Thought Catalysts: Erik Wahl on Stopping the Work Grind

October 18, 2016 Erik Wahl, Speakers' Spotlight

There are leaders and then there are followers. Generally the idea is to be the former. 

But perhaps it's worth a shot to look at this phrase the other way around. Maybe to be a leader, it's worth being a follower. 

The people who lead the way with awesome ideas and unique talents did so by acquiring knowledge and applying it in new and interesting ways. We all need to learn stuff to lead stuff. And those who do it best inspire others to act. 

They are Thought Catalysts. Here they are as told by the movers and shakers from Speakers' Spotlight


Is your work a spark or a grind?

I’ve worked with tens of thousands of business professionals over the past decade. The vast majority of them have the most honorable intentions. They entered the workforce with a deep desire to impact change. They wanted to make a difference.

But, for any number of reasons (institutional complacency, corporate cultural resistance, over-regulations in the marketplace, increased competition, budget cutbacks, etc.), they have lost their inspiration. And without that spark, work has become a grind.

While your company’s success might be a respectable, short-term motivator, working for the company’s sake is not enough. You must be working toward your own personal growth and development. When you rediscover that spark, the company benefits from your continuous improvement. It’s not the other way around.

Well-meaning professionals are subsequently left with motivators like the company’s profits and its statement of purpose—noteworthy factors but not personally moving factors—certainly not enough to spark a worker to soar to become the best possible version of who they were designed to be.

The truth is that to unearth your greatest spark for innovation, you have to set your company’s mission statement aside and delve deep within your why. Why do you do what you do? You have to return to that beginner’s mind, when you dreamed about what you wanted to be when you grew up. You need to remember what mattered first, not what matters right now. The tyranny of the urgent needs to be supplanted by the tyranny of the ultimate. What ultimately matters . . . to you?

Winston Churchill noted that at first, people shape their life’s work and then it shapes them.

At the time, Churchill was giving the positive side of the story: work makes us better people. Unfortunately, the other side of the story is more common. We choose our work to become the person we desire, but then work makes us people we never intended to be. Instead of us shaping work, it shapes us, often for the worse.

No matter what side of this journey you’re currently on, you cannot escape that your work shapes you, one way or the other. “Work is at the center of our lives and influences who we are and all that we do,” writes Al Gini in My Work, My Self. “It is not just about getting paid, or accomplishing a specific task or project. For better or worse —our work defines us. Work is one of the most significant contributing factors to one’s inner life and development.” If you don’t personally take ownership and spark your future, your company’s endless quotas will—and you will be left to endure the grind.

When you’re asking yourself is my work a spark or a grind, there are pat answers and there are profound ones. We typically default to the pat answers. They are the first to come to mind. They are also the logical answers. And so when you ask yourself this question, “Why do I do what I do?” your answer is likely “To pay the bills” or “To put food on the table.”

Those aren’t your deepest reasons for working. They won’t inspire you to your greatest potential. They aren’t the things for which you’d surrender all else—not in an enterprise economy. This doesn’t mean they aren’t true needs. We all have to pay the bills and eat. But you don’t stay up at night dreaming about utilities and groceries. If your goals don’t light a spark for your own personal breakthrough, then what does?

I can’t answer that question. Only you can. Let me offer a little reminder with a paraphrase of the Howard Thurman quote: Don’t ask what your company needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. Because what your company needs is people who have come alive.

What makes you come alive is your spark, no matter where you work or what your job description says you do. When you know your reason for why you do what you do, the game changes. Victor Frankl concluded in Man’s Search for Meaning, if you know your “why,” you can endure any what. And if you know your spark, you can endure any grind.

This piece originally appeared in Biz Journals, October 2015.


Erik Wahl is an artist who helps companies tap their inner creativity. To read more of his posts, visit his page on Speakers' Spotlight. To have Erik speak at your next function, email Speakers' Spotlight at 

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