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The Emotional Labor of Building a Business

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I’m fascinated by successful people, those who say, “This is how I want my life to look,” and then they go create it. I find them interesting because most people don’t live like that. Most people, myself included, settle. We settle, and we aren’t willing to put in the work, the “emotional labor” that Seth Godin¬†describes in his book “Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

What Is Emotional Labor?

Emotional labor, as Godin describes it, requires:

  • Working without a map
  • Vision and the willingness to do something about what you see
  • Staring into the abyss of choice and picking a path

Emotional labor is hard. I was thinking about that very fact recently, when I was asked the question, “What would you do if you won the lottery?” I didn’t feel like answering the question, and then I stepped back and wondered why. Was it because I think planning my future, my success, and my happiness on the probability of winning the lottery is not a good idea? Maybe. No offense to the lottery, but I’d rather put my attention and effort toward something that I actually have a decent chance at achieving. The real question for me was whether I didn’t feel like answering it because I didn’t want to put in the emotional effort in order to do so. That was a little scary, because it then made me question whether or not I put in enough emotional labor on a regular basis to actually build the life and business that I want to create.

How Do You Move a Mountain?

If you wanted to answer the question, “What is it that I want for my life and business (lottery or no lottery)?,” it’s going to take quite a bit of emotional labor to come up with a response and an actionable plan to make it happen. It’s going to take even more effort to get out of the bed every morning and do the work to achieve it. Penelope Trunk wrote about this recently; she said that “the most triumphant moments are the days when I have no idea how I’m going to fix anything, but I get out of bed anyway. On the other hand, the moments of huge achievement are not actually that hard to get to. By the time you’re close, you are so motivated to get there that it doesn’t feel like work at all.”

So, maybe that’s the answer.¬†Moving the big rocks is actually easier than figuring out what rocks you want to move in the first place. In fact, I know that to be true. On the days when I’m disconnected from my vision, I’m floundering, and I’m not sure what to do, everything is a struggle, even getting out of bed. The real work, though, comes when I decide, “OK, I’ve got to get my mind around this.” I sit down and commit to doing the emotional work of reconnecting with my vision and figuring out my next move (without a map). That can take hours sometimes, days even, and it’s not easy. There are times when it’s very tempting to quit. It requires digging deeper and being brutally honest, but at the end of all of that, I know what rocks I want to move.

Then the work becomes unbelievably easy. All of a sudden, I can move mountains in no time flat. It becomes fun and engaging, and it’s amazing to see the progress I’m able to make and the passion and energy I have for my life and business.

Now Go Move It

Most days, we get so caught up in the habitual doing that we don’t take the time to connect with our real reason for being, the real purpose that should drive our lives and businesses. Connecting with that real purpose, figuring out what you want your life and business to look like, and deciding the core role you need to play to achieve that vision is actually the hardest part. Once you take the time and put in the emotional work to figure all of that out, the rest becomes obvious and much easier.

Do you feel that you put in enough emotional labor on a regular basis to build the life and business you really want?

Photo by Flickr user Richard0, licensed under CC 2.0

6 Responses to “The Emotional Labor of Building a Business”

  1. Great post. Just what I needed to start this work week as I’ve just added a few more items to my list. I don’t have a map yet to accomplish them but they will get done. Good stuff.

  2. Great post Amber. And I absolutely agree: “Moving the big rocks is actually easier than figuring out what rocks you want to move in the first place.”

    It always seems like actually writing out my to-do list or breaking projects into tasks is so much harder than actually doing the tasks. Sometimes I’ve gone and done tasks, then added them to my to-do list in addition to the other just to give myself more motivation to do it.

    Planning where you need to go is so critical, but in many ways, the hardest part. I think that’s why so many people tend to skip the planning stage and wing it. Unfortunately, without that planning stage, businesses ultimately tend to fail.

  3. I went through a quarter life crises a few years ahead of the proscribed 25. Simply put, I had been sung a particular song and dance from both media, friends and my family since I was old enough to read: do well in school and land a great job, then keep your nose clean and it all works out. Getting laid off 5 times in 2 years while living in silicon valley in the early 2000’s put that mantra into questions. I confronted my father and was given the following advice: Make a list of the top 100 things you want to have, do and become. Then go find someone who has accomplished most of those things, and if you like their life, as long as what they are doing is legal, moral and ethical, grab onto their coat tails and do whatever it is that they are doing. I remember asking, “what if they are a toothbrush salesman (or a shit hauler..). He laughed and said, if being a toothbrush salesman gets you everything you want in life, wouldn’t you be pretty happy?

    I think most people get stuck on the question and process you mention, because they have nothing to model on. OR they try to think too big. What to do you put on the list. Simple enough, every time you think to yourself, gee that would be cool as you watch someone surfing (traveling, parenting, working from an ipad..), you put it down on the list. Almost no item individually is life changing. Its the collection of them that makes you smile.

    As for emotional labor, it is genuine labor when you have no mentor or path to follow. But when you are holding onto someone’s coat tails, someone who says “of course you can do it, after all I just did”, it is a whole lot easier.

  4. I can totally empathize with how you feel when you are disconnected from your vision and you “flounder”. I started my job search last year and it really demanded the very last ounce of energy and will that I had in me to keep going irrespective of the setbacks. The most psychologically demanding moment is when I open the job portals to being my search. Its hope and despair interwoven in the very fabric of my mind. But lucky me I guess. I now am freelancing on Its great, no hassles, no haze but simply pure give and take. I guess my efforts have been well worth it in the end.