Build a Body of Work Worthy of a Lifetime

J.R.R. Tolkien is best known for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He spent countless hours building the legend of Middle Earth and the history of that world… what he would go on to call his own legendarium. He spent his life cultivating the ability to tell stories in an engaging way.

Tolkien might be one of the most influential fiction and fantasy writers in the history of the world. And yet, he did not gain that influence over night. Instead, he built a body of work over the course of a lifetime that was so much more than just a couple of novels ready-made for the big screens of the early 21st century.

What we don’t see in the movie adaptations, or even in the original works of fiction, is the larger arc of Tolkien’s life work. We don’t see his professorial lectures, scholarly essays, or his poetry. Instead, we see orcs and hobbits and elves and the fantastical settings of the imaginary land of middle earth.

We don’t see all of the prep work necessary for Tolkien to be capable of producing works that would go on to influence generations of fantasy readers. The same work that would open the fantasy fiction genre up for many more authors. We don’t see the 150+ published pieces in Tolkien’s body of work that would not achieve that kind of acclaim (nor were they necessarily intended to).

Therein lies the challenge so many of us face in thinking about our own body of work. You have to ask yourself difficult questions…

  • Am I the kind of person capable of producing project after project, piece after piece of quality work?
  • Most scary of all, if I never achieve fame and fortune and critical acclaim, would I still do this work?
  • Will this work be its own reward?
  • Am I willing to take that risk?
  • Do I have it in me?

Even Tolkien, a man with a remarkable body of work and influence that reaches across the world, did not realize much of that influence in his own lifetime. Even he could not know the impact he would have on the world around him. But he did the work anyways.

We have to work from the assumption that our work will never guarantee us money, fame, or prestige. But that should not stop you from pursuing the work that can be its own reward. It should never stop you from stepping out onto that terrifying ledge at the end of your comfort zone. It shouldn’t stop you from building your own body of work. Your job is to make a ruckus, regardless of the outcome.

Building a body of work is the best (only?) way to do that.

A Body of Work is a Choice We Make

Everything about today’s culture encourages us to think exclusively about today. Right now is all that matters in a culture of pocket computers and never-ending access to information.

Facebook news automatically curates the top gossip and pseudo-news to know about right now. Twitter reminds you of all of the people you aren’t following so that your timeline will fly by ever faster. Mobile notifications inject a little hit of endorphin to pull you back in right now.

Take a break for an hour and you might miss something.

Never mind that book you’ve been meaning to write. Never mind that fundraising campaign that would allow 100 more children to be served by the nonprofit you run. Never mind that social enterprise you’ve been meaning to start to provide more sustainable clothing to consumers and more sustainable jobs to the people you’ll hire.

Never mind that the day you die, there will still be Tweets flying by and news alerts popping up and another email to reply to (or whatever the medium of the day is). In fact, if Moore’s law is accurate, access to the latest _thing_ will only grow more immediate. The tyranny of the urgent will continue to rule the world unless we opt out.

Your body of work, by contrast, is inherently long term. It can’t be completed today. It can’t be realized this week. In fact, it will never be complete. It is the most delayed gratification of all. It comes from the work and impact you value rather than the tyrannical urgency of everyone else’s priorities.

Rather than being sucked into the urgent, you should be working today for the body of work you want to have in five years.

You might be tempted to think that a body of work only applies to writers, painters, designers, sculptors and other creatives. But to think that would be to shy away from the truth. This line of thinking allows us to hide. “Body of work, that’s not for me. I’m not a creative,” we say as we run away from the possibility of our collective works embodying the change we want to make.

And so to build our own body of work, it requires a shift in thinking. A shift away from, “a body of work is for those creative people” and towards, “everyone can build a body of work, why not me?” That shift comes from an embrace of the idea that your work matters and that you are a creative, no matter your chosen field.

