Inspiration vs. Accountability

I spent most of my 20s in college libraries. From Mannheim to Karlsruhe and from Boston to Munich, I have “librated” all over the place.

In the beginning, it was essential. There were many of us trying to survive our first semester, and the only way we’d be able to do it was together. Pool our brains, meet at the library, and then study, study, study. I think we all felt a sense of camaraderie and duty, and it was a big relief to know we weren’t struggling alone.

When I first started working for myself, the need for money drove me into all kinds of odd jobs – most of which I tackled in the library. Now, sitting among students had a different feel to it: It was me vs. them, the worker vs. the thinkers, the pragmatist vs. the theorists, and I wanted “to win.” There was nothing to win, of course, except financial survival, but the smugness of “I’m putting in the same time as you, but I’m making money, and you’re not” definitely helped me get through the first, mostly fruitless years, even if I never voiced it outright.

During my Masters, I did both, work and study, and so, once again, I landed in the library. Now I could pick either accountability or inspiration, whichever one I needed at any given hour. I’d take pride in the fact that I was earning money with what I was doing in the morning, then try to memorize leadership models from a bunch of ugly slides in the afternoon, like everyone else.

It’s been a few years since I’ve left behind the comfy confines of the library, and I have to say: The closer I get to defining my mission in the life, and the better I understand my purpose, the less accountability I need, and the more inspiration I feel.

In fact, I’ve reached a stage where being surrounded by other busy bees seems to hinder me more than it helps. It mainly feels like noise. I don’t need a visual guilt trip anymore. “Look! These people are all slaving away too! Never mind whether they enjoy it. Just do your work!”

When your accountability lies with an audience or group of customers, you no longer serve the master of “productivity for productivity’s sake.” There are real, human reasons to do the best you can do, and if those reasons don’t suffice, you’re in the wrong line of work.

Inspiration is a much better source of work energy than accountability via “you’re not working hard enough” reminders. The former is self-sustaining. Intrinsic. It flows from the inside to the outside. Therefore, it allows you to be productive wherever you go, ideally in a space you’ve designed; a place that directs, amplifies, and reinforces your natural inspiration rather than crush it with the distracting screams of “see what the rest of the world is doing, and by the way, most of them are unhappy.”

When you’re inspired, you don’t need to go to WeWork. Your mission is just as important to do from home. You don’t need to feel like a cog in the big industrial, consumerism-oriented machine. You can look out the window, think of the people you’re serving, and get back to work. This isn’t to say libraries, co-working spaces, and open floor offices are inherently bad – it is to say that you’ve hit your stride when you no longer need to rely on any of them to get things done.

Inspiration is the carrot to accountability’s stick, but it’s a carrot that, once you’ve eaten it whole, you’ll never have to eat it again. You’ll just keep going regardless.

Few of us start out inspired. If you’ve wanted to be a director since you were eight years old and became one at 13, more power to you. For the rest of us, it’s fine to start out at the library. Begin with accountability, but never stop looking for inspiration. Find your perpetual motion machine, and show us your truest, bestest work.