The Medium vs. the Message

This article is designed to get you thinking about your life from a new perspective. For the sake of clarity, we’ll focus primarily on your career, but by the time you’re done reading, you should be able to apply these ideas to other areas of your life as well.

Consider a physical recording medium like a CD or DVD. By itself it’s an empty vessel. The “message” is the information contained within that medium, whether it be music, a film, software, or some other information. The message is what provides the value — the actual recording medium is often inconsequential. You may pay $20 for a CD that contains music, or you may pay $300 for a CD that contains certain software. But the physical CDs are essentially identical except for the information they contain. This price difference isn’t due to a difference in the medium but rather due to a difference in the message.

Now let’s extend this concept of the medium vs. the message and apply it to your career (or any other part of your life for that matter). For example, in most cases your job title represents the medium of your career. Career media include being an attorney, a salesperson, or a computer programmer. Think of your career medium as the vessel through which you work.

Much like a recordable CD, your career medium is an empty container waiting to be filled. If you identify yourself as an attorney or a salesperson or a computer programmer, that doesn’t give you any sense of the value your work provides. Those professions are conduits for providing value, but they contain very little value in and of themselves. Some attorneys earn $300/hour while others charge $3000/hour. And you’ll find tremendous pay differences in other fields as well, even among people who appear to have the same job title, whether it be secretary or CEO. The medium of the career (i.e. the job title) cannot account for these differences.

It isn’t hard to recognize that the primary value comes not from the medium of your career (i.e. your particular job) but rather from the message of your career. The message is what you bring to your career. It’s what fills the otherwise empty container.

For example, I can identify my career as being a writer, blogger, speaker, web developer, entrepreneur, computer programmer, etc. Or I can more broadly say that I’m a communicator. But that would mean defining my career as a medium — an empty container. It’s like saying that I’m a microphone.

The message, as opposed to the medium, is what specific information I communicate through these various vessels. What am I saying? What information is traveling through the microphone?

In my case the message is that I’m here to grow and to help other people to grow. The media I use to convey this message will change and evolve over time, but the message is a constant. And the message is a much better description of my true career than the media that I currently use to express it.

Changing Perspectives

Chances are that you currently think of your career primarily in terms of the medium (i.e. your particular job) rather than the message (i.e. the unique value you bring to your work). I want to dive a little deeper into this distinction with you and show you some perhaps unexpected benefits that may arise when you shift your focus and begin thinking of your career primarily in terms of the message.

There are two significant risks that come from defining your career in terms of your primary medium (i.e. “I’m an attorney” or “I’m a programmer”). The first risk is that you’ll unnecessarily limit yourself. You will only recognize opportunities that present themselves in the form of a nail because you’ve defined yourself as a hammer and nothing more. You’ll fall into the trap of thinking, “Dammit, Jim! I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!” As a human being, there are many ways for you to express and deliver value to others. The current medium of your career is only one of them. When you think of your career as being greater than any single medium, you’ll open yourself to new opportunities that lie outside your current primary medium.

The second risk is that by focusing too heavily on a single medium, you’re likely to lose sight of your message. Your message is far more important than any one medium, so by putting the medium first, you’re likely to suffer from a gradual decline in motivation regarding your work. You begin a new job, and it’s very exciting at first, but the longer you work at it, the less enthusiastic you become. Does this seem familiar at all?

For example, today you’ll find people who define their careers as professional bloggers (the medium), and so they blog about anything and everything. But after several months or perhaps a year of this type of work, it isn’t uncommon to see them becoming apathetic and even depressed about their work. Why? Because the medium (in this case, a blog) is hollow by its very nature, and something hollow cannot provide lasting motivation.

Defining your career in terms of some arbitrary medium, like being a professional blogger, is like a garage band saying, “Yeah, man, it’s all about the CDs.”

So what happens when you put the medium before the message? You define your life in terms of the container instead of what fills that container. You put emptiness before fullness. And this can lead to procrastination, lack of motivation, and low energy. How motivating is it to define your career as being a professional blogger (or any other arbitrary job title)? On a scale of 1-10, maybe it would start at around an 8-9 the first few weeks, but where will it be after five years? Probably a 4 or 5 at best. But by defining your career as the message instead of the medium, you’re probably in the range of 8-10, and five years later you can still be up there. In my case the message of personal development is indeed a 10 for me. My level of enthusiasm for writing, speaking, blogging, or programming waxes and wanes over time, but my interest in personal development remains perpetually high.

