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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 The Aligned Time Journal.

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 comes 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.

Great Work Doesn’t Equal Accomplishment

It’s easy to confuse great work with a great accomplishment. When I ask people what their great work is, sometimes they say, I don’t have any yet. I haven’t won the Pulitzer, my show hasn’t been up, I haven’t solved this professional puzzle, my book isn’t done, and I only have 800 followers on social media. So no great work yet.

This is a misunderstanding of great work. Great work is not about the accomplishments, though if you do enough great work, you’re likely to accumulate some. But instead, great work is about how it makes you feel. Are you in your life? Are you pursuing your dreams? Are you working through your struggles? Are you sharing what you see and what you’ve learned? Do you feel alive, invigorated and engaged? Are you connected to other people who care about what you care about? Are you contributing? Yes? Then you are doing great work.

If you only sort of feel that way or you feel that way rarely, then there’s great work just waiting to be cultivated in your life right now, long before the Pulitzer, the prizes and the presidency today, tomorrow, next week. And you don’t have to wait for an opportunity. You just have to get in the river.

That’s how great work has always felt to me like a river. A river that is flowing with, or without me. The river of great work is an ever-evolving place with opportunities, challenges, and collaborations around every corner. My job and yours is to get up the courage, to get in there and then manage my mind and my life so I can stay in there.

Your Great Work Will Evolve

I’m a cognitive psychologist with a specialization in school change. I love it. I care about it. And I’m dedicated to improving schools. This is absolutely part of my great work. And there’s another part of the river of great work that carries me along too.

In addition to being an educator, I’m also an author, a speaker, and a coach. I write books and speak to colleges and corporations about how to do great work. I have a coaching practice where I help what I like to call accidental entrepreneurs, experts, creatives, coaches, and they were just trying to help. And they woke up one day in a business.

I helped them get clients, make money, and share their ideas more clearly and broadly. As part of that great work, I also create courses, write blogs and articles and books, and I produce this podcast. The opportunity to build my business is what I wanna unpack a little bit here because it unfolded out of nowhere in the past seven years and has required a lot of self-trust and learning along the way.

Get into the river!

I’m using it as an example of what feels like to get in the river of great work and stay there long enough to build some success. We’ll go through the four stages that I’ve noticed, and I’ll share a few of the tales of business building that I’ve experienced, but keep in mind, the example’s not the point, the analogy is.

You can apply this to becoming a scientist, building a fortune in the stock market, raising your, whatever it is that you’re doing. That is part of your great work. You will probably experience these four stages.

And the first one is, not surprisingly, get in the dang river, wherever you can find a put in, just do it. Don’t wait for a great port of entry or the perfect weather, or exactly the right current, just get in. Then paddle around and expect no movement that doesn’t come from your very own paddle.

When I First Started My Business, I Had No Idea What I Was Doing

When I started a business low those many moons ago, about seven years ago, I was just following one hunch after another. Actually what’s interesting is that this business started out as writing a book and then I realized that I needed to talk to some people about the ideas I was writing about, and then I did some workshops at a place called the Brooklyn Brainery. And while I was doing those people asked me if I would coach them.

So I said, yes. And then I had to figure out what that whole thing was about. And then I had to build a website, but I built it on the wrong platform. So I had to build it again. Just imagine that you a whole 90 days building website only to discover that you’d built the whole thing on a platform where you can’t do any of the things you wanted to do. I couldn’t attach it to an email list. I couldn’t deliver freebie. I couldn’t schedule events. It was a whole thing. So I had to rebuild it. So then I spent the next 90 days rebuilding it on WordPress.

All of this is basically paddling around and around in circles on this river while I figured out where I was, which way was north, where did I think I wanted to go? And, and actually, you know, how do you paddle a boat?

I was in a river, I had absolutely no experience in. So I was just there figuring things out.

Now, looking back on it, I realized there was absolutely a current in that river, at that time. I found the Brooklyn Brainery right away, and then I did 15 back-to-back, sold-out workshops over two years. But those bursts of speed were so overwhelmed by the effort that I needed to exert to figure out all the things I was completely clueless about. That’s okay. That’s how it goes.