Maybe that shift is exactly what it will take to turn our organizations into more effective, more sustainable, more impactful entities that truly serve all of their stakeholders. It takes the onus off of the inanimate whole — the uncontrollable, unaccountable “company” or “nonprofit” or “congress” — and places it back on the individual. You.

After all, the individual is the only one who can truly act based on a set of values. Organizations are simply made up of the collective attitudes, values, and actions of their constituent members. You are the change maker, not the organization.

And so body of work is not limited to the traditionally “creative” fields. The term creative actually applies to anyone who chooses to lead and to anyone who chooses to make a ruckus. It applies to you.

Sure, a designer might build a body of work by designing websites for his five favorite brands. An artist might build a body of work by producing one painting a month for five years or one masterpiece over the same period.

And you — working in that Fortune 500 company — you can build a body of work by changing your thinking around your responsibilities. Sure, you could just deliver on your job description. You might avoid getting fired that way, at least for now. But will the work matter if your only goal is to do the minimum?

What if you started thinking about ways you could turn your responsibilities into concrete projects with measurable impact? What if that annual report you’ve been assigned becomes a portfolio piece. What if it’s the beginning of a larger arc that tells a story about your professional life and the things you prioritize as a human.

And you — the teacher in the school system with a slow-moving, bureaucratic administration… Will you be so burdened by the bureaucracy that you refuse to deliver the quality of education your children are yearning for? Will you refuse to ignite their sense of curiosity? Will you shy away from a sit down in the principal’s office because you broke the rules in the name of education?

Or will you look at each lesson plan as an addition to your body of work? Will you look at a semester as a blank canvas on which you will paint the possibilities that open up to a teacher who cares too much to give up?

And you — the small cog in a very big nonprofit machine… Will you let the system jade you? Will you allow yourself to believe that big nonprofits are what they are and will always be that way? Will you fall into the trap of believing that your work has no impact on the direction of such a large enterprise?

Or will you lean into the small projects you can tackle, starting right now, today? Will you look at that social media campaign as a powerful piece of work that will lead to even more impact later? Will you believe that the white paper you’re writing can be the spark for a young activist to change the game?

Your body of work is the collection of projects you choose to build over time. Whether you’re a painter or a middle manager… a designer or an accountant… a consultant or a singer… every piece of work you create is part of the larger arc of the story of your life’s work.

You can choose to embrace that reality or choose to ignore it. But to choose to ignore it is to choose to do less than you are capable of. It’s to choose a passive, victimized attitude towards your work.

You could check your Twitter feed one more time. Or, you could build the body of work you know you have wrapped up inside your soul.

The only way you’ll realize a true sense of creative fulfillment is to embrace the hard work today. To lean into the project that scares you. To sign your name to the piece of work that might earn you the harshest piece of criticism you’ve ever received. Or it might be your Hobbit.

Isn’t that worth the risk?

The Personal Benefits of a Body of Work

Your orientation towards your work will change when you make the choice to build a body of work. When you accept that the work you produce today is a valuable part of a larger whole, you begin to think differently. You make decisions based on long-term value rather than short-term endorphins. That leads to the kind of work that can create change.

But change is an ephemeral concept. The value of change focuses on other people. It assumes that you’re a purely altruistic human, which is a lovely thought. But if we’re honest, we both know that there has to be some personal incentive to do a thing, whatever that thing might be.

Luckily, a body of work delivers every bit as much value to you as it might to others.

Here’s how:

Feel a sense of purpose

Purpose is powerful, period. Recent research shows us that the pursuit of purpose leads to happier employees within companies, which leads to higher profits. Purpose and profit are connected. But more importantly, purpose is personally motivating.

People who have a sense of purpose in their life — a reason to get up everyday — tend to live longer than those who lack a sense of purpose [study]. Looking at your work as a cohesive body that tells a story over the course of your life gives you a greater sense of autonomy and purpose.

Those factors — autonomy and purpose — are key to feeling a sense of engagement at work, living longer, and building networks of people similarly engaged in their work.

