Our Work is Derivative

Our ego is deeply intertwined with our work. When we perform well our ego gets a boost, and when we don’t perform well our ego takes a hit.

The reason this happens is that we oftentimes isolate the source our work – good or bad – to our own talent and ability. Our work in many cases…is us. But is that the truth?

Our work, whether it be creative work like writing this post or tactical work like leading a sales team, is a derivative of countless people that have come before us. In both conscious and subconscious ways, we’ve taken the work that other people have done and iterated it enough to make it our own. This is how knowledge and skills are transferred from one person to another, and has been for all of time.

Those Terms & Conditions on your company’s website likely originated as a copy of someone else’s terms.

That compensation plan you have in front of you is a variation on some other company’s compensation plan that someone brought with them into your organization years ago.

That one on one you just had with your boss is a format passed down from leader to leader for the past decade.

The presentation style you have when in a company meeting is an amalgamation of people you’ve observed throughout your career.

None of this is bad. This is simply how work…works.

We observe other people. We learn from their work. We borrow the things we like. We discard the things we don’t. And we iterate like this throughout our career until we’re left with something that seems like our own work, but is truly a style built on the backs of the people before us. As author Austin Kleon puts it, we Steal Like An Artist.

So the key to a successful and happy career lies somewhere between the lines written above.

If we have serious ambitions in our career we should not be thinking in terms of my work and my talents. We should be thinking about ensuring that our work is a derivative of something worth copying.

Inputs lead to outputs. If the inputs are junk, the outputs will be as well. This removes ego from the equation entirely, and forces us to answer the ultimate question:

Do I have the right inputs in my career?

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