Hard work

There are a few companies whose advertising departments I really admire. Gatorade is one of them. Admittedly, sports are so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that half of their work is done for them.  They still come out with some real masterpieces though, like this.

I (and many of the other athletes I’ve talked to) love this ad because it’s the antidote to the “movie montage” view of sports. It’s so omnipresent that I won’t link to more than a few examples of it, but there’s always this or this.  The basic idea sold buy these montages is that the hero dedicates themselves to the cause, labors away for 1-2 minutes to some inspirational music and emerge an unstoppable warrior.  To anyone who’s ever played sports seriously, this idea is laughable. It glosses over the aches, the early mornings, the social events missed, the NSAIDs, the extra reps, the tubs full of ice. It makes it seem like the only part that matters is deciding, in a single moment of time, that you’re going to be great. In reality, greatness is a practice formed in a thousand unglamorous moments, mostly with no soundtrack.  

I’ve felt this way about sports for years.  I’m embarrassed to admit, however, that this philosophy only spilled over into the rest of my life recently.  In every young mind, there’s a constant struggle between viewing success as a product of talent versus a product of hard work. One is a state of being, while the other is a stage of becoming. The two options drive two distinct ways of looking at the world: a fear of failure or a need for achievement. Talent, on the one hand, is inherent, infallible and unstoppable. Talented people come don’t come up short, since they’re already possession of the thing that makes them great. This makes failure your worst nightmare, since any time you fall short implies that you don’t have “it.” Hard work, on the other hand, is a process. It’s not something you have. It’s something you choose, over and over and over again.  

For most of my life, I’ve believed in talent.  Hence, the trick was to project completion at all times. “What you do, do well” was interpreted as “Avoid anything you might do poorly.”  I couldn’t imagine trying hard and failing.  More precisely, I couldn’t risk it.  I didn’t want to expose myself as a talentless fraud. I’m ashamed to say I skated by through most of my education, telling myself that I did almost as well as my peers with 1/5 the work (nobody had introduced me to the Pareto principle yet). Even in college, when I was fully immersed in a humanities curriculum I loved, I never really bought into the idea of hard work. I spent countless hours thinking and reading and writing, but only if I was interested.  When I was bored, or tired, or simply lazy, my efforts tailed off and I reverted to scrambling for deadlines.  

In many ways, our educational system supports this. There’s nothing teachers and professors love more than a high potential underachiever. These students constantly project the image that they’re one gifted educator away from greatness. Teachers love this idea. It’s like the surgeon who believes a patient is one operation away from walking again. They dream about stumbling onto this kind of person. Do you know who doesn’t? Bosses. It took about two weeks at the software start-up that hired me after I graduated to realize that my boss didn’t give a damn how great of a programmer I could be, if only I applied myself. He wanted his database problem fixed. And he wanted it done by Monday. When I left the company a year later to go back to graduate school, my boss liked me enough to keep sending me consulting work on the side. But it wasn’t because he thought I was inherently gifted. It because, when a release was coming up, I was there Saturday morning and at 10 pm on Tuesday night. It was because I worked my ass off. 

This is a hard transition to make. A lot of my peers balk because it sounds overwhelmingly cynical. Fortunately, I’m not just saying “work hard, because people only care about what they can get out of you” (although it’s probably more true than we’d like to admit). Rather, I’m trying to say that believing in hard work will not only make you more successful, it’ll make you better, happier person. It all comes down to how you process failure. If you believe in talent, failure is the end. You do whatever you can to convince yourself you didn’t actually fail. You blame your boss or your co-workers or your spouse. You change the rules. You change the goalposts. At the end of the day, though, you know its not real.  But if you believe in hard work, failure isn’t the last thing that happens. Failure is how we learn we’re not there yet. Failure is how we discover opportunities to become great. Failure is the beginning of success. 

So do it now. Work hard. And be proud of it.  


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