If we are going to unleash your Great Work out into the world, we probably need to know what it is! And what it is might surprise you. 👀
You might ask:
- If we are for sure doing great work are we, officially, “great?” Not necessarily.
- Can we do Great Work and remain mostly introverted and off the radar? Absolutely.
- If those things are true, then what IS Great Work?
That’s what we’re exploring in this week’s episode of the Unleashing Great Work Podcast! In 20 glorious minutes, I’ll share the four pillars of Great Work and unpack them with my favorite example of Great Work, my personal hero, Jim Henson. 🤩
In this episode, we are diving into the characteristics of Great Work.
Join me as we discuss:
- The Essential Pillars of Great Work
- What we can learn from watching people do Great Work
- What we can learn about Great Work from Jim Henson
The Unleashing Your Great Work podcast is sponsored by the Great Work Journals! The Great Work Journals are here to answer the question “But HOW?”
How can we figure out what our Great Work is?
How can we get started, stay with it, and finish our Great Work so it can go out in the world and have an impact?
Welcome to Unleashing Your Great Work, a podcast about doing the work that matters the most to you. I’m your host, Dr. Amanda Crowell, a cognitive psychologist coach, and the creator of Great Work Journals.
Every week we are here asking the big questions. What does it take to create something of your own? How do we overcome the procrastination, failure, and rejection that come prepackaged with great work? And while we’re at it, what is your great work? How would you know, how can you find out?
We’ll explore all of this and more so get in here and let’s unleash your great work.
What is YOUR Great Work?
So what is great work well at its core? It’s very simple. It’s the work that matters the most to you. It’s work that makes you feel great about life. It, you, it drags you out of bed and it makes you feel as though you’re living a life of purpose.
No one can tell you what your personal great work is. It could be anything growing orchids, growing the world’s largest pumpkin, or raising your kids. All of these can be examples of great work.
That said, I do find that most people when they hear the term great work, think of things like creating something amazing like art or writing a book, or creating something out of nothing like a fortune from the stock market or a community or a movement. And certainly making a difference by solving a big problem or helping people to do better or feel better are all of these resonate as solid examples of great work.
And it was out of examples like these, that the concept of great work emerged for me. And though it sounds like they’re all over the map, they actually have a lot in common.
The Essential Pillars of Great Work
In fact, when I looked across example after example of great work, I noticed four things that they share. I call these the essential pillars of great work because the essence of great work lies in the combination of all four. In order to think this through, I encourage you to bring to mind someone you admire someone you would go to the mattresses to argue that this person’s work is absolutely great work.
I’m going to share an example of one of my heroes, Jim Henson, but you can bring to mind any hero you like Maya Angelou, Neil Degrass, Tyson, Neil, Patrick Harris, Lynn Manwell, Miranda, Steven Spielberg. I don’t care anyone that you know enough about to ponder the nature of what they’ve done.
Okay. So thinking about that person’s work. Do you notice these commonalities first great work expresses our unique point of view? It comes out of our personal stories, shares our hard life lessons or unique perspectives. It taps into our natural curiosity, our, our interests, our passions. It comes from inside of us, perhaps as an echo of our reason for being our life’s purpose and the meaning of life as we see it.
Second, great work keeps us on our evolving edge and feels really invigorating and enlivening to do. It’s not just more of the same. It requires that we learn and take risks and grow and be vulnerable and it might not work. And that’s part of the joy.
Third, great work is, is done in community. It involves collaborating with people who are willing to share a vision with you and who are part of the same field or working on the same issue or running in the same circles.
And great work is often in service to others, without them, the work loses its impact. And with that goes much of the joy. Finally, great work organizes our body of work, the emails, the art, the conversations, and the reports, the choices we’ve made and the relationships we’ve built. And it transforms those things into a legacy.
When you see it as a whole, we realize that our great work is our contribution to the ongoing and ever-evolving story of humanity. We contribute in a way that is of our time with our friends and from our own minds. These are the four essential pillars of great work. It comes from inside of us. It’s done with others. It creates a legacy and it feels amazing. These are the four things that I’ve recognized as I’ve studied example, after example of great work unleashing.
