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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.
There are Two Kinds of People…
It is often said that humans are pack animals, like wolves. We travel together, support each other, and find success together. It’s hard to look at our vast cities, our scientific achievements and blockbuster movies– all of which are he result of massive collaboration– and argue this fundamental point.
And yet, I have not always felt like part of the pack.
Obviously, the best of us are both, but even those of us who’ve figured out how to do both, one is still our natural, default mode.
I am naturally a lone wolf.
When I was in college, I would have been delighted to do every group project, by myself, on my own. Even now, I work best when the boundaries between my work and your work are clear. I am naturally, in a default programmed kind of way, a bit of a lone wolf when it comes to getting my work done.
My friend and long-ago college roommate, Monica, is a pack wolf by nature and experience. She loves to ask questions, get feedback. She improves processes, she wants to hash things out. Her goal is to move things forward in a way that everyone is happy. When you want a group to function properly, you want Monica on the team.
In fact, my favorite of those dreaded group projects in college, were the ones where Monica was also on them, because very instinctively knows how to get the most out of everyone, including me.
Is it Better to be a Lone Wolf or a Pack Wolf?
Being a pack wolf is not better or worse than being a lone wolf, just so you know. Instead, each of them have strengths and challenges. Being a lone wolf means that you have to hone your voice, be decisive, figure a lot of things out, and learn how to move things forward on momentum you are very skilled at generating on your own.
And, from years of watching Monica and others like her I notice that pack wolves are somehow deeply connected to everyone. If they need help, they have 10 people to turn to. When Monica needed someone to watch her kids for a few weeks when her husband was in the hospital, she had a rotation of 5 women, all of whom were 100% invested in doing it for free.
Pack wolves are involved in a lot of projects and are often considered quite central to the success of those projects. I find that they get promoted, get poached and are generally great managers.
Both are good, is my point. It’s possible to be successful and well-liked, highly paid with both default ways of being. And yet, as I’ve grown older and especially as I’ve been considering the essential nature of Great Work I’ve become convinced that neither one of these skills is enough on their own. We need to take the time and intentionally develop the other set of skills.
My Introduction to the Land of Collaboration
For me, as a lone wolf, that means that I’ve spent my adulthood developing the skills of collaboration, giving and receiving mentoring, connecting with an audience and developing solid support relationships.
I remember the day it hit me how much harder I was making things by doing everything myself, and making all roads lead to me. I was in my post-doctoral fellowship, which is the training that one does after one gets a Ph.D. It’s supposed to fill in the gaps – your Ph.D. teaches you how to do research, your post-doc teachers you how to run a research lab.
During my Ph.D, I had done an ambitious, 3 year data collection that resulted in longitudinal data that was analyzed with a coding scheme. It was a massive project, and I absolutely had help. But, that help was very cordoned off with obvious boundaries. I prepared dialogues and gave them to the people whose only job was to code them. Then, I did all the comparing, inputting, cleaning, and analysis.
The team of other Ph.D. students were AMAZING, by the way, it wasn’t that they couldn’t have been much more collaborative with me, but rather that it just wasn’t my style. If something had to be submitted to the IRB, I did it. If something needed to be scheduled and organized, I did it. If something had to be ushered through a process at the college or at the school, I did it. I was the single point of failure on that project, or at least that’s how I saw it. It was very tiring, but there is also a kind of comfort in knowing that I will have my hand in everything that was happening.
And then, during my post-doctoral fellowship, I joined a massive team. We were scattered across two universities- the University of Pittsburgh where I was, and the University of California Berkeley in the Bay Area, and we had outside evaluators from a research organization who were on our team as well. There were 3 or 4 principal investigators, and probably 25 research staff. The days of me being in control were OVER.
At first, maybe I was a little bit uncomfortable… how would I KNOW for sure that the IRB would get done? How would I know that the data was being processed fast enough? I couldn’t know that… and then I realized… I don’t have to be a part of the IRB situation at all, or the data cleaning, or the negotiations with the school, nor the agenda-setting of the many, many, many meetings that we had. (Pack wolves love meetings, it seems).
I was blown away by the freedom of this. These expert, extremely professional, capable and knowledgeable people would just do all of those things instead. There was relief and freedom, and almost a certain kind of disbelief… would it really get done? I watched… and it did. I suddenly realized what a ceiling I had put on the projects I could do by being only a lone wolf. Brilliant.
And it put me in the land of collaboration.
Lone Wolves Need To Develop Collaboration Skills
At first, it was nothing but relief and amazement. But, because I was really a lone wolf without any skills, that means I was really ill-prepared for the inevitable disagreements, slowdowns, and negotiations that came along. I learned that not only was it amazing to collaborate with people who would do some of the work, but, there were some serious complications as well!