Simply put: building a body of work give you purpose in life.

Capitalize on opportunities

I was lucky. Out of thousands of applications, I was selected to participate in an internship on a team led by one of my greatest role models.

At the end of the internship, we each had a chance to sit down with the team lead for a 1:1 chat about our careers. I opened our chat with a question: “Why me?”

The answer was simple: “I saw the Living for Monday project and thought it was generous. It showed that you have the potential to perform on a team like this. It was an easy choice.”

In that moment I learned a powerful lesson: the only reason I was able to take advantage of this powerful opportunity was because I treated my work like it mattered. I had faith that treating my projects like a body of work would lead to something bigger.

Can you guarantee the same result? Of course not. But you can guarantee that you put the kind of effort and energy into your work that prepares you to seize opportunities when they come along.

Without treating my work like a cohesive whole, I would not have gotten to work with an important mentor. Will you be ready to do the same when and if the time comes?

Align your values and your work

What do you value?

Do you value sustainability? Equality? Diversity? Justice? Perseverance? Community? Adventure? Service? Faith?

There are thousands of values you might hold dear, but that is not the point. What is? Well, does the work you’re doing today align with the values you hold? Does the impact your organization make resonate with you?

Building a body of work is powerful in that it skins your values and the work over time.

Some people might say that you should immediately quit whatever you are doing if it doesn’t align with your values. But a body of work allows you to take the long view. Perhaps your work today does not align but it helps you build the skills you’ll need to build a values-based body of work later.

When you see the project you’re working on today as one piece of a greater whole, it allows you to see how your work will reflect your values not just today, but also in the future.

Course correct

The most important personal benefit of a body of work might be this: if you look back across a number of projects, you’ll see a trend.

If that trend shows you that your work is out of alignment with your vision for your life or the values you hold dear, you can course correct.

Without approaching your work project by project… Without looking at it as one cohesive whole… Without regularly looking back at the work you’ve done… You’re flying blind.

Your body of work is your compass for pursuing your vision. Use it as a tool to guide your plans for future projects

Your body of work will be the key to deriving a sense of purpose from your work. It will prepare you to capitalize on unknown opportunities in the future. A body of work will align your values and your work. And, when necessary, your body of work will give you the inputs you need to make changes.

Or, to put it more simply, building a body of work is a selfish pursuit. Your body of work reflects the energy you spend and the values you hold. It is an embodiment of your existence in the world. And we all want to feel that sense of importance.

But perhaps more important than any benefit to you is the benefit to the people around you. After all, your body of work will impact others just as much, if not more, than it impacts you. That’s where we turn next.

Building a body of work, starting today

Jacqueline Novogratz had an idea. It was kind of like a charity. But it was also kind of like an investment fund. She had seen various philanthropic models fall short of their mission for a variety of reasons, and she thought that she might have a better idea.

The model was fairly straightforward: instead of making grants, Novogratz would make investments in long-term solutions to complex problems. The ideas for the solutions would come from entrepreneurs who were a part of the communities they intended to serve. Rather than Americans parachuting in to solve problems they didn’t fully understand, she wanted to fuel the efforts of the people who are living and breathing the challenges on the ground.

After putting together her hypothesis, Novogratz founded Acumen Fund as a nonprofit on April 1, 2001 and got to work raising the initial funds to form a “venture capital fund for the poor.” With help from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Cisco Systems Foundation and three philanthropists, they had their initial fund. Those five initial partners would grow into twenty “Founding Partners” to form the initial base of support.

Using a philosophy they refer to as patient capital, Acumen makes long-term investments in sustainable solutions to complex problems in East Africa, West Africa, India, Pakistan, and Latin America. In the process, Novogratz and her team have built a body of work that’s worthy of a lifetime.