Unleashing Your Great Work is sponsored by The Great Work Journals. As you think about great work, you might think, okay, but how? How do I figure out what my great work is? How do I make progress on it? How do I overcome procrastination, burnout, and perfectionism – what I like to call the three horsemen of the goalpocalypse?
My answer to that question is to use The Great Work Journals. It’s a whole personal time management system that will keep you moving forward on your great work without ever feeling overwhelmed.
Click the link in the show notes to check it out, give it a try and get busy, unleashing your great work out into the world.
Let’s Talk About Jim Henson
Jim Henson, the iconic creator of the Muppets as someone who spent his life in pursuit of his great work. I mean, as far as I can tell, as someone who watched him from afar and never actually knew him sadly, but I do feel like I can tell I’ve read all the biographies. I’ve watched a lot of videos and I follow his legacy very closely because he’s someone I genuinely admire.
You know, that game where we ask each other, who we would invite, if we could have dinner with anyone dead or alive. Well, Jim Henson is always there sitting right next to my grandpa and Maya Angelou. I mean, how great would that dinner party be so great for those of you who haven’t paid as much attention as I have to Jim Henson? Here’s a quick primer.
James Morry Henson was born in 1936 in Greenville, Mississippi, and he lived there until his family moved to University City Park, Maryland. When Jim was a teenager in their new home in Maryland, the Hensons got their first TV and Jim was immediately captivated. So captivated, in fact, that he found an excuse to go to the local access television station and volunteer, to make puppets for a children’s show that ran on Saturday mornings.
This is the first known interaction between Jim Henson and puppets. When he was enrolled as a freshman at the University of Maryland, he took a course in puppet making in the home economics department with his new puppet in hand. He pitched a five-minute segment called Sam and friends to a popular local variety show. When the segment was accepted, he invited a fellow student named Jane to join him. And she later became his wife, but that’s not the only long-term partnership that began on Sam and Friends.
This is also where we get our very first glimpse of Kermit the Frog. Although he was gray, not really a frog and named Sam after graduation. Jim had a crisis of faith in puppets. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to be known as a puppeteer, even though in those few short years, he had already changed the face of puppetry for television.
Jim Henson Revolutionized Puppets
You see, before Jim Henson’s Sam and Friends, puppets were performed like ventrally with the puppeteer and the puppet both on screen. Jim realized that the contained television frame gave him an opportunity to give his puppets a life of their own because the puppeteer could be nearby, but off-camera in order for the puppet to seem more alive. Now that it was the only thing on screen, he changed the design of his puppets, making their faces soft so that his hands inside of them could give them an expression.
This was a change from the foam, a fairly static face of puppets from the past. Despite his clear interest in cutting-edge ideas, he just wasn’t sure that puppetry was enough of an art form. Could he really dig deep and fully express his creativity with puppets? Was there enough great work in puppetry to keep him satisfied to find now he went to Europe and studied with European puppeteers, which have a longer history and more of a reputation as an art form.
When he returned to the United States, he had new ideas and a renewed commitment with Jane. He co-founded Muppets Inc and began making commercials and doing guest appearances on shows like the Ed Sullivan Show or the Jimmy Dean show.
His big break came about 10 years later when Jim was invited to join the new children’s television series Sesame Street, where he developed the Muppet characters that we still see today, the success of the Muppets on Sesame street created a market for what Jim really loved puppets for everyone, including adults. Jim was eager to create ger and more sophisticated characters.
He produced the Muppet show in the late seventies, dark crystal, a darker fantasy movie in the early eighties in Labyrinth, a quirky almost surrealist David Bowie movie in 1986.
In 1990 at the age of 53, Jim got sick. He worried that his travel schedule was too hectic to go to the doctor. So what started as a cold grew into strep when he started coughing up blood, he finally went to the hospital, but it was too late. His strep had so advanced that he now had toxic shock syndrome though. I was only 13 years old when Jim Henson died, I felt a deep loss I still do. If he had lived, he would be 85 this year.