How do we have difficult conversations? How do we learn from each other, when everyone thinks they are the expert? How do we express our individual opinion persuasively while leaving the door open to differences of opinion? How do we make sure that the work we are doing will actually benefit schools? Most importantly, how do we make decisions so the project can move forward? This was a whole new set of skills.
These are all the skills of the pack wolf.
Over the course the last decade or so, since I left that team and joined others, and done some great work together with all of them, I’ve learned some things. Have I figured it all out? NO. I am still an lone wolf by nature- I am very decisive and I can’t relax until I can see the whole picture.
As we say in our family, no one is perfect. But thank goodness! Nobody has to be!
Nonetheless, I CAN now clearly see the limits of being solely a lone wolf.
The truth is that Great Work is done in community — big projects that change the world, change perspectives, change the face of an industry, or solve a wicked problem- these can’t be done on our own! We need other people. To my mind, the four different kinds of people we need to do Great Work — broadly, I would call them: mentors, collaborators, audience, and support.
Mentors Can Help You Achieve Your Great Work
First up, we need people willing to teach us things — we need mentors. This is true whether we are in college or just getting started in our career or if we are moving into a new space- new fields, sectors, skill sets, whatever. Especially when we are doing a big shift- moving into an entirely new industry or a whole new type of skill, we must have MENTORS.
I have had many, many mentors in my day. In Ph.D. programs, mentorship is the primary instructional model. I’ve noticed two flavors of mentors- those who want disciples, and those who want apprentices.
Discipleship is where every project is fundamentally your mentor’s project. Your job is to do what they tell you to do, exactly as they themselves would have done it, and you should not expect much credit for your work, because really, it’s their work.
Experts who desire discipleship from their collaborators are often really big names in their fields and very successful. And my guess is that they are just lone wolves without the skills to really collaborate. I believe that most of them want what’s best for their collaborators, but they just don’t know how to let go of ANY control.
I’ve found a lot of compassion for the mentors I’ve had like this, because when you are at the top of your game and trying to stay there, it’s easy to feel like every mistake is a threat, and everyone on your team needs to get and stay in line. It’s got to be hard to feel that much pressure… and I can say from experience that it’s hard to be their mentee, as well.
But listen, we go along because if this amazing person is willing to teach us what they know it will be soooooo worth it later. And it has been! I’ve learned from some of the best, and their perspectives changed me forever.
If your mentor requires discipleship and you aren’t happy with that, it helps to keep your eye on that next step. Trying to change someone who is used to disciples, by being that one special disciple who is elevated to collaborator status it’s nearly impossible.
Instead, just know that this is a limited-time gig, and just focus on learning as much as you can so that you can take an opportunity on another team when one arises.
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.
Now, not all mentors require disciples. In fact, most of the mentors that I’ve had really wanted apprentices. They wanted their ideas spread far and wide, and they wanted you to take what they could teach you and go be great!
These people are usually either naturally pack wolves or lone wolves who have done the work to figure out how to work with others. These are the best mentors, because they care about what it takes for you to learn the basics, master the intermediate skills, and then innovate on your own. They will create these chances for you, and make sure you receive at least some credit.
My graduate advisor at Columbia, Deanna Kuhn, and my post-doctoral advisor at Pitt, Christ Schunn were great at this. Both of them are extremely respected in their fields, and yet, they were mostly concerned that their students became competent, innovative, successful researchers.
I learned a lot about collaboration by looking back at how they set clear visions for their teams, and then created opportunities for their students to figure out how to succeed. Excellence was required in both cases, but I never felt micro-managed or controlled, unlike how I did in the cases of those mentors I’ve had who prefer disciples.
Either way, whether you are lucky enough to get an apprenticeship, or lucky enough to be taken up the wing of a giant and spend some time as their disciple, mentors are CRITICAL. Trying to get by without them is a great way to slow-walk your career, and your great work!
Great Work Requires Collaboration
Now, once you are trained up enough to join the ranks of a straight collaborator, this is where things get fun. There is truly nothing like a team of experts coming together to create something amazing. That could be a meeting, a book, a Broadway show or just you and your partner coming together to raise a family. The magic of collaboration is in the combinatorial effect.
As a lone wolf, I understood collaboration for a long time as simply division of labor. The team or leader decides on an outcome and we each do our part. Division of labor, where individual contributions kinda come together into a final project is a powerful way to get things done… but it’s nothing compared to the magic that comes when a group of experts come together and create something new. The ideas that spark, the innovations that flow, and the clarification of your ideas that just is a natural part of the process… that’s the real magic of collaboration.
A good friend of mine, she was my first guest on the podcast, actually, Dr. Alyssa Adams. She and I have been collaborating for years — I was her coach, she was my podcast coach, and right when the pandemic began she and I collaborated on a program called Support Lab.
