You’ve Been Voluntold.


When I was speaking at Fort Bragg last week, I learned an awesome new word.

I’d seen one of the soldiers outside the jump tower, standing in full gear–rifle and everything–in the sweltering North Carolina heat. So I asked him, I said, how did you get roped into entertaining a bunch of random people like I us?

He looked me right in the eye and said, “I was volun-told, sir” before breaking out into a huge grin.

I did too, because I knew exactly what he was talking about. I’ve never served in the armed forces, but I know about being voluntold. There’s another word for it, “mandateering.” But it’s not just people in strict hierarchies that know this concept. In fact, I would argue that anyone successful knows it very well.

It’s responsible for whatever success I’ve had.

My life has been a series of mentors, bosses, editors, clients and random acquaintances, telling me that I should do something and me translating that into a command. They were suggestions that I understood were really orders.

When I randomly met Dr. Drew and he suggested that I read the Stoics, I bought and read the books the next day. When Robert Greene had a research assistant position open up, I left school the next week to give it my full attention. When I felt like I had a book inside me, I moved across the country and worked on it everyday for nearly a year. It’s been like that constantly, both minor and major commitments.

Andrew Carnegie had a great piece of advice for young people (that pre-dates John F. Kennedy’s line by 60 years or so): “Instead of the question, ‘What must I do for my employer?’ substitute ‘What can I do?’”

I don’t mean to conflate “voluntold” with initiative, but anyone that has it can tell you that that’s how it goes. There’s a voice in your head that takes optional instructions, good advice and general best practices and makes them mandatory. That looks for extra, additional things you can do. These opportunities may just be “put out there” for normal people, but not us. We, like the soldier, know that saying “No” is a trick option.

We’ve been voluntold.

That’s why I am writing this article at 8am. It’s why I’ll be going for a long swim later. It’s why I am trying each night to read a little further in this  difficult book from the 18th century. Why I’m hitting the road in a few days to handle some business in person even though I’d love to stay at home. A few Saturdays, I had to interrupt a nice lazy day to make notecards on some books. I just have to do a couple books I said, won’t take more than an hour. Why do you have to? my fiancee asked. The answer: Because I told myself I would.

I’m the guy who signs me up for these things. I’m the guy who will hold it against me if I don’t show up. That’s how it works in the creative fields–it’s how it works in almost every field after you get above a certain level. There’s no one telling you what to do. There’s no one making sure you hold up your commitments and do the extracurriculars. There’s just you.

You pick how much you work, how much you make. Resting on your laurels is one option, showing up for something bigger, or something that pushes you to grow your skillset, or something that scares you, that’s a choice too. Or is it?

This might seem like a pain. It can be. The Greeks called it a “daemon,” the guiding spirit or destiny that motivates us, drives us, chides us even. But as Carnegie’s rival robber baron, Henry Flagler put it: “I would rather be my own tyrant than have someone else tyrannize me.”

Look, when a General asks you to do something, you say yes, because it’s good for you (plus in the soldier’s case, he was getting paid too–I asked). If you can nail those opportunities, you will do well. However, life is rarely so clear. And big success takes more than that.

I might get paid for some of the writing I do now, but I wasn’t for the first six years I did it. Yet, I had to show up everyday. Same for the conferences I went to, the meetings I sat through, the favors I did, the books I read. There was no immediate payoff, there wasn’t even a pat on the back to tell me to keep showing up. But at the same time, I knew that if I wanted to get here, I didn’t have a choice. Whatever you’re thing is, is the same. Your daemon calls you on.

So when the next time someone asks you, you’ll have an answer:

Why are you here, kid? What are you working on that for?

I was voluntold.

thumbnail image – hobvias sudoneighm