When you get into a totally new river, you have to figure it out. You gotta paddle around in some circles, but there is a shortcut. And that brings us to the second stage of how to get in the river of great work and stay there.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help

That one is ask for directions, since you got in this river without knowing what the heck you were doing, you can’t be expected to navigate it perfectly or even well, or even competently, or even at all, maybe using the word navigate feels like too much confidence

About a year after doing my first workshop at the Brooklyn Brainery I wanted to take my business to the next level. The inner internet will tell you that the smart move is to build an online course. Why say the same things over and over, the internet urges. When you can say it once, sell it as a course and then live on a glorious influx of passive income. I bought it hook, line and sinker.

Well, what I actually bought was a webinar, but blueprint that guaranteed me sales of my miracle course, if I followed it exactly. So I spent the next few months following it to the letter. I paid a graphic designer to build a beautiful PowerPoint. I followed the template. Exactly. And I ran about $3,000 in Facebook ads to get people signed up for the webinar.

Just so you know, at that time, that was all the dollars I had. But since I was planning to sell the course at about $400, I reasoned that I only needed to sell about 10 spots in the course to make all my money back. And I was happy to break even on my first attempt, I scheduled three webinars over two weeks.

I learned a lot doing these webinars on the first one. I realized that only about half, if you’re lucky, of the people who sign up for a webinar show up for it. So the 30 people that had registered for the webinar resulted in about 12 people on that first webinar, none of whom purchased the course that’s okay. No worries.

I had some ideas for how I might change the PowerPoint and, uh, adjust it a little bit to make it more successful. So the next one, I wasn’t surprised when 40 people resulted in 20 people on the webinar, uh, I had adjusted the PowerPoint. It was more powerful. It was clearer.

Nobody bought anything on the second webinar. And, and then on the third webinar, I almost canceled it cause I was so discouraged, but I thought, you know what? You gotta finish Amanda. So I pulled, pulled up my big girl pants sat down, did my webinar, um, that one had about 72 people cuz I was like, you know, I gotta get, I gotta get more people registered. If I wanna have enough people on the actual webinar to buy these 10 spots.

So I got like, I think it was 72 people registered for the third, one about 30 people showed up and nobody bought the course. And that was not what they said would happened in the webinar blueprint thing I bought. But it is what happened. And I remember driving myself, I left, my husband was like, how did it go? And I was like grr, got in the car, drove to Friendly — so I don’t know if you guys have, Friendlys where you’re at, it’s an ice cream shop and they have these really big ice cream sundaes — and I ordered myself a Reese’s Pieces Sunday with extra marshmallow sauce.

And I sat there eating my ice cream, just bereft. I had lost $4,000 and I had sold no seats in my course. And what the actual was I doing with my life? So this is a classic example of being in over my head, not asking for help doing it myself, digging in my heels, not listening to the messages say that slow down, figure it out, ask for help. It really nearly did me in, I almost gave up on the whole idea of having a business.

Unleashing Your Great Work is sponsored by The Aligned Time Journal. 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 Aligned Time Journal. 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.

Find Someone You Mesh With To Mentor You

It really nearly did me in, I almost gave up on the whole idea of having a business, but I didn’t. Instead, I got some help that probably took me about five months to get over it. And then, uh, the first thing I did after that five-month recovery period is I went to a conference and at that conference, I met a woman named Val Boman.

Val was a person like me. She was a heart-centred helper in her soul who, not for nothing, could sell ice to a polar bear. She had figured out how to be in service and sell. And she provided the kind of like Midwestern advice. I felt I needed at the time. “If you wanna help people,” she said, “you need to meet people, build relationships, and then offer them your service, in that order.”

She helped me to see that selling courses should come after people know who you are and that while you can sell courses to cold leads, it will always be a high-pressure sale using a lot of the tools of persuasion like urgency and scarcity. That just didn’t jive with my own value system. I needed to learn how to sell my own services first. And then I could offer lower price point products like a course.

