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The Myth of the Myth of Hard Work

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

I'm up early in the mornings to prep for my day, and some mornings I see one of my favorite newsletters from The Growth Equation in my inbox! Squee!

I get excited when I read the subject line, and I was even more excited to read that the subject on this particular day was "What Hard Work Can (and Can't) Do"

I work hard. I have a history of working too hard. You can accomplish a lot of things with hard work, but without the right mindset and deliberate practice, it will only get you so far. Likewise, the right mindset and intentional practice will only get you so far if you aren't working hard enough. A lot of self-help gurus champion one over the other, but being a wanna-be-Buddhist myself, I like to practice non-duality and I see the middle way where both are necessary to recognize opportunities that arise in your life and to have the wisdom to know which ones are worthy of your attention.. but I digress.

My Thoughts on the Article

If you have time, I would highly recommend giving Steve's article (Hard Work is Necessary but not Sufficient) a read.

The article made my neurons fire with new thoughts at an exciting pace, and it gave me a lot of things to "reply" to. I agree with statements on hard work like, "past a certain level of achievement, you can be pretty sure that everyone is working hard" and I couldn't agree more that we should stop "reducing the complexity of success to something straightforward" and "stop moralizing success and failure." But, when he makes his first conclusion "[Hard work] doesn’t explain much of the difference between two people’s performance." I disagree.

I felt like something that Steve didn't consider, at least in this particular article, is timing. Moreover, what is "hard work" anyway?

On my personal journey from couch potato to contender, I slowly ramped up my hard work through the years. At first, I didn't really "train." I just showed up at local paddle events after paddling a few times a week and would "see how it went." Somewhere along the way, my performances started mattering to me, so I started following a structured plan. Then I started tracking metrics with a fitness watch. Finally, I combined all of those things with deliberate practice. At one point, I even made the mistake of working too hard - thinking that hard work was the only thing separating me from my competition. So, when Steve says "we tend to leave out the other keys to success like luck, talent, opportunity," etc - he's absolutely right... to a certain extent.

What phase of progress are you in?

Before you decide to improve yourself - mentally, athletically, healthily, you need to first ask the question:

What phase am I in? We're all in different places on our journey of self improvement. Some people haven't even started, so any act you perform to better yourself is already a step in the right direction.

If you're just starting out your journey, then chances are, hard work is going to take you really, really far. Especially if you haven't worked very hard up to this point. For me, this was the period of time when I went from random paddles to a structured training plan. It went from a recreational hobby to something that required some mental willpower (read: hard work). Instead of paddling to clear my mind, I paddled deliberately with set intentions for each training session, which made paddling harder mentally and physically. The payoff was huge. I went from a regional racer to one of the top paddlers in the United States, picked up a board sponsor, and even dabbled a little in the international circuit.

If you are just starting out, then simply increasing the duration and or intensity of your work - making it harder may be exactly what you need to see a breakthrough. Training for athletics or writing a book, it's all the same.

Worth noting here, though, is that in order to work harder in one aspect of my life, I had to work less hard in others. It was a tradeoff. Before, paddling was a way for me to get away from hard work. When I made paddling my "hard work" I had to make other areas of my life rejuvenating. I needed a swap.

Do you need MORE hard work today?

I loved the point Steve made - once you get to a certain level, everyone is putting in the hard work. He's referring to top athletes, entrepreneurs, etc. being at the elite level. Once you're at that level, you can be pretty darn sure that everyone else is working just as hard as you.

So, here's a question for you, whoever you are and wherever you are on your journey:

Is hard work what you need today?

Firstly, to my point above, making more areas of your life "hard-work" without swapping or creating an outlet for relaxing and rejuvenating is a recipe for disaster.

Secondly, if you've been working at the top level of hard work for a while and still aren't seeing the results you like, more hard work in the same realm will likely just lead to burnout.

We've already established that if you don't have a regular hard-work practice in something that is valuable to you that you want to achieve, then hard work may be exactly what you need to do starting right now to make progress.

But, how do you find luck or opportunity when you've been working your ass off for years and still haven't gotten your "lucky" break? You're constantly on the verge of burnout, or have burnt out and come back multiple times. It seems like others just have "talent" that you don't, or keep getting lucky, or keep getting opportunities you don't.

This is where Steve and I part ways. I think: Talent = Hard work

Luck = Hard Work

Opportunity = Hard Work

I'm going to assume that Steve just meant putting in the hours, be it writing, training, or networking when he said "Hard Work."

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

What I see happening to people at a very high level of achievement when they feel stuck isn't a lack of luck, opportunity, or talent. It's in how they define "hard work." Hard work isn't just the physical and mental focus on your chosen path. You have to work hard in all aspects of life. You make your own luck. The harder you work, the luckier you get.

When you work hard in only one dimension of your life you will inevitably not reach your goal. Remember when I mentioned I had to dial back other areas of hard work to accommodate my ability to handle the increasing mental and physical difficulty of my paddle work? I made a mistake then. One that I've remedied with a ton of success now.

I "work hard" at my restorative activities. I "work hard" at my writing. I "work hard" when running my business. I "work hard" in my kitchen. I "work hard" to keep my network alive. And.. of course.. I work very, very hard in my training. But, even within my training, I work hard to keep my heart rate low when needed. I work hard to maximize speed when my training calls for that.

So, if you keep falling short of your goals, and you see someone else achieving something you wanted, take a long look at what they're working hard on. Your training might be solid, but what about your mental game? What about your recovery? What about your network? What about your knowledge?

Then, once you identify your weaknesses, build the ways you plan to shore them up into your life. Whatever you do, don't do it all at once! Just like building up your ability to paddle many miles, you can build up your ability to work hard on more aspects of your life over time. Just don't forget to "work hard" on recovery and relaxation <- be a freakin' boss at that.

Closing Thoughts

It's OK to work hard on your calling, your passion, or the thing you want more than anything. But, too narrow a focus will blind you to opportunity. If you've been working ultra hard and you're at a top level, it may behoove you to work hard on some other things. You may be so focused that you don't even see "lucky" opportunities when they pass by. Don't stress about working hard outside your "specialty" every once in a while; the skills of focus and creative thinking will cross over. Not to mention, our brains respond VERY WELL to novel stimuli.

Expand your horizons, in doing so, your brain will be better at lateral thinking - making connections from the seemingly incongruous aspects of your life. This is what cultivates talent, spurs luck, and enables you to see opportunities - hell, some of them you may even make yourself.

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