Your "Best Work" Doesn’t Exist Yet
Written by Caitland Conley
I’ve been freelancing for a little over three months now—which is to say I just received my first reasonably sized paycheck. It’s been difficult in all the expected ways, and easy in all the unexpected ones. (Like, regularly grocery shopping at 2:00 p.m. on a Tuesday, easy. Like, working three jobs at once—a mix of freelance, part time, and seasonal—difficult.) I’m slowly building a portfolio, and eventually I may even return to full-time work for the right challenge, but the gratification is far from immediate.
I started thinking about the idea of each of us completing our life’s “best work” and the societal pressure that it’s not only within us, but waiting for us to offer it, arms outstretched, to the world. That nonprofit you want to start? That book you want to write? Do it now. Why not right now? Just do it. But the idea that productivity and genius are a concentric circle, a symbiotic relationship? That simply isn’t true, and your loftiest career goals will take time, expertise, and a network of peers cheering you on.
The gestation period of your best work (your “life’s work”) is important. You might not be there now. Sometimes you aren’t ready. Sometimes you’re fresh out of college in your first full-time job and the biggest accomplishment you can manage is not ordering takeout after work. Sometimes you’re burned out from a high-stakes career and looking for an industry change, but clueless where to start. Sometimes you want to start a family, or work on other projects or simply enjoy life as it is.
A few years ago I was part of a team that was created to achieve one specific goal: execute a massive 18-month long website project. The momentum leading up to “go-live” was intense, where a lot of working late, very intimidating Google Sheets and bonding over challenging developments buoyed us.
But after go-live? We were lost. The days started to drag. We had to invent new job descriptions. In the day-to-day, we used our 18 months of working with each other to communicate our strengths as individual team members to the entire company. One became our resident tech troubleshooter, another our in-house SEO expert. Later, those team members went on to start their own agencies or leapt several levels up the corporate ladder. Those few months in the office were quiet, but the long-term payoff made itself known over the course of the following years. You could ask: Was that our “best” work, or an experience that inched us one step closer to what we’re good at?
Maybe you do know what you want to accomplish, or have an idea of something that could be your “best work.” You have a business venture you have to start, no matter what happens. You’ve been chipping away at a memoir for years.
How do you set yourself up for achievement of good work, your better work? Playing the long game could mean you break things into steps and chunks. Read specific books for research, or go on one informational interview with someone whose work you admire. Your “best work” doesn’t have to arrive in your lap today, but you do have the opportunity to create incremental goals for yourself that will propel you towards completing it.
Don’t be intimidated by career lulls along that journey. The periods where work is slower can make a high-achiever unhappy. You might want a steady thrum of bustling in your career, or you might be hungry to prove yourself. Career lulls are often touted as writer’s block or laziness, or a sign of a bad fit in a job.
But those lulls are often the times where you take up a watercolor class, go on a life-changing trip, pick up a freelance project in a new field and evaluate what you want from your life. (That’s not to say you should shout “boredom at work” from the rooftops. Part of getting good, fulfilling projects means asking your manager for challenges and communicating your longer-term career goals.)
My past career lulls have been times where personal relationships bloomed. I knew how to leave the office behind for the day, how to meet friends for drinks without letting something minor at work bleed into the conversation. They were times when I went to more networking events, where I read more books, where I had the mental energy and physical time to work on my passion projects after 5:00 p.m. Be grateful for these seasons, because you’ll miss them when they’re gone.
Let’s banish the idea of our life’s work being ripe for the taking if we only work up the courage to go for it. Sometimes you need years, time, mentorship. You might need models, something to aspire to. Perhaps you’re in the middle of a season where you’re proud of the work you’re doing, or a season where you’re not.
In the midst of overwhelming pressure to prove your talents are being well-used, remember: It doesn’t have to be the best thing you’ve ever done for it to be worthy of your time.
Caitland is a writer and editor based in New York by way of Tallahassee, Florida. She recently traded in her 9 to 5—and the ability to sing the Dolly Parton song—to freelance. In her free time, she runs Prospect Park, and stops to get coffee on the way to get coffee.