Andy: In my non-Bent life, I’ve been working on a huge project. This week, I hit a giant milestone.

Emma: Woohoo!!

Andy: What happens next is totally out of my control. As I was preparing for this moment, a friend made me promise that I’d celebrate and I’m glad she did. Because on the other side of this major task, there’s a void — a giant blankness of someone else getting to decide the results. Honestly, without celebration on my end, I’d have checked off my to-do and look up to find myself in a wasteland of waiting and wondering, What will happen next?

Emma: A big part of every manager’s job is motivation: keeping ourselves and our teams engaged in the work we’re doing, and interested in doing more. Celebrating the work is one of the most reliable ways to do that.

Andy: To me, there’s nothing less motivating than waiting to find out the results of something, and using that external measure when it finally arrives to judge my efforts. Those are two different celebrations: outputs and inputs. Another way to talk about it is results versus actions. One is the effort you put in; the other is what you want that effort to achieve.

Emma: I’ve mentioned my former goals-obsessed boss before. He was very strict about the types of things that I could have as goals. Inputs only. We only set goals for the things we control. I appreciated that distinction, especially when I realized how motivating they were. Just as much as big, juicy outputs.

Andy: Of course, the inputs should be things that you expect to lead to outputs—

Emma: Oh yeah. Don’t get me wrong: outputs are great. They’re the big, glamorous, flashy things: landing the deal, winning the award, getting the promotion, making all the money. Even smaller outputs feel incredible. One of my jobs once was to write content that generated organic traffic. Whenever those page views started ratcheting up… All I’m saying is that wins deserve to be celebrated.

Andy: But waiting for the golden envelope before celebrating anything is a bad way to go. The envelope may never arrive! Or it may be so delayed that you’re detached from the input that got you there in the first place.

Emma: Because we don’t control outputs. I mean, I want The Bent to have thousands of members and chart-topping readership. But we can’t actually force anyone to donate or click subscribe. (Can we??) All we can do are the inputs: keep publishing, keep promoting, keep on keeping on.

Andy: There are also so many extenuating factors for those external success markers. My graduate school teacher wrote an amazing novel. She’d worked on it for maybe ten years? The early reviews were strong. The marketing team was amped. This was going to be her biggest, best book yet.

And then it was released. On March 3, 2020. Yeah. Was anyone buzzing about books those few weeks? Nope. Was anyone piling novels into their arms? Nope. The book is no less amazing, no less her best book ever, and still.

Emma: Oof. And still is right.

Andy: So many work projects are like that! They depend on other departments, on other sources of funding, on the whims of other people, on fluctuations in the market, on what the competition is doing.

Emma: I understand the hesitation to celebrate “too much.” It has a very strong millennial flavor, and I think it can be pretty easy to conflate celebration with coddling — like you’re rewarding someone even if their work doesn’t end up deserving it. But that’s not what’s really happening. When you’re celebrating an input goal, you’re acknowledging the work that we all agreed is what it will take to achieve the output.

Andy: We celebrate inputs no matter what. If we don’t hit the outputs, we adjust the inputs. That’s a totally separate thing from celebration. It’s the next step in the OODA-loop.

Emma: And if the outputs come back amazingly — the project’s an award-winning, best-selling, record-breaking success — we celebrate again. They are two distinct moments to celebrate. Do not miss out on either, even if they’re close together.

Andy: That’s like having your birthday the day before Christmas. You can’t combine them!

Are You Celebrating Enough?

Answer these self-reflection questions. They’ll help you determine if you’re acknowledging inputs consistently, or if you should be looking for more occasions to celebrate!

1. When’s the last time you or your team celebrated? What was it for?

2. Think about all the moments you’ve celebrated or intentionally acknowledged in the past three months. How wide is your range of what qualifies as a worthy achievement? How wide is your range of celebration style?

3. What celebrations from any time stick out in your mind as particularly rewarding or motivating? Were they tied to inputs or outputs? How long with the limbo between action and celebration?

4. What things make you feel satisfied and proud? If you lead a team, do you know what things make your reports feel satisfied and proud?

5. Have you ever asked your team, “How should we celebrate this when we’ve done it?”

6. What can you celebrate next?

Low-Cost, Low-Effort, Meaningful Celebrations

It’s easy to skip celebrating because we don’t think we have the budget, bandwidth, or creativity to pull it off. Let yourself off the hook! Celebrations can be meaningful even when they’re as simple and small. If you’re feeling stumped, try one of these.

Day off (or late arrival) after a big deadline
Summer Fridays
Cancel a time-consuming meeting or task that week
Team lunch or potluck or delivery of everyone’s favorite snack
Pick the caterer for the next office lunch/happy hour
Small denomination gift cards
Box of little gifts for people to choose from, like nice pens
Company-wide emails and team-wide shout outs
Really well-written compliments (this also works spoken out loud)
Awards, trophies, superlatives, wall plaques, halls of fame
Custom emoji or GIFs added to the chat
Control of the office playlist
Confetti and streamers at the next team meeting
Also champagne and fancy sparkling waters and cake
A dunk tank! Or other camp counselor type “consequence”
A budget for the team to design their own celebration
Establishing your own team ritual à la a secret handshake or team chant or email chain