The builder's mindset: a way out of the "drill sergeant" / "Zen master" dichotomy
Here's a radically new way to relate to your work.
Almost every ambitious person I know has at some point found themselves caught in a battle between two seemingly opposite mindsets, with neither bringing full satisfaction or optimal performance. These mindsets show up in many guises and go by many different names, but for present purposes I’ll refer to them as follows1:
1: The drill sergeant mindset (“outcome-over-process”)
2: The Zen master mindset (“process-over-outcome”)
The way of the drill sergeant
This is the traditional “authoritarian” approach to (self-)management: the unforgiving voice of judgment and reproach whose sole focus seems to be on getting you to “succeed.” It's the voice in your head that says things like:
“Get to work, you lazy idiot”
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
“You’ll never be good enough”
Not coincidentally, the markers of success that matter to this mindset tend to be of the generic, conventional variety (like getting into Harvard, winning a prestigious award, earning above a certain income, etc.), and much of the “work” required to achieve them is of the rote and slavish sort (like cramming for exams, spending long days at the office, etc.).
A distinguishing feature of this mindset is that it tends to take the desirability of certain outcomes for granted, as if they were cosmic decrees that do not abide questioning or scrutiny—and certainly do not answer to your personal needs and desires. So when you inevitably do experience inner conflict or rebellion—whether expressed as burnout, procrastination, or outright self-sabotage—the “drill sergeant” naturally chalks this up to your laziness, your inadequacy, your weakness of character.
Spurred by the pain of these unsparing insults, you fall back in line for a little while, until the doubt and resentment get to be too much for you again. And so the cycle repeats, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Sound familiar?
The way of the Zen master
Often in reaction against the oppressive voice of the “drill sergeant,” the “Zen master” mindset counsels against getting too wrapped up in the pursuit of any particular outcome. After all, the argument goes, you can’t directly control or even predict whether you’ll succeed or fail at any given goal. So if you want to minimize your suffering, it’s best to take the Stoic path and focus on what you can directly control: your awareness of the present moment, your effort, your attitude, etc.
This is the compassionate and reassuring voice that says things like:
“No one’s perfect”
“Doesn’t matter if you fail, what matters is you tried”
“It’s about the journey, not the destination”
“Don’t worry about the outcome, just focus on the process”
There are certainly elements of truth in this approach, but the big “lie” in it is that you can somehow separate out what you value about the “process” from the valued ends toward which that process is directed.
Why would you put in any effort at all toward an outcome that means nothing to you? And if it doesn’t hurt to fail at a goal you’ve poured your limited time and energy into pursuing, was it ever worth pursuing?
Sure there are lessons to be learned from failure, and we need to get comfortable with failing a LOT if we want to do anything truly ambitious. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t really want—and, yes, relentlessly drive—to succeed. Else life might devolve into nothing more than a senseless wheel-spinning game, where we permit ourselves no genuine forward progress for fear that we might crash and burn.
Besides, though there may be few things we “directly control” at a given moment in time, the idea that this should be the constraint on what we “worry about”—or consider to be within our scope of influence—is a gross misrepresentation of our agential powers.
It’s true that I can’t “directly control” how many people end up reading this newsletter, for instance—but I have plenty of levers at my disposal for driving that number higher, and if I had good reason to think it was mission critical to hit a certain number of viewers, I’d almost certainly find a way to do it.
The ”Zen master” mindset, however, discourages us from letting anything become “mission critical.” The effect I’ve often observed in those who adopt this mindset is that they sell themselves short, either giving up too easily or setting unambitious goals in the 1st place—all for the sake of minimizing stress. In muting the abusive voice of the “drill sergeant," they also mute their desire, their passion, their will to find a way. They settle for “ok” jobs and “ok” relationships, foregoing the stressful turbulence and risk of failure that more ambitious moonshots would bring.
Thus, ironically, the “Zen master” leads us to miss out on the exquisite moments and heights of experience that only a dogged devotion to outcomes can bring.
The way of the builder
As with many false dichotomies, the intuitive assumption may be that the drill sergeant and the Zen master are opposite ends of a single continuum, and that therefore we’d do best to take the middle road between them. But I submit that these two mindsets are more similar than different in their fundamental assumptions about the nature of human goal-pursuits. In particular, both are ill-suited to the work of building. What’s needed instead is a radically new mindset; one befitting the distinct relationship between a builder and that which they work to build.
Both the drill sergeant and the Zen master ask us to separate ourselves—our needs, our desires, our day-to-day experience of our work within the larger context of our lives—from the outcomes we aim to achieve. The drill sergeant says: ignore yourself. The Zen master says: ignore the outcomes. But that’s like separating one’s choice of building site and materials from the type of building one aims to build.
A builder chooses what she wants to build, and she holds herself accountable for the work of building it. She is not beholden to any inner or outer drill sergeant; only to her own independent, carefully formed judgment of what is worth building and how best to go about it. And she neither beats herself up nor lets herself off the hook when something unexpectedly cracks or falls out of place; rather she problem-solves like mad until she finds a solution.
Imagine an architect who says “I just try to focus on the curvature of the hill and the smoothness of the marble, without worrying too much about whether the house will stand.” Or on the other hand, imagine one who slavishly applies some generic but highly regarded home design formula, without ever pausing to visit the property or learn about the particular needs of its future residents.
You wouldn’t entrust either of these architects to design your home. Rather, you’d look for someone who pours their creative energy into designing a uniquely suited and superbly functioning home for you—not so they can check some box that says they are “successful,” but because they love the work of building uniquely suited and superbly functioning homes. That is the builder’s mindset.
The process of building—of creating something new and valuable—is a constant progression of choices. Each choice is connected to and made meaningful by some envisioned outcome, which itself is a choice made in the context of other envisioned outcomes, such as building a career in which one gets to solve interesting design challenges all the time.
Building is fundamentally self-expressive, invigorating work. A builder does not waste time on tasks she does not judge to be constructive, nor does she begrudge even the most menial or unglamorous tasks when she knows they will get her closer to her envisioned masterpiece. Contrast this to the kind of white-knuckling and self-shaming by which so many people force themselves (drill sergeant-style) through the series of uninspiring chores they call “work.”
And building is ambitious, goal-directed work; builders care deeply about the quality of what they are building, and hold themselves accountable even for the problems they don’t yet know how to solve. If they no longer see value in what they are building, they wrap up their prior commitments and then move on to something else.
So the next time you find yourself caught between the “drill sergeant” and the “Zen master,” try invoking the “builder mindset” instead. Ask yourself:
“What, if anything, am I trying to build?”
“What will it take for me to build it?”
“Is it worth it?”
If your honest answer is yes, then give it everything you’ve got—not for the drill sergeant’s sake, but for your own.2
And if your honest answer is no, then let it go—not to find your Zen, but for the chance of a masterpiece worth building.
My goal in using the terms “drill sergeant” and “Zen master” is to evoke the broad cultural stereotypes associated with these terms (at least in the U.S.), particularly as they get applied to the self-regulation of work. I don’t presume to know whether any of the real people occupying those roles bear any resemblance to the stereotypes, and I apologize for anything in this post that might be taken to suggest otherwise.
It’s just as likely, of course, that your honest answer will be “I’m not sure.” In that case, your task as a builder is to figure it out: to project, in as much detail as you can, the future version of your life where you’ve built what you’re trying to build, the work you’ll need to do to get there, and whatever other paths you could plausibly be taking instead. Building a credible model of these paths might take a lot of self-reflection and fact finding, some of which you can only do by rolling up your sleeves and starting to build the thing. But don’t shortchange this work: it’s how you build yourself into a builder. More on this in future posts!