Allow me to share a little bit of a rant with you.
A little while ago, while I was travelling, my wife sent me a text. “Have you ever heard of Blinkist?”
Semi-pronouncable non-word? Must be a new web site.
Short answer, yes it is. And it’s a web site with an advertising budget, it seems. My wife had been seeing ads for it for several days on TV. The essential gist of it was: “The most successful people in the world are readers. Let us short-cut that for you.”
Speaking personally, I cannot begin to describe all the ways that feels so very, very wrong. The extremely cynical interpretation is: “The most successful people are readers. Let us deceive you into thinking you can be successful too. Give us your money, and we’ll pretend to give you an accelerated path to fame and riches.”
What that ignores is the initial premise: The most successful people are readers. They take the time to reflect. They stop. They absorb. They ponder. They distill. They do this while (mostly) sitting still and (largely) immersing themselves in the pages of a book.
And there is no real substitute for that. The problem is not one of exposing you to all the most valuable and insightful ideas, and you will instantly grok what that means (and if you want to know what “grok” means, there’s a book I can recommend you). The problem is taking the time to slow down and contemplate. To gain new understanding. To reconceive what you think, what you know, and what you think you know. To build new theories of how things work. Theories that you can test out and apply.
In other words, figuring stuff out is a process. It takes effort. It takes time. It takes reflection and consideration. Learning requires us taking enough of a mental time out from real life that we can step back and examine what’s working, what’s not, what other perspectives might be useful, and how we might incorporate that into our approach going forward. That’s not going to happen in a 15 minute blitz in between meetings 7 and 8 of our day, no matter how much we may want to pretend differently.
What is all comes down to is, we need to do the work.
For many of us, that’s an unpalatable thought. We would prefer easy. We compare ourselves to others, and question what they have that we don’t. We want to know what they’ve done differently to get where they are, why they have the results or the position or the supposed status that we want for ourselves. The biggest difference, most often, is that they’ve taken the time to learn, to develop and to figure things out. They’ve practiced. And in practicing, they’ve become competent. Capable. Talented. They’ve done the work.
Accepting that this is true is difficult in a world that believes that everyone deserves a trophy just for showing up. But this in no way changes the reality of the situation. Our ability to be competent and to be able to make a meaningful contribution depends largely on whether we’ve built the knowledge necessary to provide a relevant and useful perspective on the problem. And that requires the serendipitous intersection of what we know and the expertise that the situation demands. Doing the work is hard. Moreover, it takes persistence and follow through. And that’s what makes it difficult.
A couple of weeks ago, someone on the internet (note to self: never read the comments) took a pot-shot at me because I was particularly prevalent on a site that I contribute to, one that is entirely related to my field. Underneath the overt criticism, there was a clear sense of resentment that I had a platform and they didn’t. I didn’t get that platform for free, and I didn’t get given it over night. On the site in question, I’ve been writing articles since 2001. I’ve been doing monthly webinars since 2011. I have quite literally written hundreds of submissions, and produced close to 100 presentations for them. The presence that I have is a product of the investment that I’ve made. That investment is now nearly two decades long.
It hasn’t always been that way. If I reflect back on my time in school, for example, a different scenario emerges. From grade school, I looked for short cuts. I resented homework. I tried to figure out how to do the bare minimum. By high school, I had this developed to a pretty fine art. I spent my time focusing on the things I wanted to explore and actually found interesting. And everything else I invested precisely enough time in to squeak by.
My teachers despaired of this. An enduring theme in report cards was “he persistently fails to live up to his potential.” And I am in no way uncertain that my high school graduating average of 74.9% (just 0.1% off of an honours diploma) was an accident. It was far more likely a carefully calibrated message.
I’m not unique in this, of course. I was listening to a podcast the other day with Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the greatest longform journalist of our time. He is literate, he is thoughtful and he is considered. He commands a vocabulary and can compose a narrative that puts my writing skills to shame. He also never graduated college. He failed English, American lit, Brit lit and a handful of other subjects where you would presume he would have shone. His time in school was spent focusing on the things that interested him, and largely ignoring the things that did not. Most of which were his courses.
That’s not that his teachers were bad. Coates is very clear about that. His experience had far more to do with interests that lay outside of the formal structure of coursework. He wanted to explore what interested him, read the things that captured his attention and set a course that was relevant for him. That’s a perspective that I am entirely sympathetic to.