The feeling of being driven comes from the message of your work, not the medium.

When you wake up each morning, how do think about your work? Do you say to yourself, “Today I’m going to write something (medium)?” Or are you thinking, “Today I’m going to improve the human condition in some small way (message)?”

Which perspective do you think is more intrinsically motivating?

Certainly both the message and the medium are each an important part of your career, but with the rapid pace of technological advancement, your medium is likely to be far less permanent than your message. Notice that medium-based work is highly subject to automation. A salesperson is replaced by a web site. A secretary is replaced by a PDA. A PR firm is replaced by a blog. But automating the message that’s provided by a conscious human being, now that’s a lot tougher. How would you automate the message of personal development, for example?

Finding Your Message

Now how do you identify your message? Your message is essentially your purpose, which I’ve addressed many times in various blog entries. But here’s yet another way to discover your message:

Think about what you bring to your job or career (or even to any random task or project) that’s different than how the “average” person would do it. What’s different about your approach to your work vs. how other people would do the same job?

For example, when I primarily worked as a computer programmer, I was extremely aggressive about improving my skills, and I’d enthusiastically share what I learned with other people. In building my games business, I did the same thing. You can put me in virtually any job, and I’ll bring these same qualities to it. I’ll aggressively strive to get better and better, and I’ll share with others what I learn along the way. That’s the “message” that’s uniquely me.

Imagine yourself working at different jobs and in different fields. What qualities would you bring to your work that are uniquely you? Do you spread good humor, harmony, or passion? Do you provide analytic depth, intuitive insight, or a rational outlook? Do you bring loyalty, teamwork, or honesty to your workplace?

You may find it helpful to try to define yourself in terms of a metaphor. Are you a rock? An eagle? A storm?

If you have trouble figuring this out for yourself, ask people you know for their opinions. (You may want to have them read this article first, so they know what the heck you’re talking about.) Often other people can see us more clearly than we see ourselves.

Embracing Your Message

Once you develop an understanding of your own message (and your understanding will surely evolve over time), you can begin to express that message more consciously. You can redefine your career in terms of that message. Believe me — this is likely to feel very awkward at first. But over time if you can overcome the social conditioning that tries to pigeonhole you into a single medium instead of embracing your message, I think you’ll find it a much more fulfilling way to think about your career.

In school we mostly learn a medium. In high school I learned the medium of writing. In college I learned the medium of computer programming. In Toastmasters I learned the medium of speaking. And from other bloggers I learned the medium of blogging. But the message that I bring to these multi-media isn’t something I learned in school. The message is something that’s been a part of me since childhood, although my awareness of it has certainly increased as I’ve grown up.

When I switched careers from game publishing to working in personal development, it was more than just a job change. It was a shift from medium-based thinking to message-based thinking. Writing and speaking and blogging are better media for my message than developing computer games. And as technology continues to evolve, I have the flexibility to embrace any new media that arise. The media are just empty containers. The message is what fills those containers.

Once I began defining my career in terms of the message instead of the medium, I felt much more in tune with my work. Sometimes I tell people I’m a writer or a blogger or a speaker — all of those are true for now. But internally I feel that any one of those containers is too small a description of the real work I do. Have you ever felt the same way… that your job title is too small for you? How do you feel when you say, “I’m a _____” (fill in your current job title)? Say it right now, and notice how it makes you feel. Does it really describe the totality of the work you do?

How could you give yourself a more expansive message-based career name? Instead of thinking of yourself as an attorney, for instance, how about giving yourself the job title of “Peacebringer” (someone who resolves conflicts and restores peace)? Or instead of being a salesperson or a computer programmer, try adopting the job title of “Problem Solver.” Wouldn’t that be more accurate? How would you react if someone handed you a business card that said, “Jane Smith, Peacebringer?” I’m sure some people would give more credibility to a card that says “Attorney at Law,” but I’d rather hire the Peacebringer, since that title tells me this person understands that the value of their work extends beyond any single medium.

What does your business card say? Does it only list the medium of your work, or does it convey the message? What would be a more appropriate job title for you?

Beyond Career

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, you can apply this concept of the medium vs. the message to other parts of your life beyond your career. I’ll leave it up to you to think about how you might differentiate between the medium and the message in terms of your health, your relationships, your spiritual beliefs, and so on. And for another perspective that overlaps this one, you may enjoy reading this blog post: End Goals vs. Means Goals.