Stay small: Why growth at all costs is not a universal goal

Joan Westenberg

Joan Westenberg. Source: supplied.

When I was in my early 20s, I gave everything I had as a writer and PR hacker working in tech companies.

I approached everything from a place of cosmically important ambition. It all felt significant, as though it mattered so much. There was an urgent need to do more, to make more, to produce more, and to always be working on growth.

I think we all buy into that growth obsession, sooner or later. It’s considered to be a universal good, it’s considered to be the only path that has value. We have to look for new ways to make more money, have more customers, get more done, and be more productive. We need lifehacks, shortcuts, quick wins and top 10 lists. Everything we do has to bend our wills and our hearts to growth, no matter what it means.

To me, it’s more important to follow the craft.

When I take on a project, my goal isn’t always to find passion in it. My goal isn’t always to love it. My goal is to be proud of each word I write, each photograph I take, each video I direct, each website I build, each script I pen.

I may not feel a spark of heat or joy, but I will do work that makes me proud. And in that work I will follow my craft.

There’s work that makes you feel passion and there’s bill-paying work, and I may not always get to choose the one over the other. I can seek passion, and I do seek it. But when it’s not there, all I have is my self respect, and a certain level of care for the craft that inspired me to do what I do.

When I decided to take a break from working in tech startups, I didn’t take a break from doing the work I loved. I just did it less, and I did on the terms that I wanted. I worked with a small VC fund on their comms. I helped out and launched a few products. And I felt satisfied, rejuvenated and excited about it. I wasn’t working 12 hour days, hustling and grinding for growth.

Too often, I’ve felt that some of the founding teams I’ve worked with don’t care about the craft itself, whether it’s the code that builds their platform or the creative work that tells their story.

They just care about whether work = growth.

I love writing, and I love designing and I love making stuff, and yeah I derive a lot of value and meaning in my life from doing that and doing it well. But when growth is all that matters, that work doesn’t have innate value just because it’s great work. It only has value if it makes the graph point up and to the right.

After my hiatus, I decided I didn’t want to go back to that growth culture. I wanted to stay small. When I started my own advertising and PR firm, I never called it a startup and I never set the goal of growth at all costs.

I figured on one thing: if I could do good work, that I loved, that I was proud to stand by — and do it without sacrificing myself along the way — I’d call it a life lived well.

Remember. You don’t ‘make it’ — it makes you.

In the growth paradigm, there’s a point in your life where your work has paid off and you can be happy. When everything changes for the better.

I think when I bought into that, I missed the entire point. The work I did was all aiming at reaching one level where it’d be worth it.

Instead of focusing on doing it for myself, doing it for the love of it, doing it for the people who enjoyed my music, all I gave a shit about was doing it so that one day I would be a big deal.

But you don’t make it in life. You don’t make it in business, or in music, or as an artist. You never make it. It makes you.

The struggle, the trying, the striving and fighting and building, it makes you into something far beyond what you thought you were going to be. And you don’t always like it, but you can’t ever stop it.

You don’t make it, because you think making it means having your life change utterly, and having your past self shattered along the way.

When growth is all that matters, that’s what we search for.

When growth is all that matters in a startup, in a business, in an agency — you’re only searching for the chance to be, you’re not focusing on the chance to do.

There is a difference between being and doing. The difference between caring about what you do, and caring about what you’ll be.

The hardest part of accomplishing anything is always getting through what must be gotten through. Doing the work that sits on your list for weeks on end, and ticking off the jobs that you hated doing, but still finding a way to do them with care and with focus.

The work of an artisan. The work of a chef, who must prepare and cut each ingredient before the art that is truly great cooking can come together. The work of an apprentice, whose work matters in its tedium, because it enables the beauty of the finished design.

That’s what builds the world — taking pride in the day-to-day crap that must be done. The day-to-day stuff that you can’t avoid, and can’t pretend isn’t bearing down on you with all the weight it can muster, but still deserves a labour of love.

We kid ourselves into believing that if we made it, our lives and our experiences would change. We’d go from having to do, to just enjoying being. As if, when we make it to a certain level, it’s all fairy dust and flights of fantasy and bottles of champagne. As if, when we achieve growth, we’ll live a life of comfort and meaning by sheer virtue of that growth, separated from our work and our craft.

But 80% of this thing we call living is about doing the small things that deeply matter, and doing them with care. It’s about the work, and the sacrificed-for moments of play.

It’s really about cooking dinner, and feeding the cat, and snatching a few seconds to kiss the person you love before they rush out the door trailing scarves and notebooks and debris. That stuff makes us. It makes us into people with connections and a search history. It makes us into craftspeople. It makes us into creatives, instead of drones.

You have to try to care though. You have to try to care about some of this stuff, try to care about the things that you do when you don’t feel like a winner.

Because even if you do reach that far away goal that you’ve been dreaming about, your life is still going to contain the same amount of day-to-do honest crap as before — if not twice as much — and if you haven’t found joy in your craft, or you’ve just separated yourself from it, you won’t find joy in what you do.

If you don’t grow for the sake of growth, and you don’t abandon the work you love, that’s an existential crisis you might never have to face.

If you keep pushing to the point where you’ll feel like you’ve made it, life is going to make you into whatever it wants just the same. There’s no way around that. But you might reach the end point and ask yourself what’s left and what’s next, if all you’ve strived for feels like all you’ve lived before.

You can still be a dreamer, but you can’t let those dreams depend on a point of success and happiness. You have to let them be dreams about doing things, not being.

This is kind of paradoxical, and it’s nothing easy at all. In fact, just wrapping your head around it could take a lifetime. It might even take you half a lifetime to agree with me in the first place. It’s taken me 31 years to get here myself.

But I believe I’m right. I believe doing is what counts, not being. I believe that there’s no such thing as making it, there’s just a long road that you walk the same way, no matter how big you get.

I believe in staying creative, for creativity’s sake. In staying focused on the craft. In staying driven by the beauty of the work that I do, and in living a life that is supported and given an outlet by that work. I believe in staying small.

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