They make investments like the $400,000 they have invested in SiembraViva, a logistics and e-commerce platform connecting rural farmers in Columbia to potential customers in urban centers. The investment also helps SiembraViva help farmers transition from commodity crops to premium organic produce that is better for the earth and better for the farmers’ economic wellbeing.

SiembraViva is just one of many investments that make up Novogratz’s and Acumen’s body of work.

Acumen was the result of Novogratz’s “crazy” idea… and that crazy idea has paid off beautifully. The moral of her body of work at Acumen is this: patient capital can solve big problems. Or, as Novogratz puts it:

Patient capital has a high tolerance for risk, has long time horizons, is flexible to meet the needs of entrepreneurs, and is unwilling to sacrifice the needs of end customers for the sake of shareholders. At the same time, patient capital ultimately demands accountability in the form of a return of capital: proof that the underlying enterprise can grow sustainably in the long run.

The Acumen story is one of a woman who set out to make a difference. In the process she’s built one of the most inspiring bodies of work I have ever seen.

So, now that you understand that the choice to build a body of work is yours… Now that you know that your body of work will personally benefit you… Now that you’ve seen examples like J.R.R. Tolkien and Jacqueline Novogratz…

How, exactly, do you get started building your own body of work?

Role Models

Looking for role models can be a powerful place to start.

Role models are almost certainly linked to the problems you want to solve (or at leas explore). Looking for role models related to the problems that make you angry can begin to show you what’s possible.

Perhaps you believe the world needs more great storytellers. You might find and study master storytellers like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, and more. In doing so, you’ll see their complete bodies of work, including the work they’ve done that has very little to do with what they are known for.

For example, in studying C.S. Lewis’ body of work, you would find that while he is known for his Chronicles of Narnia, he is perhaps more well-known for his Christian writings. Take an even closer look and you’ll see that the two are much more closely connected than you might expect.

What is the body of work of each of your role models? What was the order in which they produced the individual pieces? Which pieces resonate with you? Which pieces surprise you? What is the moral of the story for the body of work of each of your role models?

Perhaps most importantly, what do your role models tell you about the body of work you want to create?

The Moral of Your Story

Every body of work tells a story. It reflects the life of the creator. It embodies the creator’s beliefs and energy and personal growth. Many times a body of work also shows the meandering interests and experiments of the creator. The questions and hypotheses they chose to explore over time.

If you could choose, what would be the moral of the story of your body of work? In studying your work 50 years from now, what lessons might an enthusiastic student of your work find?

A story only has a moral once it has ended. We can only know the moral because we know the story from which it comes. And so a moral on day one, or page one, is really a mission. A mission you can believe in and explore with enthusiasm.

As the late Steven Covey would say, “begin with the end in mind.” Sure, the moral of your life’s work might change over time. But beginning with an idea of the moral of your body of work will direct your efforts from day one.

This comes down to a simple question with no right answer: how might the world be a bit different because of your body of work? Why?

Work as adventure

And then comes the fun part. Every piece of work you do in pursuit of that moral, that mission, is just an adventure. You pack up your supplies, plot your course, and head out into the jungle to see what you find.

If your body of work will tell a story about your life, then each individual piece of work will tell of your curiosities and skills at a given point in time. Each piece will reflect your best effort to pursue that mission given your imperfect knowledge base. And with each passing piece, you’ll hone in on the truth as you see it.

Only in looking back at many pieces of work will you find a trend line, a moral. You can fight to force every project to fit into a nice and neat storyline, or you can trust that the pursuit of your mission will lead others to draw their own morals from the story.

You job is simply to pursue the mission with joy and curiosity, learning as you go.

A given piece of work might fit right into the storyline, or it might be a side venture. Something unrelated. An exploration of new territory. With each new venture into seemingly unrelated territory, you’ll begin to connect the dots. You’ll see the trend line begin to develop. And sometimes, you’ll take risks so that you can grow as a creator and a human.

The Importance of Risk and Growth in Building a Body of Work

Building a body of work will change other people for the better. It will change the way they look at you as a person. It will change the way you believe in yourself. A body of work is a change agent.