The consequence of that is that Coates’ progress has been harder, not easier. He’s had to prove himself more than might otherwise have been necessary. The hurdles have been higher. The challenges have been greater. The successes have been harder won.
That’s an interesting consequence of taking short-cuts. The more you avoid or circumvent, the longer and harder the road to potential success actually becomes. The more we shirk or try to evade, the more intense and intensive any subsequent redemption becomes. The easier that we try to make it, the harder we find our path to be.
There is a distinct irony there, and it’s not a subtle one. There are few instances where we can short-circuit the path to success. Our attempts at doing so often tend to make things longer and more complicated. At the very least, they get drawn out. The only way out is through. We need to do the work, if we want to make progress. hours of actual reading.
Whether we want to make progress, though, is a different—and slightly more complex—question. When we find ourselves confronted with an obstacle or challenge, the presumption is that the most relevant way forward is to buckle down and figure it out. The reality, though, is we often avoid. We wend our way far down the nearest rabbit hole–often facilitated by the internet). And we will often spend far more time studiously hunting for distractions than would have been required to simply deliver the task at hand.
Interestingly, this pattern of behavior is often a deliberate form of sabotage. To not put too fine a point on it, we set ourselves up to fail. We distract ourselves, we delay and we deflect. In doing so, we often—whether we are conscious of it or not—deliberately create the circumstances where we can no longer succeed. Instead, we settle and compromise, and lament that if only our circumstances had been different, we could have done a better job.
What is particularly relevant and important is situations where this is a repeated pattern. We need to ask what is going on when we are repeatedly setting ourselves up for failure. Where rather than doing the work we find ourselves pursuing distractions and diversions, we need to ask ourselves what pay-off we are getting. Because any time anyone repetitively engages in a behavior—no matter how seemingly dysfunctional or ineffective—they are getting something out of it.
That pay-off is often never finding out the depths of what we are capable of, and of where our talent stops. It’s a way of deliberately avoiding the discovery of our potential. And it’s certainly avoiding the hard work required to live up to that potential. If we set ourselves up for failure, then there are external factors to blame. We try to avoid responsibility. If we strive for success, the fear is that we might still fail. And we would have no one to blame but ourselves.
My inherent problem with that perspective is that it presumes that success is a fixed point, and that talent and skill comes in nice neat packages, all tied in a bow. Success in any given situation is a moving target. What it’s going to take to succeed in a given circumstance is going to shift and evolve. Part of it comes down to skill, and part of it will still be luck.
The skill part is what we have control over. But we only develop our skills by practicing and doing, and learning from those experiences. And some of those experiences will be failures. Yes, I’ve been writing for a very long time. If I look back at some of my early articles, many of them are astonishingly bad. Not all of them, mind you; some were actually inspired, but that has not been a consistent outcome. Over time, I’ve improved my writing, and I’ve improved my success rate. I’m humble enough to know that not everything I write is brilliant. Writing still takes work, and some days it’s far harder than others. But I’ve persisted, I’ve practiced and I’ve evolved.
Success takes work. We’ve got to get out of bed and get stuck in. One of the greatest skills (if you can consider it a skill) that I’ve learned is to simply get started. When I’m on the verge of starting something, and I see the mountain of work it will take to accomplish it, the rabbit holes can start looking awfully tempting. Start moving forward, one step at a time. Start working, and keep working. If, after an hour, I’m still not making any progress forward, I’ll give myself permission to step away and try again. Usually by that point, though, I don’t even realize the hour has past. Once started, work can be its own reward, not just because we see ourselves making progress, but because we’re enjoying the challenge of figuring out the work.
Looking at the hurdles before us, short-cuts can look tempting. We can spend a lot of time looking for them, and even longer following them, only to realize that they’ve not moved us forward. They’ve in fact diverted our attention, depleted our energy and wasted our time. In the meantime, the work still remains, whatever that work might be. Yes, it will take effort. Yes, it will consume time. Yes, we might fail. None of that makes it less worthwhile to do, if what we care about is the result that doing the work will get us.
Do the work. Do the work for the results, yes, but also do the work for the process. Do the work because you care about your craft. And do the work because you’re learning while you do. Yes, failure’s a possibility. But the more we do the work, the more we set ourselves up to be successful. And the more valuable our skills actually become.