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.

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 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?

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.


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?

A common goal-setting mistake (in my opinion) is to confuse end goals with means goals. End goals define outcomes where you’re unwilling to compromise — they describe exactly what you want. Means goals, on the other hand, define one of many paths to reach your end goals.

Here’s a simple example:

Let’s say you want to see your favorite music group perform live in concert. That’s an end goal — it defines your outcome. You want to be there in person and enjoy that particular experience. It’s not a stepping stone to anything greater, and no substitute experience would produce the same result.

Now suppose a radio station is having a contest where the prize is two tickets to that concert, and you decide you want to win that contest. That’s a means goal. Winning the contest is not the final outcome you’re after. It’s only one of many ways that could lead to you sitting at that concert.

But if you don’t win those tickets and fail at your means goal, you may still be able to achieve your end goal. You just need to find another way to get to that concert.

Begin with the end in mind.

Sometimes we get blocked on the path to our goals. But many times it’s just the means goals that trap us, and if we stay flexible, we can plot an alternative route to the same ends.

If you’re a goal setter like me, take some time to review your list of goals and separate the end goals from the means goals. I keep my end goals on a separate list. My end goals don’t change much at all — they represent outcomes I’m working towards. But I often revise my means goals in order to best fit my current situation.

Before I separated my means goals from my end goals, I’d treat them both the same way. This would lead to unnecessary frustration when I couldn’t meet a particular means goal. It’s like getting really upset that I couldn’t win those concert tickets in the radio contest. I’d get too attached to something that didn’t matter. And while I was frustrated, I’d miss seeing other paths to achieve my end goals.

It’s so important to clarify your end goals and avoid confusing them with the means to get there. With good reason the second habit in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is “begin with the end in mind.” Notice it doesn’t say, “begin with the means in mind.”

I have numerous means goals, but I only have about ten end goals for my entire life. And most of my end goals have to do with living a certain kind of life and/or being a certain kind of person. My end goals describe the kind of life I want to lead. They provide a sense of direction more than a final destination. For example, one of my end goals is to be a man of integrity, honor, honesty, and courage. But as you can imagine, there are countless ways to get there. Most of my end goals represent ideals I wish to manifest in my life as much as possible. In a way my end goals are mainly a reflection of my values. Courage, for example, is a value I’ve held for many years. It is an ideal I strive to manifest each day.


If I meet unyielding resistance in trying to achieve my means goal, I remind myself to step back and look at the big picture — the end goal. What am I trying to achieve and why?

Become unstoppable.

My end goals are such that I feel unstoppable in pursuing them. I can always find new ways to build courage, to meet new people, to learn and grow, and to contribute. If one path is blocked, there are plenty of others to choose from.

If you take away my voice so I can’t speak, I’ll just do more blogging. Take away my blog, and I’ll write offline. Take away my ability to write, and I’ll find someone else to help me get the message out. The means are not nearly as important as the outcome. Writing, blogging, and speaking are merely means to an end — that of helping people grow.

By having flexible end goals that connect with the manifestation and expression of your ultimate potential, it’s nearly impossible to fail except by choice.

Don’t get so caught up in the pursuit of your means goals that you lose sight of the person you wish to become. Create and hold a vision of your ideal self in your mind. That vision then becomes the basis of all your end goals, from which your means goals derive.

Clarification: The means goals can be set using a system like S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, time-bound). The end goals don’t fit this type of system, however. End goals work as ideals to move towards, and one of the reasons they must transcend the limits of a system like S.M.A.R.T. is that they must be expansive enough that you can pursue them for a lifetime. Ironically, you’ll never actually achieve your end goals in the sense that you achieve something specific and measurable and time-bound. The end goals are there not to behave as “to do” items to be checked off — rather they define the direction and scope of your life. They help define and shape your life path, not your final destination. The means goals are merely stops you choose to make along that path.



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