business: actually doing it. And not “taking the plunge” to great fanfare and back-patting—but doing the daily tasks, every day, when no one was watching to make sure I’d done them.

As I see my business slowly grow, I’ve realized that I get results when I just do a thing. And another thing. And another thing after that. Send the newsletter. Get the pictures on the website. Place the leather order. Show up every day and make the damn bags. It’s tempting to get fixated on having the most polished social media presence, but none of that matters if the person behind it isn’t doing the actual work, day after day. That’s the hard part.

Having dreams and long-term goals is important to guide the work we do, to make sure we have our priorities straight. But big-picture thinking should serve the actual work, not distract us from it. It’s a lot easier to talk about doing the work than it is to do the work. But the good thing is that we don’t have to do all the work, immediately. We just need to do what’s right in front of us, right now.

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