So I was at an event with a bunch of high profile speakers last week and something one of the guys said really bothered me. I can’t quote him exactly, but the Sum and substance of what he said was this: if you think you have to work hard to accomplish great things, you just don’t have the right mindset. Hard work is just an idea that you picked up along the way. It’s not necessary.
Now I’m aware of the semantic argument that can spring up from this: He could have just been romanticizing the idea of doing work you’re passionate about. And if you’re passionate about your work, then – when seen through a certain lens – the work isn’t hard.
It’s like that famous and likely Hollywoodized story of Edison. His wife told him that he had been working too much and that since he could afford it, and since he had competent people to work while he was away, he should take a vacation to wherever he wanted to go in the world. He carefully considered what she said and agreed that he would do just that in the morning. The next day, he got up at 6 AM and went to the lab.
That’s cool. I like that story, and have experienced versions of it myself. I’m not sure however, in what way that sort of story would lead to the conclusion that the work is never challenging or unpleasant… which seems to be a popular belief among the “follow your passion / find your bliss” crowd. It’s a fun idea to be sure: no hard work. Just feel joy and passion… live the dream all the time… right?
That kind of naïve and oversimplified narrative about passion and accomplishment is not only inaccurate, but damaging… because it leads the people who subscribe to it, to believe they’re doing something wrong if everything they do doesn’t feel incredible.
And that wasn’t what the speaker was saying. He made it very clear that he meant to indicate that not much actual work was required at all to achieve something of worth, because with the right mindset and strategy, you could essentially work the system and get by without much effort.
I abhor that idea and everything it represents. I don’t want to work the system or get by with less. Granted, I want to be intelligent and use the best tools at my disposal… I’m not going to plow the fields with a hand-plow when tractors are available. But when it comes to the idea that no work or sweat or discomfort is required; and the idea that work will always be pleasant if you’re passionate enough about what you’re doing… I’m calling bullshit on both.
Yes: sometimes – often even – work is a thrilling experience. That’s what gets me through some of the most daunting projects. But sometimes, the work required to accomplish the coolest dream in the world feels like hell. Sometimes the growth achieved by work is directly proportional to the discomfort it caused. Hard work and discipline are necessary for great accomplishment; and the feeling of doing something unpleasant and overcoming resistance to attain an achievement of worth is a valuable part of the basis for self-esteem and confidence.
The thing that really got me about this statement was that a good percentage of an audience of 5,000 people cheered for this. The auditorium rumbled with the sounds of assent and delight. It frightens me a bit that this idea is so appealing. But I think I’m starting to understand it. It comes down to this:
The people that find the idea of success without work appealing have started to think in various (often inaccurate) SHOULDS.
They think of life as something that SHOULD be pleasant. They SHOULD be happy. They SHOULD be able to accomplish the things they attempt without struggle. They SHOULD be fulfilled all the time.
And when they’re not… for years and years… they hit a wall. And instead of drawing the conclusion that the ebb and flow of emotion and effort and frustration is a necessary part of life, they decide that something must be wrong with them… not with their attitudes or ideas, but with themselves. At which point, they often become passive and start to do as little as possible to get by. Then it becomes easy to see how the idea of accomplishment without effort would be alluring.
And I am by no means putting myself in a category separate from those who have given up and spent years avoiding hard work. In truth I have lived there for a lot of my life. It has been a vice as insidious as any addictive and harmful behavior. I understand the feeling of asking why, for all my effort to master my circumstance, I have found myself at the starting line a dozen times, wondering how the hell I got there. It’s easy in the face of that kind of frustration to want to assume there’s something in my nature that won’t allow me to continue to evolve past a certain point. And it’s easy to embrace the comfort of complacency and avoidance of hard work.
But here’s the thing: When I really pay attention, I find increasingly that – as Maria Montessori said – work is its own reward. Not in the sense that it’s never hard or always fun, but in the sense that it expands who I am. The pursuit of new challenges, the eight hour days on the violin, the months spent completing and tweaking one song, the years alone at night in the studio… they don’t always feel good at the time. They are often VERY hard. But the days I have spent dedicated to work are some of my best in retrospect. It’s not just the sense of accomplishment when it goes well, but equally, the fact that I was there in the trenches, working on something that had the potential to be meaningful. I feel strongly that I am made of my labor, and not of its fruits. That’s why I feel that any outward sign of accomplishment without hard work is meaningless.
And when I look back at all those “starting lines,” it turns out that I wasn’t going in circles so much as in an upward spiral… even when it felt like I was going nowhere. The pursuit itself… of creation of worth… in menial work, in life, in love, in vocation… has had far more impact on the parts of myself that I’m proud of than any of the outcomes. Whatever enjoyment and peace I find in work is based on that fact.
And I’m alright with the knowledge that there will be days I don’t want to do it. There will be days when resistance seems bigger than me. There will be days when I’m tired and weak and hurting and my heart and body and mind feel incapable of the effort required. There will be days when I can’t see the light for the darkness. And truly, those are the days when the work must be done. Those are the days when merely going through the motions constitutes a victory. Those are the days when confidence is built and demons are beaten.
Those… are the most important days of my life.