09/09/2014 12:22 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

3 Forces That Keep You From Unleashing Your Best Work

What do you think is the most valuable land on the planet?

Manhattan? Diamond deposits? Oil fields, perhaps?

According to Todd Henry, author of the book Die Empty, the most valuable land on the planet is our graveyards because there you can find a never-ending supply of amazing books, businesses, and solutions to problems that were never realized: people took them to the grave.

Todd heard that idea years ago in a meeting, and he has been fascinated ever since with "dying empty" -- doing whatever he can to ensure that he unleashes his best work every single day.

Will You Die Empty?

Are you consistently unleashing your absolute best work day after day, week after week?

If you're like me, the answer is, "I certainly want to, but I go through ups and downs. There are periods of great work and there are periods of stagnation and, (oh no!) perhaps even mediocrity.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Todd Henry. He has spent the last fifteen years helping people to unleash their best work and unleash the best work of the people around them.

In our discussion, Todd talked about three forces that keep us from unleashing our absolute best. These forces consist of societal norms that perpetuate or even reward stagnation and mediocrity.

Todd also shared some ideas for overcoming those forces so that we can consistently do our best work and help our teams to do the same.

The Pursuit of Comfort

One of the societal forces that push us in the direction of mediocrity is our obsession with being comfortable. We are conditioned in so many ways to think that the main objective of life is to be comfortable.

We are bombarded with products and services that promise to make our lives easier. Many of us dream of a life of financial freedom, at least when we retire.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with being comfortable. The problems arise when we pursue comfort over working hard to make a positive impact in our world.

When comfort is the goal, it's very easy to settle in once we are moderately comfortable and stop working to grow and to bring forth our best efforts to make a difference.

To achieve our best, we need to prioritize our efforts to make an impact over our efforts to be comfortable.


Closely related to our seeking of comfort is our fascination with individualism.

Our culture tends to celebrate and even obsess over strong personalities and individuals who have achieved some level of fame or who have apparently achieved greatness as a result of their own efforts.

In short, we are fascinated with egos, including our own.

There are many, many ways that being attached to our egos keeps us from achieving our absolute best, and Todd highlighted one of the most important to be aware of.

The more attached we are to our egos, the less flexible we are in our thinking. This is a huge obstacle to achieving our best. The world simply changes too fast. If we can't be flexible in our thinking, we're likely to become obsolete very quickly.

Also, when we're attached to our egos, we can even go so far as to discount information that is contrary to our position. We can unconsciously filter out information that is absolutely vital for our success.

To unleash our best work consistently, we need to apply evidence-based practices, like mindfulness training -- for becoming less attached to our egos.

Busy Boredom

It seems that everywhere we look, people are "busy" on their devices. We don't often see someone alone just standing and taking in the world. Most people can't go for more than a few minutes before they feel compelled to start playing with a device.

Again, the problems with this are many, but Todd highlighted a couple that most impact our effectiveness.

First, this obsession -- or in some cases, addiction -- to our devices, is making us less present with the people around us. We are losing our ability to communicate effectively and empathize with others.

We are also becoming less aware of the world around us. We are losing our ability to notice the little things and learn from our environment.

Todd suggests that we combat our tendency to always be on a device by intentionally carving out times every day when we are committed to unplugging and simply interacting with the people we're with or the environment around us, and take some time to simply explore, ponder, and reflect.

Creating A Culture of Excellence

As we grow in our ability to overcome these forces that tend to push us toward mediocrity, we are much better able to help unleash the best work in the people around us.

In addition to leading by example, Todd offers the following suggestions for bringing out the best in the people on your team:

  • Make sure expectations are extremely clear
  • Make sure people are appropriately challenged in their work and gently pushed to pursue excellence in everything they do
  • Don't succumb to "expectation escalation" -- raising the bar every time someone exceeds expectations and making the most recent achievements the new bar

If you'd like to see the full interview with Todd, please click here.


Matt Tenney is a social entrepreneur, an international keynote speaker, and the author of Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom.