As a lifelong workaholic, a trait that has driven me to become successful in banking and coaching, but at no small personal cost, my aspiration now is to do less, effortlessly. If Malcolm Gladwell was right about the ’10,000 hours’ theory of expertise he put forward in his 2008 book Outliers [arguing that “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good,” then I’ve clocked up enough time as a trader, negotiator and communicator to make it look easy when I present, strike deals and coach.
And yet….the idea of working hard and going over and above is so much a part of my identity, that even when I’ve felt that effortless ease in my work, I’ve found other ways to overfill my time with new demands to ‘practice’ new skills, whether that’s ambitious investment projects or creating content. What’s more, I have a tendency to overfill my diary and commit to just that little bit more work than is comfortable.
The writer Sahil Bloom’s articulation of the paradox of effort, using ballet as an example: “You have to put in more effort to make something appear effortless. Effortless, elegant performances are often just the result of a large volume of effortful, gritty practice,” resonates with me, and also becomes fuel for greater and greater effort. When it’s hard to allow yourself to feel like you’ve done enough, ‘gritty practice’ can become an enticing end in itself. The adage that ‘champions are not made in the ring, they are made in the gym,’ is true in that, at those moments of extreme challenge, all the effort you’ve put in up to that point tends to pay off, but for those with extremely high standards and in the habit of continuous graft, it can be hard to know how much practice is enough.
My disposition towards hard work comes from my parents, and particularly my mum. When I was growing up under communism in Romania, it was against the law to have a second job. This didn’t stop my mum, who had a challenging technical day-job from 6am-3pm – designing car engines, and who then came home, and worked on her knitting machine – hidden behind a wall built by my dad. She spent hours most days knitting jumpers and clothes for friends and family. When she wasn’t doing that, she had a second job that would fill her evening hours, making hairclips out of plastic that she would bend into shape over the cooker, inhaling poisonous fumes from the material as she repeated the same, deft movements time and again. She was paid per piece and an error meant a reject that was unsaleable. At the weekends, my parents would tend the flower garden they had created in the backyard of a church, where they grew tulips and roses, spending many Sundays at the market in the spring and summer, where they sold them. They never stopped. Perseverance and persistence were role-modelled to me, and I admired my parents’ work ethic greatly.
Recently, listening to social psychologist Azim Shariff’s recent TED talk: Does working hard really make you a good person? I began to think about the way that like many people in Western culture, I have tended to over-value hard work, regarding it as a sign of moral virtue. I certainly felt like that about my parents’ work ethic. But I recognise that, such a bias can blind all of us, and employers in particular, to confronting what Anthropologist David Graeber calls ‘bullshit’ jobs and processes that remain in place when a culture of ‘workism,’ takes hold.
The difficulty comes in recognising when hard work is a means to an end, and when it has become an end-in-itself. When the latter is the case, there is less space for the kind of thinking that is likely to lead to genuine progress, original ideas and strategic breakthroughs.
For this kind of ‘deep work,’ a more playful approach is required. As Adam Grant put it: “everybody knows the first pancake sucks. What creative people learn to do is to serve up the first pancake, knowing full well it sucks…” whereas the rest of us, he points out, will try to serve up the “third pancake first.” Developing the ability to start somewhere and build on it, rather than feeling as if you need to perfect something behind the scenes before showing your efforts to the world, might feel uncomfortable, but it is the only way to grow.
To loop back to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, the point for me is that many of those need to be practiced in public and many will require us to stumble and mess up along the way. Rather than a ‘big reveal’ of a slam-dunk performance after years of private practice out of view, a more realistic aspiration is to embrace a bumpy experience of ‘practice’ that might feel quite exposing along the way.
The challenge then, along with getting comfortable with appearing publicly as a work in progress, is to allow yourself to enjoy the eventual ease and feeling of competence that is the pay-off for all that hard work. To allow oneself to do this, without becoming preoccupied with the drive towards ‘what next’ grafting is the real challenge. For me, it’s a work in progress.
And I have just returned from Singapore, delivering leadership workshops to a longstanding corporate client. After all these years of working hard, it felt easy, effortless, and enjoyable!
How can you turn effort into ease?