The myth of hard work (and the secret of an extraordinary life)

I recently found myself in circumstances that required me to reflect on the way I work, my career goals and my outlook and approach to my professional life. I’ve always been a pretty self-aware and reflective person (sometimes to a fault), but this process really got me thinking not only about how I work now, but also how this will translate into my working life in the future.

It was with this degree of self reflection at the forefront of my mind that I listened to, and was totally inspired by, an interview with Stever Robbins on the Ben Greenfield Podcast last week.

Lecturer and life coach, Robbins is also an entrepreneur, business consultant, host of ‘The Get It Done Guy’ podcast, author of ‘The Get it Done Guy’s Nine Steps to Work Less and Do More’ and, most recently, writer on ‘Work Less and Do More: The Zombie Musical’.

The message he preaches is that ‘the journey is the reward‘; that ultimately, reaching your goals shouldn’t be the sole focus of your attentions but rather, you should embrace the experiences that come on the path towards that goal. Whether it’s training for a race, gaining skills and experiences at work, learning at college, practising an instrument, or whatever your objective may be, your focus shouldn’t just be centred on the final, fleeting moment of completion – crossing a finishing line, getting a promotion etc. While there is of course some pleasure in these things, so much more pleasure can be derived if you also place stock in all of the little steps surmounted, moments experienced, skills acquired, people met and memories made along the way.

In looking at his own life, Robbins asked himself, did you make the most of your one life and did you make it extraordinary (whatever it is that ‘extraordinary’ means to you)?

To answer this he sat down with a piece of paper, which he split into 3 columns, and in the first he wrote all of those things that impacted on him positively, that nurtured him and that he regarded as in some way extraordinary. In the second he wrote all of those things that he regarded to be neutral in his life, and in the third he wrote down those things that actively drained his life energy.

I would urge you to do the same, even if just as a mental tally. Go through your daily or weekly calendar and divide up your activities into these three columns and look at what percentage of your activities fall into each column.

Robbins asks us to question what the things are that we regard extraordinary? What compels you to enough to move to action? What are the things that give you real joy? And how can you make these things workable for you?

He suggests letting your emotions guide you towards what you want to do and then setting your brain on figuring out what it is about that thing that inspires you and how you can get into it in some way.

Robbins also talks about four myths that get in the way of leading an extraordinary life. These may seem like heresy to traditional motivational speakers, but they are really worth considering:

1. The myth of hard work

First is the myth of hard work. Robbins observes that often when you are struggling to achieve a goal the commonly given advice is to just ‘work harder’. However, the problem is that while we always tell ourselves and each other this, no one has ever really stopped to ask what this really means: what is hard work?

It seems that for the vast majority of people the definition of hard work is ‘something that I’m not very good at, don’t enjoy and that I work long hours at’. If this is how the majority of us conceive of hard work it would seem that the advice we are giving each other when we say ‘you just need to work harder’, is ‘maybe you need to do a few more hours of things you’re not very good and you really don’t enjoy, and then you’ll have the life you want.’

To Robbins this demonstrates a serious mis-calibration around what hard work means and what it can achieve.

Consider this: there are people who work for a lot of hours on things that they enjoy, with successful results, and don’t think about it as hard work. They may think about it as energising or challenging or maybe as a lot of effort, but not hard work.

Robbins tells us to consider also that there are an awful lot of people who are very rich, living the life they want through chance, circumstance or privilege, but who don’t work particularly hard by anyone’s definition of hard work.

And there are even more people who work really hard everyday and never achieve the life they want.

Thus while there is some relationship between hard work and the life you are living, and while there is definitely a correlation between laziness and not getting what you want – while hard work is no guarantee of success laziness is definitely a guarantee that you won’t end up with an extraordinary life – Robbins wants to stress that the hard work part is not the thing to obsess about.

This all made me think about my own job and really made me realise that while I put in a lot of effort – while I’m challenged in some regard everyday – my job is not ‘hard work’ by Robbins’ definition. Rather, it is something that I love and that enriches and nourishes me. My colleagues are interesting and supportive, my work is varied and each week I learn something new. My work environment is pleasant and my boss encourages me to try new things and take on new challenges. Yes there are days when I find myself pulling my hair out about one thing or other, or when it feels like I have a billion and one things to do, and I will certainly never be rich no matter how much effort I put in, but each week I feel that I’ve contributed something and taken something from my working week and I appreciate how lucky I am in that regard.

The conclusion I draw from this is that we don’t have to be slogging away for hours at something we hate to achieve our goals and people’s competitive tendency to brag about how hard they are working, or to spend hours upon end in the office is no indicator of how successful their lives actually are, or how productive their working time really is.

2. The myth of life goals

Myth number two relates to life goals and the fallacy that you are in a place to decide at the age of 16, 18 or 25 what you want to do with the rest of your life.

There are a number of reasons why these longer term goals aren’t great. While shorter term goals can be very motivating and can help you set direction, in terms of shaping the arc of your life, people are very bad at predicting what’s going to satisfy them, make them happy and what it is they are going to want ten or fifteen years in the future. It is hard to know how your priorities will change as you get older and what a 20-year-old thinks is a good ten year goal is unlikely to be a place where a 30-year-old wants to be.

Instead of committing yourself to a singular course, Robbins suggests that you should try to notice what draws you and get skilled and experienced in that area. Start to get known and meet people. Create open networks of people who you like and respect and who like and respect you. It’s not about networking in a traditional, targeted sense, but rather, building a web of contacts, a net of many different types of thread, as you never know which threads will eventually prove to be the ones you rely on.

3. The myth of life plans

While you can have a general sense of where you are going, Robbins suggests that rather than following a strict plan you should see life as a series of moving targets. Your role is to continually move between these targets, learning and immersing yourself in the things you are passionate about while staying open to all of the other targets that move through your life.

He cautions that just because you’ve made a ten year plan, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that plan will take you to where you want to/expect to be. Often our ideas about the way that the world and career paths work has no baring on reality and we often lack the experience to make adequate plans to get us to the places we want the be. The problem is that if your plan is fundamentally flawed it doesn’t matter how closely you follow it, if it’s not a real path to where you want to get to, you’ll not succeed in your goal.

Instead you need to think how can you put yourself into an environment that is rich with a variety of opportunities? How do you recognise an opportunity from an attractive diversion? And how do you ultimately ensure that you benefit from that opportunity?

4. The myth of deferred gratification

The final myth is that of deferred gratification. A lot of people choose their career path on the logic of getting rich now and doing what I really want to do later, but the risk here is that you become all deferred and no gratification.

Robbins notes that you need to learn to strike a good balance between what you are going to defer and what you are going to insist on now. And remember: if you always wait you never build a foundation on which to structure your future plan. The earlier you start the earlier you develop a base of skills, contacts and experiences, rather than coming in ten years later and competing against people ten years younger than you with ten years more experience.

I hope that this has all provided some food for thought; it certainly got me thinking about my approach to work, how positive so many elements of my life are and how lucky I am to be in an industry that cultivates collaboration and creativity over competitiveness and conflict.

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