Throw the Sharks Back: Where Exceptional Creators Focus Their Efforts
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My grandfather eyed the man who was eyeing me.
I was young, maybe 6 or 7, and my Poppie had proposed we walk down to the water while my family waited for a table at a local Connecticut seafood restaurant. There, we discovered Little Jay’s favorite thing in the world: rocks. Specifically, rocks piled up along the water as a makeshift levee. Who knows what magical creatures could lurk just out of sight?
That day, I didn’t need to ask that question. There were magical creatures sitting all along the rocks. And they were dying.
The man my Poppie eyed who eventually eyed me was just some guy who thought it would be fun to go fishing that evening — only he kept catching these annoying little sharks. Every time he’d catch one, he’d simply toss it along the rocks. Naturally, the my already overactive brain roared into high gear. I get to see sharks AND touch them?!
And so, despite the man’s original intentions, I turned these sharks into slimy boomerangs. I ambled around the rocks, dutifully returning each to its home. Without so much as a glance at the fisherman, I’d approach one, pick it up by its tail, and slip it back into the water. The man kept catching sharks, and I kept right on throwing them back.
Had I not been with my Poppie, I might remember this story differently. He’s a Navy veteran who turns 90 this month, with tattoos on his arms and, recently, a cane in his hand. (Appropriately given my Poppie’s stereotypical swagger, the cane has a golden eagle’s head as its handle. He balls hard.)
Back along the rocks all those years ago, Poppie was a lot more spry, and so he was ready to pounce should the fisherman move anything more than his eyebrows in my direction. Poppie was the lone Jewish boy in an all-Italian neighborhood growing up after the Great Depression before going off to war. He wasn’t scared of a guy shaped like a pear drinking a sixer of Natty Light.
And so, Cheap Beer Bill kept catching sharks with intent to kill. And I kept saving them.
Did it matter? I have no idea. Did I really save them? Only until dinner. Did I earn any karma points? Only enough for the lame toys at heaven’s counter. Heaven is a sweet arcade. (#NewBandName)
I have no idea if what I did mattered, but I couldn’t just sit idly by and not take action.
Today, I kinda feel like my career mimics that day with my Poppie. Maybe you feel the same way. Over and over again, you and I watch as companies do things in plain sight that we consider abhorrent. They try to justify it, but we feel in our bones that they’re wrong. And we try to change it. We fight the good fight. But does it make any difference? Maybe that’s not the point.
Maybe the point is to live with ourselves a little bit better. Maybe the point is to know we tried our best and let the chips (sharks?) fall as they may. We spend so much time concluding things like, “I can’t make a difference,” or, “That’s just the cost of doing business,” or, “They’re too big for my actions to matter,” or, naturally, “I don’t have the time, team, budget, permission, industry, skills, reach.”
These thoughts only prevent us from taking action, and the more I think about this career stuff, the more I realize: ACTION is all a career really is. There’s no finish line until we’re finished. There’s no winning.
There’s no control, either — not when it comes to results. We can project and predict and plan, but the only things we can actually control are the actions we take. We can try to engineer an outcome, but the fact remains, our career is built by the actions we do or don’t take. So if you’re trying to ensure success BEFORE acting, you’ll never do anything. You might never act. But actions are what makes up a thriving career.
Like it or not, we have no idea if we’ll get results, feel fulfilled, change their minds, win their hearts, or save the species. The only thing we can do is try.
Keep throwing the sharks back.
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
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