Jim Henson’s Great Work Wasn’t About Fame
What I love about Jim’s story is that even though he was famous and admired and rich, his great work really wasn’t about being great. Jim was famous for creating the Muppets, the Muppets from Sesame Street and the Muppet Show and the Muppet movies, and Fraggle Rock — all the Muppets. And by all accounts, he loved doing that work and it kept him really busy since he was the person who puppeteered Kermit the Frog — one of the few Muppets to be on both Sesame Street and in The Muppet Show.
He could have been done. He was busy. He was rich. He was admired if he just wanted to be great, he could have been satisfied, but he wasn’t because Jim was in hot pursuit of great work, work that expressed his unique perspective, kept him on his evolving edge, was done in community with others and created a legacy that he knew was important. Jim was doing all of this.
The Characteristics of Great Work
Okay, so let’s start with that first characteristic of great work. The fact that it expresses your unique perspective. We don’t wanna sit on the sidelines of our life. We wanna be a big, huge, enormous, essential part of our great work. We want our personal perspective and point of view to impact it. And we want the stories from our life and the lessons from our experiences to drive it.
Great work is personal. Even if it’s business, it’s still personal expressing our unique point of view is deeply satisfying in a way that meets expectations and doing things perfectly. Two things that compete with our great work all the time, just aren’t for Jim Henson. His unique perspective was on display from the very beginning. His most famous puppet is Kermit the Frog and he was with him from his very first professional puppeteering experience.
Sam, Jim’s first puppet was a precursor for Kermit the Frog. If you watch videos of Sam and Friends, you can feel the similarity. And this was not because Jim had a great developed character, it’s because Kermit was Jim’s alter ego. Jim describes Kermit as an easygoing likable kind of a wise guy.
Frank Oz, Jim’s closest collaborator said that Kermit had all these zany characters around him and Kermit tries to be the center and hold everything together. I have read a lot of biographies of Jim Henson and even one that was written of Kermit the Frog called it’s not easy being green.
And I can say with certainty that these exact words can be said about Jim Henson, because Kermit was Jim and Jim was Kermit. Jim’s vision wasn’t just coming out through Kermit. The Muppets are best known for children’s programming, but Jim was never satisfied with that.
He wanted to make puppets for all adults included and no one understood that vision for two decades. Jim fought for that idea, despite almost no buy-in he wasn’t here to do what other people thought was a good idea. He was here on this planet to express the Jim Henson point of view, both the universally loved Kermit the frog side of Jim Henson and this point of view that just did not make sense to other people yet.
And it’s worth remembering that just like your point of view changes throughout your life, as you have new and learn new things about yourself, Jim Henson’s point of view was ever-changing, ever-evolving, which is what made the whole thing more fun. This brings us to the second characteristic of great work. It keeps us on our evolving edge and evolving edge is one that keeps you on your toes, learning new things and expressing new and different parts of yourself.
Your Great Work Will Evolve Over Time
There is going to be movement when we are doing our great work. It will, by its nature, shift and change over time. According to the books I read, Jim felt stifled in the first 10 years of his business, he knew he had to take the commercial work that he could get, but he was stuck doing the same things over and over again. There are very few outlets for him, him to express anything unique or new in his paid work. And so he created these places where he could express his quirky, unique and cutting edge ideas.
In the show notes, you can see a link to an excerpt of a short film that Jim did called Time Piece. It is a superb example of great work that was not done because we were invited or hired, but because we were compelled to figure something out and stay on our evolving edge, it is super abstract and esoteric.
And unless you love surrealism, you might not like it. Lots of people didn’t. I really only like the moment where Jim Henson yells help, because it sounds like Kermit, but that wasn’t the point. It was a project to keep him on his evolving edge, to keep him trying out new concepts and making things to put out into the world. Even if the world was not going to understand it was worth it to try something new.