Now I’m not saying this is the right or the only way, but I have to say it made a whole lot of sense to me, it’s exactly what I needed, but it was like too uncomfortable for me to figure out on my own. I needed some help. In the river of great work, I needed to ask for directions.

This happens a lot because great work involves a lot of figuring out. But when you ask for help, that feeling of paddling around in circles will eventually start to feel more like steering a boat through the currents that just exist. You take your direction and more opportunities pop up. You learn your way into those, and someone arrives looking for a collaborator that sounds exactly like you! Before you know it, you’re in it!

In the river of great work, it’s much easier to ask for directions than to gut it out on your own. Especially when you find yourself knee-deep in something that is overwhelming. As soon as you can find a person like you, who can help you navigate this river, definitely feel free to reach out to me. I work with people myself, and if I’m full, I do have a list of people I can recommend.

However, you find your help get it early and get it often because it will save you a ton of time and angst and drama. And once you have that help, things can really start popping opportunities, collaborations and projects will materialize out of thin air.

Avoid Overwhelm By Being Selective

And that brings us to the next stage of great work. When that current begins to pick up, you’re gonna have to figure out how to let the current carry you while you are also steering yourself around obstacles.

One of the hardest parts of great work is figuring out which opportunities to take and which ones to turn down in the beginning. You kind of take whatever comes your way, but as you get into the flow and you’re moving more quickly, you have to be more discriminating. I am not always great at this because I have a bias towards yes. And while this was an asset early on, nothing keeps you in the river more than a can-do attitude. It can become a liability when you reach the faster current.

The real advice here is to figure out how to hear and listen to the voice in your head that is speaking your truth as soon as you possibly can. Many of the really big lessons I’ve had to learn have come when I tried to listen to a voice of reason or best practices or common knowledge when my own instincts were screaming at me to stop, get out and go another way.

The best example of this was when I was offered a book deal to write a book about burnout. Now book about burnout actually makes a lot of sense because I truly believe that one of the biggest enemies of great work is burnout. But the specific ask was a book about millennial burnout. It was a trending topic at the time and the gestalt of that movement wasn’t really in line my own view.

I hold the view that you can vastly change your experience by changing your perspective. But the millennial burnout movement was really looking for structural change and I’m not against structural change, keep in mind, but it’s really not my zone of genius. So even though I knew that my solution wasn’t going to entirely fit the mould they were looking for, I pitched my perspective. They bought it and I took the deal.

Everything about that book deal from day one was a bad fit. They were upset with my ideas. They were calling me naive and delusional, and I was not surprisingly upset with that feedback. So let’s just say it got pretty hot pretty quick. And after about six months of trying to make it work, I sent the advance back and I immediately felt free. I learned in that moment to listen to my instincts when it comes to opportunities and collaborators, and this was a hard lesson to learn, especially when my childhood dream of being a published author was on the line.

But looking back on it, I think this takes had to be that high for me to learn the truest version of this lesson. The truth is following your own instincts in developing self-trust it, isn’t a nice have, it’s not the icing on the cake of great work. It’s critical. If you don’t follow your instincts, you will drastically slow the current of the river. But if you do follow your instincts and listen to your truth, you can be carried very far, very fast.

Is This a Gut Feeling or a Fear of Success?

Now it’s hard sometimes to distinguish between your instincts and fear, which actually brings us to the last stage of great work that I’ll talk about today. The role that fear of success plays in great work. When the current picks up, you have to resist the urge to take your boat and get out.

You know, fear of failure is one thing and it keeps us stuck right at the beginning of our great work. It honestly, fear of success is another powerful force and it hits right in the middle of our great work. This is especially true. If you have a history of burnout like I do.

In fact, I like to describe the first 15 years of my career, as one long ride on the productivity roller coaster of doom. This is where you work like a fiend until you’re so exhausted that you collapse and you try to recover, and then when you recovered just enough, you throw yourself back into overworking.

Just so you know, this is the worst roller coaster ever. And I’ve worked hard over the last several years to chart a different course, to take of my resilience in addition to my ambition and drive. But nonetheless, the consequences of those burnout experiences is still present.

When something starts to take off, a part of me wants to throw on the breaks. I don’t wanna get carried away. I don’t want to get overbooked, overstretched, overwhelmed. I have been there and I’m not interested.

I was asked once to write an article for a huge publication, but I got nervous and I said no. I’ve written pitch emails to people who knew they were coming, but I never sent them. And I had someone basically ask me to come and speak at their company, but I did not follow up. And I know I’m not alone in this as a coach, I help people with this all the time. There are a lot of reasons why we turn down the opportunities we desperately want and we walk away from the chance we’ve been waiting for.

And my point is that sometimes we are not as afraid of failure as we are afraid of success. We aren’t sure that we want everything to change. We aren’t sure that the direction we’re going on is exactly right. And or maybe we’re just exhausted, uncertain or generally not ready and we’re worried that the current is too strong.

All of this is okay. I am not here to tell you that brute force or Berking is the answer to this situation. But instead, just to make you aware that it might not be your instincts or your intuition or the reality of your situation, but is instead fear of success. Navigating this is definitely one of the skills of great work.

And here’s my tip. If you have an opportunity in your entering, turning it down, pay attention to how the voice in your head makes you feel. If the voice makes you feel expansive and like you’re standing up for what you believe in, like I did when I sent the advance back to the publisher, then it’s likely your instincts and your intuition, and I urge you to listen. I wish I had listened earlier to the voice. Tell me not to take that book deal.

But if the voice makes you feel smaller and like you wanna hide away, it might be fear. If you think the voice inside you is fear, you’re gonna wanna handle it differently. You might still turn the opportunity down and that’s okay. But when you recognize it as fear of success, then you are getting the information. You need to know how to overcome it next time

I’m not bringing this up to somehow argue that you need to keep your paddles in the river at all times. No way. Instead, I just wanna point out that it happens sometimes. Fear of success is sometimes a much bigger hurdle than fear of failure. If you find yourself constantly cycling between getting started, stalling out, it might be that what you are most afraid of is success.

If it is you might wanna paddle on over to the great work river of self-discovery, take some time to explore this point. Sometimes that’s what you need. And when that happens, take heart, you’ll work through it. And if you still want to, you’ll find yourself back in the river, you left this time ready to go. Then when the current picks up, you can hang on for the ride. Sure in the knowledge that you can navigate it.

Great Work Requires a Bit of Self Discovery

You know, great work is so much fun because this kind of growth and learning and exploration is baked in. You know, that means that as you navigate the river, you will find yourself at the end of one fork, ready to choose a great work by its nature has movement. You’ll finish your book. And then what? You’ll end your podcast. Now what? You’ll discover the cure to cancer. And now what will you do?

Well, now you get to navigate what’s ahead because great work isn’t a destination or an outcome or an accomplishment. I mean, you get accomplishments and outcomes along the way. Don’t get me wrong. But those aren’t the great work. The great work is the process of navigating the river. It’s the journey of fun projects, amazing people, doing cool things and opportunities that span the expanse of your humanness. That sounds a little vague maybe, but here’s what I mean.

You will do a wide variety of great work over your life. The more great work you allow yourself to do, the more great work opens up in front of you. Some of it will be work-related. Some of it will be family-related. Some of it will involve searching your own psyche and soul to soothe the hurt and heal the wounds. All of that is great work. And when you’re done, you get to choose another fork.

Now, all this talk about downriver forks is actually to encourage you to get in your dang boat, find the closest bit of sand to put in and get to paddling. You can’t get downriver. If you don’t first get in the boat and start paddling and circles and figuring things out, your potential is endless, but your time is limited. Let’s go.

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.

About the author

Dr. Amanda Crowell is a cognitive psychologist and business coach who helps accidental entrepreneurs get more clients and have a bigger impact. She is the author of Great Work, the host of the Unleashing Your Great Work podcast, and the creator of the Great Work Journals. Amanda's TEDx talk has received almost two million views and has been featured on TED's Ideas blog and Ted Shorts. Her ideas have also been featured on NPR, Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, Quartz, and Thrive Global.