The value of sustained commitment and focused effort is incredibly powerful. I think it is also underestimated.
The Changing Nature of Effort
“Work smarter, not harder” is an oft repeated and overemphasized axiom that lies at the core of the misunderstanding. It would be better stated as “Work smarter” and left at that. I say this because working “smarter” generally depends on working harder. At least at first. You always have to work hard if you want success. The nature of that work will change as you get “smarter” and develop knowledge and experience in a given field.
Dan Pink does a nice job of outlining the basic reasons in Drive. Basically, it comes down to the fact that “Mastery” as he calls it is an elusive target. You’ll never be as good as you can be at anything. It’s hard at the beginning and hard as you progress. The nature of the challenges and scale of what you can do will change, but it won’t get “easier” if you are really trying. You simply work on higher-order challenges. Malcolm Gladwell makes a similar point about achieving “10,000 hours” of sustained effort in Outliers.
So…sustained effort is critical to both improving at anything and for getting things done. Lots of people can do easy things. Those jobs don’t pay very well and can be outsourced/offshored to someone who’s willing to make a lot less than you.
Efficiency and “Wasted” Time
Occasionally a student will want my guidance on where to place their effort so they can be efficient given the research question and available time. Good inclination and I coach them to think this way. But I usually have to remind them that you CAN’T be perfectly efficient. You’d have to know the answer to be that good.
But time spent on research, thought and synthesis that doesn’t end up in your final presentation isn’t “wasted” as many sometimes feel. It’s called “learning.” To come up with thoughtful, creative, non-obvious solutions you have to also struggle. And intellectual struggle is hard work with a lot of throw-away ideas, pictures, charts, renderings etc. It’s inherently inefficient.
“Work smarter” is about not repeating the same mundane set of tasks over and over if you can shortcut them without losing impact. So don’t build a spreadsheet every month if you can automate it with a query. But once the query is written, what can you do with the found time? Driven people apply that time more effectively on new, higher order tasks and analysis.
I think of this as the personal effort version of financial compound interest. If you work harder than others, you get more done. You get better faster, which means you are getting “smarter” while also applying more continued effort. So who wins?
Here’s what Celtic great and all time NBA 3 point record holder Ray Allen recently said about his results to Jackie MacMullen.
“I’ve argued this with a lot of people in my life,” Allen said. “When people say God blessed me with a beautiful jump shot, it really pisses me off. I tell those people, ‘Don’t undermine the work I’ve put in every day.’ Not some days. Every day. Ask anyone who has been on a team with me who shoots the most. Go back to Seattle and Milwaukee, and ask them. The answer is me — not because it’s a competition but because that’s how I prepare.
“[My preparation] drives me insane. I’m wrought with anxiety about being ready, about getting my shots in with nobody on the floor but me. Sometimes I get this bad feeling, almost like an itch, and I’ve got to get rid of it. I’ve got to get out there and get my shots up so that feeling goes away. It is bothering me right now. Small things are getting to me.
“Some people could care less if they make a jump shot, a free throw,” Allen continued. “I have chosen to zone in and focus on this. I played baseball and football and some soccer, and I truly would have been the best at those sports at whatever position I chose because I would have set my mind to it.
“I’m of sound mind and body, two arms and two legs, like millions of other people, but the ones who want it badly enough set themselves apart.”
I don’t know any successful people that lack drive. The key then is figuring out what you are driven to do. It’s hard to sustain effort on things you don’t care about and to be good at anything you need to be able to keep it up. Money usually isn’t enough.