At some point in your life, you’ve probably been told that success needs hard work.
Alright, you’ve definitely been told that if you haven’t been living under a rock for the last 2 decades.
I mean, it’s makes sense that we’d believe this — it’s pretty straightforward. Decide on a goal, put in the work, and achieve your dreams. Oh, and if you didn’t achieve it, it’s definitely because you didn’t do enough. Someone just outworked you and took your place.
There’s a fundamental problem with this thinking — it makes so much sense, that it’s almost difficult not to believe in hard work being the sole factor for success.
The proposition is luring, like a siren to sailors.
And, it’s reinforced everywhere we go. Workplaces award the hardest working employees, school gives the highest grades to the “hardest working students”, and the people who work hardest are usually the most successful.
This…makes sense. But, did these people become successful just off of hard work, or was there another piece of the puzzle?
A critical piece…that we’re missing?
To solve this dilemma, let’s look at probably one of the hardest working people in our society — a coal miner. No one could argue they don’t work hard. Day in and day out, putting in stroke after stroke, usually in horrible working conditions.
Yet — society probably wouldn’t define him as successful.
Why? Why is it that, despite hard work and effort, a coal miner still isn’t considered successful?
This is where the “hard work leads to success” theory falls apart. If it was the be-all-end-all of the story, our miner by all means should be insanely successful, at least in the way society defines it.
But for some, obscure reason — that just doesn’t happen.
Most of us put in the work, grind it out, only to no avail — life just frustratingly doesn’t give us what we want to. We feel like the world owes us something for all our effort, something in return for the countless hours we’ve spent toiling away. What could we possibly be doing wrong?
There’s this quote from author and consultant Peter Drucker that I think sums this up pretty well:
“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently, that which should not be done at all.”
Too often in life, we blame a lack of hard work for success. But what we don’t consider is the approach to achieving it.
This holds true for both business and our dreams. It doesn’t matter how hard you’re going for something if what you’re going for is the wrong thing. And I don’t mean this in a “you’re not capable of doing whatever it is you’re trying to do” sense. I mean this in the sense of your method.
We can work as hard as you want to achieve your goals — but if the approach is wrong, it will take you twice as long to get the same thing done (if at all), regardless of how much time you put in.
And, I’m guilty of this too. One of my more long-term goals has been to become an expert in the field of Artificial Intelligence. But when I started learning the fundamentals almost half a year ago, I was…stuck.
I was putting in 3–4 hours a day with no results, moving repeatedly in circles that lead to nowhere. It took me months to learn the basics, where others moved on in the span of weeks.
At that time, I (like so many other people out there) thought that my work ethic was the problem. I just needed to put in more time — and then I’d see the results. Then, I’d finally breakthrough and do what it was I wanted to.
What I didn’t acknowledge was my approach. The way I was learning. It was only after I started building things rather than learning from courses — that I began to see better results. That I began to understand that the problem wasn’t the work I was putting in — but rather, the way I was putting it in.
Trying to solve the right problem in the wrong way is like trying to walk up a ski slope with skis on. Other than the fact that only an absolute lunatic (😂) would do that, it just doesn’t make sense.
Despite that, it creates almost an illusion of progress, that you’re getting higher and higher — but nowhere near as fast as the ski lift beside you. It’s only after we take the time to look for better approaches, to look for that ski lift, that we can truly accelerate our progress.
And actually, it’s kind of surprising — the way we approach a problem or goal is so important, but so overlooked. We rarely take the time to evaluate and find new ways of doing things — just mindlessly executing over and over again. We never try to see the gaps in the system, let alone fill them.
The result? Frustration. Demotivation. Burnout. Feelings we’re all familiar with (best friends!).
We start doubting ourselves and our capabilities, thinking that maybe this isn’t for us. It’s like getting stuck in a never-ending merry go round, just going in circles over and over again.
This is what I like to call the approach slump — and it’s where a lot of us give up, instead of changing our course of action.
If we really think about it, giving up when our approach is messed up makes no sense. When a flower doesn’t bloom, we don’t blame the flower. We water the soil. We give it more sunlight. We add more fertilizer. We try to best optimize the surrounding conditions for growth, rather than dig up the seed.
Why then, don’t we have this same approach with the goals we set? When we’re faced with a challenge, we either give up (digging up the flower) or try and “work harder” (doing nothing and hoping the flower blooms).
How many people take a step back, zoom out and understand how they’re approaching things? And, how many of those actually take the next step, and act on those insights?
The literal definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a new result. By that definition, most of us are insane.
Now in practice, getting past the approach slump us harder than it seems. So, here are 3 principles I’ve found to be useful when it comes to evaluating an approach:
In the software development world, there’s this idea of explaining your code to a rubber duck whenever you run into a particularly nasty bug (you read that right 🦆).
It sounds incredibly weird, but in practice, it works. You’re forced to explain what you’re doing to someone else, in a way that allows you to pick up on any mistakes or bugs in your code.
Similarly, just explaining your approach out loud or to someone else is great for this kind of thing. Usually, we’ve gotten so used to our current methodology, that we go blind to our own fallacies.
Just writing an approach down in a journal or explaining our thinking to someone else can reveal those fallacies. And ultimately, put us on the right track to solving them.
2. Understanding Time
Time is a pretty good indicator of when we’re doing something wrong.
Really — how much time is it taking you to achieve what you want to achieve?
And…how much time should it take?
This is a hard question to answer, because its not always so obvious. While your approach might be the reason behind slow progress, it really depends on what you’re going for — some things just take time.
That’s why it’s a good idea to get perspective from people outside your circle — the right people will help point you in a better direction (if there is one).
3. Trusting the process
I know it’s been said millions of times, but here it is again — time is the single greatest compounder.
Everyone’s heard of the classic penny-doubling-every-day-for-a-month-riddle, where getting a penny and doubling it every day for a month nets you something like 5 million dollars.💵
Little do we realize that the same principle applies to our actions and dreams. No matter how fast you want to learn or how good your approach is, achieving success in anything worthwhile will take time.
According to this principle, success isn’t some sort of giant action or leap of faith. Instead, it’s the accumulation of small actions, compounded over time.
If you have a good approach and make choices in accordance with that approach, then time compounds that. You’ll probably end up achieving your desired outcome.
Similarly, making negative (yet seemingly irrelevant) sends us down a downward spiral of dissatisfaction. Quite literally, what you today determine what happens tomorrow.
And that’s really what I wanted to get across here — life is just a series of moments strung together, like a linked chain.
When we climb the chain, we never experience what’s above or below us — just what we’re holding onto. The decision to climb up, one pull at a time, seems trivial in retrospect, but adding up dozens of those pulls brings us to a better place.
And, deciding to go down one step at a time brings us to the bottom.
The chain awaits our actions — but whether it takes us up or down, is literally in our hands.