The Story Economy Blog

Two Desires, and the Gift of Being Unchosen

My dad used to tell a story about when he was in the Army. He was drafted during the Korean War, and like all GIs, sent to basic training. Aside from the “basic” of basic training, he had to choose between two or three specialized training programs. He always said that he picked Morse code training because it was the longest program, and he figured since he was probably going to get sent to the front to die, it was a few more weeks to live.

At some point, he realized that they were going to be assigning a new instructor for the class. So, he figured that if he could learn tohandpicked transmit and interpret Morse code faster than anyone else in his class, he would get chosen to be the instructor (and not get sent to the front to die). He worked harder than anyone else, and was by far the best at Morse code in his class. The short taps, the long taps, the dots, the dashes: he was straight-up awesome at it. Surely, he’d be the one they’d pick. Right?

But they didn’t pick my dad. They picked one of the worst students in the class instead. Typical Army move, my dad always used to say with a sigh. It was merely the first of many things he would experience that didn’t make sense about the Army, he would add.

Now, I’m not sure the Army is really that much like life.

But what is like life is this: watching other people get chosen, especially when you believe that you’re better. And the frustration that follows.

The Joy and the Trouncing

This desire to be chosen: it’s at the base of our free market system. People essentially compete to sell stuff to other people. I think it’s amazing, and I don’t want to live in any other system.

The way I see it, there are basically two pieces to this “choose me!” business.

First, there is the desire to beat out the competition and rise to the top. It’s a little bit of a zero sum situation: for one person/organization to win, another needs to lose. A choice is being made, and you want to be the thing someone chooses. Don’t listen to her; listen to me. Don’t take that approach; take my approach. Don’t hire him; hire me. Don’t buy that brand; buy our brand. For consumer brands, it’s about gaining market share. For agencies, it’s about being the agency of record. For charities, it’s about being the one who gets the donation. For sole proprietors and small companies like me, it’s about securing the contract before another person who does exactly what you do swoops in with a more compelling package. (Or worse, a lower price.)

You have passion and skills, and you choose yourself to be in business. Absolutely. But then, you have to get chosen to survive. And the getting chosen part often requires a completely different set of skills than the skills it takes to make the product or provide the service. Hence, the frustration. Because suddenly, it can feel like it’s just a game of who can talk the loudest.

And then there is the second piece—which is just the joy of getting to do more of what you’re doing on a bigger scale and for other people. It’s not so much the desire to create; rather, it’s the desire to share what you’ve created and see it have a life in the world. It’s the part where you get to share your gift. Where everything is abundant and no one has to lose.

I don’t know about you, but I really want to tuck myself into that blanket of joy, and just hibernate there. It’s such better energy. But I keep getting tangled in the sticky webbing that coats the desire to rise to the top—and feeling frustrated that I can’t get my voice heard on the scale I want. Because if I don’t have an audience, the scale is only me. And that doesn’t feel very abundant.

When I look around at the marketing out there, I know big and small companies are constantly toggling between these two desires: the joy and the trouncing. Maybe you are toggling at this very moment.

So I thought I’d share what I’m trying to do right now—as in, this day, this week (because the last two weeks of toggling have worn me out completely).

It’s three things really: Pulling back, right-siding it, and noticing the opportunity of being unchosen.

First, pulling back. I’m trying to narrow and close channels that aren’t serving me. Unsubscribing from the lists of people I don’t resonate with and unsubscribing from Facebook feeds of people with whom I’m not actually friends. This whittling down isn’t because I’m too busy. It’s because I want to do a better job at being influenced on purpose instead of by mistake. There is a big difference between the energy you get from positive influence (“What a cool idea! I am going to let myself be influenced by that thinking”) and draining influence (which always leads me to bouts second-guessing and sad pity parties).

Second, right-siding it. Which is another way of saying focusing on the things going right. Instead of spending energy being irritated that the people I perceive to have louder voices—but weaker ideas—are getting chosen more than me, I am trying focus my energy on the people who have heard my voice, and have chosen me. And then chosen me again. Because working for them is where that joy comes from. They will help me grow and scale. Irritation won’t.

And third, looking for the opportunity that comes with not being chosen. So, my dad didn’t get chosen for the Morse code job. But he also didn’t get to sent to the Korean front. Instead, he was one of the very few draftees who got sent to post-war Germany as part of a peacekeeping troop. I don’t subscribe to the idea that there is some grand puppeteer in the sky who has things in mind for us we can’t know, but should just trust. I think it’s up to each person to actively look around and notice the new thing that’s now possible because the other thing didn’t work.

I imagine that my dad got off the boat across the Atlantic and said, “Well, here I am in Europe, in a space that’s once in a lifetime, watching a country get rebuilt. I will have stories and experiences that I couldn’t possible have had in my tiny Kentucky town and without the utter bad decision-making of the U.S. Army.”

I don’t even know most of the time when I’m not chosen. So the times when I am privy, I need to pay attention. These times must be a gift. Like Germany in 1952, they just must be.

Trounce a little. Find your joy. But let’s just keep working.

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