My father is a bit of a genealogy nut, and I remember the day he came home and joyfully announced that he had discovered a writeup about the Bacon family crest in some old history book. (Despite the porcine nature of our surname, there are a couple of famous Bacons: Kevin, of course, but also Roger and Sir Francis. And my personal favourite, tortured-genius artist Francis. So I don’t blame Dad for finding the history fascinating.) “Want to hear our family motto?”

“Sure,” we said.

“‘Mediocrity is safe.’ Wait, that can’t be right!”

No kidding. Worst family motto ever. Am I right?


Maybe it’s just my terrible family motto haunting me, but I’ve had a horror of mediocrity all my life.

I spent fifteen years designing and building websites, and being involved with open source software projects, and in that time I saw a lot of tech stuff – websites, software, you name it – that inspired people to do and be better, and a whole lot of other projects that fell flat.

In my drive to produce the best possible results for my clients – most of whom were nonprofit organizations working to make the world a better place – I dedicated myself to understanding what made some projects soar, and others fail, or simply fizzle.

What I noticed was that the ones that caught fire weren’t necessarily the best-designed, or the best-executed. There was something deeper going on. Eventually, I came to see every project, from the humblest blog to the most complex software, as having three layers.

1. Execution

On the surface, there’s externally visible work – the tangible proof that the project is complete. For tech projects, this includes the code, graphics, widgets, gadgets, and bells and whistles. If you’re an artist, your finished canvases exist at this layer; for a fitness trainer, client sessions; for a nonprofit, program delivery; and so on.

(This principle applies to many creative fields: There’s something that takes the form of a deliverable that constitutes the tangible expression of your work. Your deliverable might be a report, legal document, illustration, community outreach program or coaching session.)

When you produce deliverables, there will always be some people who see this part of your work as the real work  for whom the deeper layers of your work are invisible. And there will always be some customers who only want to pay you for what they perceive as the value of these tangible deliverables. They see you as a builder of stuff.

As a general rule, I suggest avoiding this kind of customer, because if you accept their terms you face several problems:

  1. With rare exceptions, builders are replaceable (as anyone with a 3D printer will tell you).
  2. Builders don’t typically get a say in the drafting of blueprints.
  3. Deliverables only account for a fraction of the effort and value you put into your work.

Unless you want to maintain a totally transactional relationship with your customers, don’t let yourself get labeled a builder. It’s too limiting, and you’ll spend all your energy fighting pricing battles – because you’ll be stuck competing on the equivalent of widget production. Of course, delivering on your commitments is crucial, and the quality of your deliverables matters a great deal – but when your customer relationship is defined entirely by the surface layer, you (and your customer) miss out on an opportunity for something much deeper.

2. Process

The second layer is where things start to get interesting: This is where strategy, process, and consultation come in. If you expend effort on developing your processes and your strategic services, customers may recognize you as an architect, who can help them plan and oversee the project, not just follow their paint-by-numbers instructions. This is more fun, and a lot more profitable, because the value of this kind of work is higher.

You need this layer, and the previous one, to be solid if you want to create something good. We all spend a lot of time refining our processes for these top layers, because they’re our bread and butter.

But to create something great – and to become irreplaceable – you need to dig deeper.

3. Deep Collaboration

There’s a third layer that’s rarely discussed, and I call it the deep collaboration layer. Deep collaboration is where you dig into the motivations that drive human beings – your customers, yes, but even beyond that, the people who matter most to them – and explore the bigger “Why?” of your work.

Here, at this deep layer, is where extraordinary ideas are generated, profound connections are sparked, and your work of highest value is created.

Let’s take a moment to consider where creative work comes from – and then we’ll explore a practical and accessible framework for deep collaboration with your customers.

The Bigger Why

Beneath every creative project – and I stress that I use the word “creative” in the broadest sense, to include any work that could not easily be automated – there is a desire to fulfill, and/or express, one or more human urges.

I believe there are five universal drives that inspire creative work. These are the things that motivate us to want to connect online, use mobile apps, fall in love with art, make the perfect shoulder bag, even organize our finances.

Function: We want stuff that works and makes our lives easier.

Meaning: We’re always seeking meaning and story – trying to make sense of our world and our lives, and our roles in all of it.

Connection: We crave connection with other humans, be it a desire for friendship, romantic love, or a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves.

Delight: We love things that bring us pleasure and joy – from YouTube videos of baby pandas, to sharing a laugh with a friend.

Evolution: Ultimately, we are seeking to evolve, learn, and grow.

(Google is an outstanding example of a function-oriented service company (though their Google Doodles are a wonderful expression of delight – and to some extent, evolution). Pixar consistently creates animated films that bring us meaning and delight. Social networks are built to support our drive for connection. Health coaches, teachers, and meditation apps like Buddhify are evolution-focused.)

How is your project addressing these motivators? How will it make people’s lives better? How will it serve our quest for meaning and delight? How will it help us connect with one another? How will it help us evolve?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly not suggesting that creative work can only stem from a mission to change the world. And you don’t need to check all five boxes – you can skip numbers one, two, three and five, and focus on designing the world’s most amazing shoes, if that’s your thing. (And hey, if that’s your thing, tweet me some pics.)

But you must appeal to at least one of these five drivers. Dig beneath the purpose of your project, and decide which one(s) is critical to its success – and hold onto it like your life depends on it.

This post is an excerpt from my e-book, Curious for a Living: How Asking Better Questions Makes You Indispensable. To download your free copy, click here.