Support Lab was a kind of amazing experience — it was a highly charged, stressful, and uncertain time and Alyssa and I just wanted to create a space where coaches and therapists could get together and support each other.
She and I both have expertise in practice building, marketing, sales, and business-building more broadly. Alyssa has great strengths in being organized and systematized, and my strengths are in program design and facilitation.
When we began working on Support Lab, it felt like standard collaboration. I’ll do this, you do that and we’ll do the thing we agreed to do. But as we collaborated on the bits and pieces of Support Lab, I noticed something right away.
What I had originally pictured In my head was better when we were done with it. A program that I was designing in my head was similar of course, but it was also- entirely different in some ways that I would never have expected.
— It seems like a small thing, but the programs I had designed hadn’t had a resources center before. Somehow, through our collaboration, we designed a really robust set of resources we called the Vault. Those resources were very valuable and the participants really enjoyed it I think! But, I wouldn’t have put it in my course and maybe Alyssa wouldn’t have put it in hers, but our strengths came together and there it was.
And, while facilitating the group, I noticed something similar. My energy in facilitating groups is very high energy, go team, making progress. With Alyssa there I noticed that my own facilitation style stabilized and became more authentic. Her more stable energy helped me to connect with people more deeply, on a more substantive level. And it was simply the magic of co-facilitation! —
It’s hard to describe the magic of collaboration, but the crux of it seems to be this- what you get from solid, trusting, respectful collaboration is better than what you get on your own… but not just because there are more people to do the work and there’s this opportunity to delegate but because entirely new doors open, entirely new skills develop, and new ways of being, emerge.
This insight—that the best of collaboration comes from co-creating and being open to new ideas and entirely new approaches as they emerge — is complicated because it definitely opens the door to disagreement, slowdowns and moments when you aren’t entirely sure what to do. It is easier to just divide up the work and accomplish what we agreed to do.
But, do that for too long, and frankly, it gets boring. But if you can figure out the skills of collaboration, then complicating factors of strong personalities and differences of opinion are worth it in the end, because the work is so much better.
And, maybe more importantly, our experience of the work is so much deeper.
I think that the hard truth is that our own single, individual perspective isn’t likely to be enough to really blow the lid off a wicked problem or revolutionize a field. Even Steve Jobs, who by all accounts was an innovative genius of epic proportions, had Steve Wozniak actually coding the software and hardware on the backend.
I’ve come to believe — even though it’s hard for my poor lone wolf — that if we’re looking to make a really big contribution, we need other experts to elevate our work.
Your Audience is Important Too!
But, that’s not all we need. For the work we are doing to actually impact a problem or make a difference or change lives, we need to understand our audience too. Whether that’s a constituency, a marketplace, a team, or a family, great ideas, beautifully executed don’t make a damn bit of difference the people it’s designed for don’t want it.
And we’ve all seen a terrible idea take off like wildfire, just because it scratched an itch that no one else had noticed. Great work is largely done in service, which means you need to understand those people you’re serving. Not taking the time to understand them, listen to them, and get into the details of their problem as they see it is actually a pretty intense form of self-sabotage.
I learned this the hard way in educational policy. Before I worked in consulting trying to help teachers implement DOE policy, I saw a lot of merit to a lot of policies and programs that people were trying to sell to schools.
But that changed, when I was walking side by side with teachers I learned something more important — teachers are fundamentally overwhelmed. Therefore, every new policy is up against a teachers capacity, period.
And, I noticed, it was the programs that provided consulting and support that were able to actually get teachers to use their products. Those who didn’t simply sat on the shelf and were never re-ordered.
If you know your audience, you can actually impact them. If you don’t, you will simply be a part of the noise.
Finally, my changemaker friends, we need support. It’s all well and good to have mentors teaching you the ropes, collaborators bringing you into cool projects, and an audience who wants your solutions, but none of that matters if you are dead on your feet, grinding away long past your bedtime, and so driven that you are missing your children grow up.
I say this from experience — the people who give you a sandwich, make you stop working at 6, invite you to a happy hour, and force you to play Yahtzee on a Saturday afternoon, might be the people most responsible for the success of your Great Work. Without these people, your ideas will be boring and you won’t be any fun to collaborate with because you are running on empty. —
So if you actually want to do great work you need to make sure you’re paying attention to and developing the relationships of the people who love you.
Great Work, by its nature, absolutely depends on other people.
This is why one of the essential pillars of Great Work is that it is done in community. So, if you are feeling like your great work could be deeper, or that you are looking for a more vibrant experience of your Great Work, I would suggest that you reach out to others.
Who do you need to learn from? Who would it be incredibly fun to collaborate with? And what family members or friends do you need to reconnect with so you have the support you need? Reach out to these people and your Great Work will thank you.
I’ll see you then.
Thank you for joining me today on Unleashing Your Great Work podcast.
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See you next time.