What You *Have* to Do or What You *Get* to Do

What are you thinking about when you are thinking about the things you have to do? What are you thinking about when you are thinking about obligation?

Now, what are you thinking about when you are thinking about the things you get to do? What are you thinking about when you are thinking about opportunity?

The difference between these two things is the difference between indifference on the one hand, and energy, power, creativity and excellence on the other. And it’s all in our mind, in how we see the world.

Obligation can creep into our work. If you are in sales, your boss wants to know how many meetings you booked, how many proposals you sent out, how many phone calls you made. If you are a developer, your boss wants to know how many bugs you fixed, how many lines of code you wrote. Whatever role you might be in, the nagging question is about how many deliverables did you ship, how many points did you put on the board, what you have to do.

That constant demand of obligation affects our outlook and our behavior. In your workplace, do you feel like people are judging and evaluating your behavior and actions? Or do you feel like they are honestly curious about your work, giving useful ideas, lifting you up?

Are your ideas encouraged or dismissed? And most of all, do people in the organization talk about who is the smartest, with the most power and budget, or do they talk about who is passionate, and doing really exciting work?

The difference between these two conflicting attitudes is our mindset. People have mindsets, and ways they see circumstances and opportunities. So do entire teams, and whole organizations. The habits of individuals will eventually make up the culture of the whole.

Turning a culture from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset can be done by changing the language we use and the habits we encourage.

We can learn everywhere, nearly all of the time, if we are open to it, and prepared. Books, movies, conversations, situations, schools, and focused research on the internet can all be valuable learning sources, but only if we are open and prepared for the unexpected, the surprising. Because when we recognize surprising events, or changes in circumstances, we develop new mental connections which incite active learning.

The way to build a company and culture that is alive with innovation, collaboration and energy, is by first creating a culture that encourages constant growth and learning.

Cultures of learning have three driving principles:

  1. We can reach high learning standards when the culture provides rich and readily available experiences and resources
  2. We are most successful when we are held responsible for our own learning and have autonomy to pursue our interests
  3. Social interactions, and active practice, are fundamental to learning

While cultures of learning can transform the speed and agility of your business, it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes deliberate practice.

Most managers and leaders talk about deliverables and milestones and outputs. If you are a manager or leader in your organization, consider using language which creates an expectation that people take time and mental space for learning on a regular basis. That’s right, create an expectation that everyone learn a little something every day and then share what they learned.

If you encourage constant learning, you will have a much higher performing team in the long run, not just a stream of undifferentiated deliverables. Here’s a framework that will help guide people develop more intentional learning habits.

Schedule the time
For the most consistently creative and diligent people in the world, learning is a sacred time of day. Maybe it’s first thing in the morning. Maybe after exercise, maybe before breakfast, maybe after. People argue it lots of ways. The time of day isn’t necessarily that important when starting out. What’s important is the starting. Later, when the habit gets more ingrained, you can find out which particular times of day work best for you.

Make it easy
Minimize the amount of energy it takes to get started, remove all the hurdles to taking action that we can. If we want to start jogging more, we should lay our gear and our shoes by the bed before we go to sleep. That way, it will be right there staring at us in the morning. If we want to be better guitar players, start by taking the guitar out of the closet and tuning it up, and having it nearby. That way, it’s easier to put up and start playing when the mood strikes.

Prime your mind
Most of the writers, creators and constant learners I know keep a scratch pad handy. I use Evernote, but you can use anything to capture ideas throughout the day. Usually I write short fragments or expressions that mean only something to me. I’ll be in the grocery store, have a little insight, and then write a few words to recollect that moment later. Otherwise it’ll be gone.

Make teaching the goal
Aristotle once said, “Teaching is the highest form of learning.” In order to teach something thoughtfully, deliberately, and effectively, you have to understand it yourself. To have a deeper understanding of something, there is no substitute for research, writing, immersion, and practice of that idea. The very act of trying to write about something you don’t understand is itself an act of learning. Dan Pink is a celebrated public speaker, but I heard him once say that first and foremost, he considers himself a writer, because before he can speak coherently about anything he has to first understand it.

Become a fan
If you want to become better at anything, start as a fan. Follow, study, and friend anyone in that domain that you want to get better at. The first step to getting better is to be a fan of those who are better. And when you find someone who does what you want to do, what you aspire to? Stare at them, study their every move, their every brush stroke, their every breathe, because that’s how to break it down. Once you break down what you love, you can rebuild using those tools, but in your own voice.

Don’t try to make it perfect

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
– Anne Lamott, writer

Building a culture with a growth mindset is building success for the long term. After all, our work should be a journey to love and enjoy, not an obligation.

To learn about how a learning mindset can change your life and your work see:


SmallActs-3DShawn Hunter is President and Founder of Mindscaling, a company building beautiful online learning courses based on the work of best-selling authors. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab your own copy now. Have a meeting coming up? Let’s talk.

Twitter: @gshunter
Say hello: email@gshunter.com
Web: www.shawnhunter.com