But for you personally, it also matters that you use your body of work to help you grow over time.

It would be easy to give the same speech or play the same set over and over, year after year. But there has to come a time when you take on a new project. The kind of project that scares you.

Everyone will have their bread and butter, of course. Your hit song or your go-to speech or your cookie cutter workshop might be the best way to make money from your work.

But there should also be experimental projects along the way. The kind of project that forces you out of your comfort zone.

Most people will never seek out those projects. Why make myself uncomfortable when I could just keep making money from this thing over here? Because your work matters too much to settle.

Taking risks is how we grow.

Ira Glass on Growing as a Creator

Ira Glass has a quote so powerful it has practically become cliché, but I can’t help sharing it here. It’s too perfect. He shared his thoughts on becoming better at your craft over time, or building a body of work you believe in, in a 2009 interview with Public Radio International:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody would have told this to me. … All of us who do creative work, you know we get into it because we have good taste. … But there is this gap.
For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. … It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. You can tell it’s still sort of crappy. A lot of people never get past that phase, a lot of people at that point, they quit.
Most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work — they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Some of us can admit that to ourselves, and some of us are a little less able to admit that to ourselves. We knew it didnt have the special thing that we wanted it to have.
The thing I would say to you is: Everybody goes through that. If you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase, if you’re just starting off and you’re entering into that phase…You gotta know it’s totally normal and the most important possible thing you could do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work.
Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re gonna finish one story. … You create the deadline. It’s best if you have somebody who’s waiting for work from you. Somebody who’s expecting work from you. Even if it’s not somebody who pays you, but where you’re in a situation where you have to turn in the work. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re actually going to catch up and close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
In my case, I do a national radio show. I make my living at this and I’ve been making my living at this for a long time. We’ve won a Peabody Award and all sorts of prizes. 1.7 million people listen to our show and they listen almost to the entire show. People love our show, the show I make with my coworkers. So I’m in a place where I’m done. I’ve mastered this thing.
But I gotta tell you… I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met.
[Note: At this point Ira plays an old recording from earlier in his career when he was 27 and had been at it for 8 years already. He’s embarrassed by everything about the recording, but he uses it to illustrate his point here.]
So this is like year 8, I’m 27 years old when this is happening. I’m not a beginner. I’m deep deep into it. I guess I’m saying: It takes a while. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just got to fight. Your way. Through that.”

Ira Glass is one of the most respected voices in public radio alive on this planet today. And he makes my point for me.

You have to be willing to take stray paths here and there in order to grow into something more as a creator.

Taking the Leap

Caleb Wojcik is a pro at helping people make talking head videos to build their brand. He also has ambitions of doing much bigger projects.

There is a gap between Caleb’s work today and his taste. He knows he can and will create bigger, more ambitious work in the future. But how does one bridge that gap?

For Caleb’s work to reach its full potential, he’ll have to take risks. That might mean doing a project pro bono. It might mean directing and producing an entire video for the outdoor industry without any guarantee that it will make money.

That’s what it’s like to be a creative person. To lead. To build a body of work.

People pay for the work they believe you can do. The best way to make them believe is to 1) believe in yourself and 2) have proof. If you want to get paid to do something other than you’re doing today, then you’re going to have to take a few risks along the way. There is no other path.

Along the way, you might find those projects you once considered risky taking you in an entirely new direction in your work.

Taking Risks Expands Your Possibilities

Grant Spanier is a fantastic graphic designer. He’s also a film director. And a music producer. And a photographer. He likes to call himself an artist. That can be hard to grasp as an onlooker…

But from Grant’s perspective, he’s simply added to his identity over time because his “risky” new pursuits are enthralling. They make him uncomfortable in all the right ways. They allow him to build a new technical skill set while continuing to use his existing skills. All the while, he’s contributing to his body of work.