When asked about his short films and other quirky projects, he said they were fun. Interesting, different. And that’s another thing about great work when we do it, it makes us feel excited, nervous, invigorated invested in alive. Now, one of the reasons great work is so reliably engaging is because it isn’t usually something that we do on our own. That brings us to the third characteristic of great work.
And that is that great work is done in community. It’s done in collaboration with some and in service to others, making the work dependent on other people. The Muppets were an ensemble, and it’s a good thing they were.
Frank Oz is the puppeteer who most often played opposite Jim Henson. He was the piggy to Jim’s Kermit the Burt to Jim’s Ernie. Think about how boring Kermit would be without piggy until piggy is there charismatically, upsetting Kermit’s perfect plan with her swinging hair and di aways. Kermit is kind of run of the mill. Oh, here’s competent Carmen again. Oh hum. We need Frank Oz or Jim Henson cannot shine.
And that same magic is present between Burt and Ernie on Sesame Street. You do not want to see an entire segment with just Ernie or just Burt. The two of them on their own are just so annoying, but when they’re together, they sweetness itself teaching this enduring lesson about friendship across difference and oh, so funny.
My point is this Jim Henson would not have the legacy that he currently has if it wasn’t for the cast of characters around him, which brings us to our final characteristic of great work, great work creates your legacy. When we are truly doing great work, our energy and enthusiasm and efforts accumulate into something that we know in our soul that the world needs.
Sometimes Great Work Isn’t Understood Right Away
Jim Henson created a lot of artwork that people just didn’t understand. No one understood why the Muppets ever needed to be dark or edgy or brooding a Muppet was for singing and dancing, right? But that was not Jim’s vision.
In fact, Jim was driven to bring edgy, quirky puppets to adults, the projects that he made at the end of his life, Jim Henson story hour Labrinth and dark crystal were evidence that he wasn’t ever going to be satisfied with what worked for the market made money and met expectation.
If he was he would’ve taken more of the many, many opportunities that came his way to bring his Muppets into the children’s television world. But instead, Jim fought to make projects that would speak to adults. The movie Labyrinth was a passion project for Jim Henson. He put his reputation on the line to get the funding, to make a movie that no one at the studio understood.
Now, if you haven’t seen Labrinth, it involves a baby being kidnapped by David Bowie and the baby’s sister played by Jennifer Connolly chasing after him to get her brother back. Every part that is and played by David Bowie and Jennifer Connolly, or the baby is played by a Muppet, but not the Muppets and said, these are new Muppets from the Jim Henson creature shop, weird Muppets who take their heads off and throw them at each other ugly Muppets who are cranky trolls.
So Labyrinth, didn’t do very well in the box office. And it was a real disappointment to Jim. And that’s part of great work too, because great work goes out into the world and we have to grapple with the world’s reaction to it. And sometimes it takes off like wildfire and sometimes it lands with a thud. This reality is why it’s so important that we do great work, work that expresses our unique perspective and makes us feel amazing while we’re doing it. Because even if the world doesn’t love it, we know that we do.
Sadly Jim Henson died before he could see the giant cult following that has emerged around the movie Labrinth. And before he could see the new dark crystal television show or any of the work that has come out of the Muppet studio in the last 32 years since his death and who knows how he would feel about any of those.
But what is undeniable is that Jim Henson has left a legacy. So now you have to agree with me. Jim Henson was indeed on the warpath to great work. He was working to express himself as authentically as possible. He cultivated a trusted community of collaborators and a passionate following. He loved the work and he’s left an important legacy. You can do that too.
Now, before you start worrying that you don’t have a once-in-a-generation genius to contribute to the world. I want you to know that your great work, the great work inside of you is already enough. We need everyone doing great work. We need your great work. And just as an aside, I bet you do have once in a generation genius to contribute to the world. You just haven’t gone through the work to get it shined up and out there yet. We’re gonna change that starting in the very next episode.
Thank you for joining me today on Unleashing Your Great Work podcast.
If you like what you heard, please subscribe and leave a five-star review, and hey! Don’t forget to check out The Great Work Journals. You need support to get started, stay at it, and unleash your great work out into the world.
See you next time.