There’s a scene in the movie Rocketman where a young Elton John plays the piano for an American band (don’t worry; no spoilers here).
After the show, Elton asks the lead singer in the band, How do I become a songwriter?
The lead singer replies, Start writing some songs.
In this deceptively simple advice lies the key to success. The author Austin Kleon calls it “doing the verb.”
In many cases, we want to be the noun (a songwriter) without doing the verb (writing songs). We tell ourselves we’re going to be an entrepreneur, but we don’t build a product or service. We tell ourselves we’re going to be a novelist, but we don’t write a novel (instead, we tweet about writing a novel).
The key is to forget the noun and do the verb instead.
If you want to be a blogger, start blogging every week.
If you want to be a stand-up comedian, start doing stand-up comedy at open mic nights.
If you want to be a podcaster, start podcasting.
Doing the verb can provide a sobering reality check by forcing you to consider the journey. Often, we fall in love with the noun—the end destination—and all the status we attach to being a songwriter or a stand-up comedian. But we neglect the work required to do the verb. We don’t want to climb a mountain. We want to have climbed a mountain. We don’t want to write a novel. We want to have written one.
Doing the verb reorients you away from the outcome and toward the process. A focus on the noun inspires grandiose fantasies. We become mesmerized by the thought of achieving fame or getting a coveted job. So we begin searching for shortcuts, life hacks, and advice from self-proclaimed gurus who peddle myths. When reality fails to meet our soaring expectations, we feel like a failure.
The amateur focuses on outcomes and expects immediate results. The professional plays the long game and focuses on the process—the verb—perfecting it for years with no immediate payoff. This is why, in many professions, doing the verb is called “practicing.” Doctors practice medicine. Lawyers practice law. When your focus is on the verb—when you’re still practicing—you continuously hone your craft, challenge yourself, and get better.
It’s when we stop doing the verb that we stop growing. When we think we have become the noun—when we believe we have “arrived”—we don’t learn. We make confident conclusions without gathering all the facts. We blame others when things don’t go as planned. Our ego starts writing checks our body can’t cash.
Doing the verb has another benefit: It can turn work into play. As Khe Hy writes at RadReads, “If the process is more important than the result, you play. If the result is more important than the process, you work.” When our focus is on doing the verb, the process itself becomes the reward.
The next time you’re tempted to fall for the glamour of the noun, just remember: You’re better off doing the verb instead.
[Thank you to Inner Circle members Christina Guthier, Grace Carter, Cathy Cheng, Nicholas Lauren for their comments on an earlier version of this article].
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Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned law professor and bestselling author. Click here to download a free copy of his e-book, The Contrarian Handbook: 8 Principles for Innovating Your Thinking. Along with your free e-book, you’ll get the Weekly Contrarian — a newsletter that challenges conventional wisdom and changes the way we look at the world (plus access to exclusive content for subscribers only).