If you know Grant as a designer, then it might be confusing when you see him produce an art show featuring music, fog, and neon lights called Lucid. But for Grant, Lucid was just another project. A risky one. One that had no immediate pay off other than to contribute to his body of work in a way that opens up new pathways for the future.

Your body of work has to force you to grow or else you get stale. Nobody likes a stale creator.

Your Body of Work Should Push You to Grow

So not only should your work be an adventure, but it should grow over time. It should push you to grow over time.

Starting today, you should be slowly filling the gap between your taste and your ability, as Ira would say. And once they match, then you’ll have to find new ways to push yourself still.

There is no done in building a body of work. There is only motion. Motion that makes you come alive. Motion that gives your work meaning.

If you’re not ready to take a risk, then are you really ready to build a body of work?

Imagine a world where every person builds a body of work

Along the way to building your body of work, you’ll have to fight tooth and nail against your inner demons, or what Seth Godin likes to call The Lizard Brain. It will tell you you aren’t good enough, that your mission doesn’t matter, that your body of work won’t mean anything.

And in those moments, you’ll have to remember to think about a world where every person builds a body of work. What might that world look like? Can it exist if people like you allow the lizard to win? What’s at stake here, exactly?

Now imagine a world where every person you know takes this approach to their work. Your spouse. Your family. Your friends. Your boss. Your employees.

Company founders. Doctors. Teachers. Chefs. Lawyers. Farmers.

Imagine how things might change if each of us approached our work with a sense that this piece of work today is part of a larger whole.

How might things change?

So much talent is wasted on work that does not matter. So much time goes into work that contributes to no greater mission or vision. So many people go to work and do things that are quite contrary to their values.

But in a world where you and me and every person we know looks at each day as a chance to build another piece of a body of work… well, all of that changes.

Perhaps most importantly, those people who are wasting away thinking of their work as uninteresting and unimportant will now use their work to make an impact. They will think of this project, right now, as an important chance to pursue a mission.

Imagine the doctor who doesn’t look at the pure number of patients he’s served each day, but who looks at the trends in how he treats patients with similar conditions. How many different ways might he turn that learning into a body of work that makes an impact? How many people would directly benefit from his attentiveness and care?

Not only will the impact be great, but the positive change will be seen by others. The other doctors in the office will see his approach and think about how they might do something similar.

Imagine the management consultant who stops worrying so much about her next promotion and instead focuses on impactful projects that build her body of work. Imagine the mentoring she might do. Imagine the internal projects she might tackle. Imagine the quality with which she might build client proposals, knowing that each proposal builds on her impact both at the firm and within the client organizations.

How might people in your organization respond to seeing this change in approach to the work? Imagine how empowering it would be to see everyone around you building a body of work. Imagine the way teams would work together to collaborate on projects that make a bigger impact and fulfill an important mission.

Empowered people are engaged people. And engaged people are happy people. And happy people make for happy companies (and shareholders).

People who believe they have autonomy over their work put more energy into that work. Further, people who have a sense of purpose and can see their own growth towards mastery over time are more driven.

Building a body of work delivers all three of these: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Or, as Dan Pink tells us, the three factors necessary for fulfillment in our work.

People who work from a place of intrinsic motivation are people who build better organizations. And better organizations build a better world. Sure, we can demand more from the organizations we support, but we can also become internal change makers. Looking at your work as a growing masterpiece will make you one of those change makers.

But let’s come down from the lofty perch for a moment. Let’s talk about you.

Imagine a world where you care enough about your work to build towards something bigger everyday. Imagine what it might feel like to lay brick by brick, building towards a magnificent edifice over time.

Imagine being able to look at your body of work and recall the impact of each individual piece. Imagine what it might feel like to look back on a lifetime of work and think: Yes, I built that. And I’m damn proud of it.

Could there be anything more fulfilling in our work than to know that it mattered?


This essay was originally published at BarrettBrooks.com.

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