The Drive to Grow vs. The Drive to Serve

In our work as creators, two ideas struggle against each other seemingly every day: the drive to serve and the drive to grow.

The drive to serve: I want to make stuff that others genuinely love, plain and simple.

The drive to grow: I want my work to “work.” I want to see results and grow my project or company.

Serve: But seeing results isn’t the goal. It’s the byproduct of serving others well. The goal is to solve a problem or fulfill a desire with what I create. Doing that well means results will come.

Grow: But will they? Will they come fast enough, consistently enough? Yes, creating something that holds attention makes it easier to generate results, but I also need to proactively generate results. You can’t sit and hope. You have to manufacture the ends as much as the means.

Serve: Yes, but the way to manufacture the ends is to focus more on the means. When we make the process the point, instead of the end results, we get better end results. You can try to skate by on average work, but that isn’t serving the audience. It’s not proactive enough. Being truly proactive is to better understand your audience and your craft in order to better serve them. The better you serve them, the better the results will be.

Grow: Okay, but what about our goals? While we’re off learning the craft or talking to customers, we still have leads, traffic, and sales numbers to hit. We have bosses or clients or peers who expect things of us. Can we afford to let off the gas, even for a moment? We shouldn’t. We can’t. We won’t.

The Short-Term Impulse Often Wins Out

Too often, our drive to grow drowns out our drive to serve. Is that bad? Is someone at fault? I’m not sure. I think it’s just human nature. After all, nobody ever felt like they had too much of a good thing. But too little? We feel that all the time.

(I can tell you with absolute certainty that every podcaster in the world wishes he or she had more downloads. I may criticize downloads as a God Metric, but if we’re being honest, I wish all of Unthinkable Media’s shows had larger audiences. Likewise, I criticize reach in favor of resonance all the time, but I could really use 10,000 email subscribers instead of 2,000. (Oh, won’t you subscribe?)

But maybe, just maybe, I should refocus that mental energy on the drive to serve.

As creators, I think we walk a path that feels logical to us but others struggle to see, let alone traverse. We believe creating something others love will lead to all the results we want. To paraphrase Apple CEO Tim Cook, we’re not focused on the numbers; we’re focused on the things that produce the numbers. Doing so is to focus our energy on the fundamentals, not the incremental. Spend more time creating something worth optimizing, don’t over-optimize something that isn’t worth a damn to others.

The drive to serve and the drive to grow—these two ideas struggle against each other in our work. Now here’s where I’m left unsatisfied.

Why do these ideas conflict with each other in the business world? Shouldn’t it be obvious how they work in harmony? It’s so damn logical, isn’t it? If X creates Y, and Y creates Z, then focus on X. Don’t skip right to Z.

What causes this mental divide between the two ideas? Time.

Creating something worthy of attention takes time. Understanding the needs of others takes time. Developing your craft takes time. Convincing colleagues and bosses and clients to see the world your way takes time. Honing your intuition and trusting it over best practices takes time.

At least creating awesome content has a shortcut. (Just kidding.)

When you control resources or tie your self-worth to a metric like the number of downloads or readers, it can easily warp your thinking. You start wishing you could grow without having to serve. You want the easy button.

This is what causes so much strife between creators and other colleagues, though nobody would ever admit it out loud. Those who think only about growth start to subconsciously wish their creative peers were buttons to press, ticket systems to produce the work faster, cheaper, now. If a project takes a year, they’d prefer a month. If it takes a month, why not a week? The end of that mental pathway is, logically, no time at all. Results without the time. The desire to grow without the willingness to serve.

The hard truth the business world has to swallow is the same truth that you and I must hold like a shield against all the hucksters promising shortcuts and secrets: Great work takes time. Period. The End. Thanks for playing. Don’t forget your belongings on the way out. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

My friend, if you’ve made it this far into this article, then let your drive to serve take precedence over your drive to grow. The first is fundamental, while the second is incremental. If you do one well, the other gets so much easier. But make no mistake, you have to give yourself over to that drive to serve. You have to avoid shortcuts and secrets at all costs. Because there are no secrets. There’s only hard work, done with the intent to serve.

This article originally appeared on Jay Acunzo’s site Unthinkable Media.

Image by iStock

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