“The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. That’s real glory. Thats the essence of it.”
Vince Lombardi (Former Head Coach; Green Bay Packers)
“No one gives a damn about the size of your to-do list.”
Ryan Freitas (Co-Founder; About.me)
“Learning from failure is overrated.”
Jason Fried (Co-Founder; 37Signals)
When you’re working against yourself, hard work is a disadvantage.
The wrestling team captain stepped to the side, twisted his hips, and threw me onto my back. We were in the middle of our second wrestle-off to see who would compete as the college’s varsity 165-pounder. I lost by 12 points. He annihilated me, confirming that my 3-2 win earlier in the week was a fluke.
I wasn’t sure why I lost. I wasn’t sure why I won the previous match either. I had a sense that a bunch of factors went into both winning and losing but I was either too ignorant or too lazy to figure out what they were. Instead, I grouped all of these factors together under the heading “hard work.” When I won, it was because I worked hard. When I lost, it was because I didn’t work hard enough. The end.
Our teams’ heavyweight wrestler came over to talk to me that night after the match. He was a kind of mentor to me at the time. “Dude, I was impressed with you today.” Huh? Clearly he was confused. I lost, remember? “You lost because you cared more about working hard than winning, not because you were the lesser wrestler.” Oh. Wait. Was he right?
Working Hard Is Not More Important Than Winning
Even in high school, I prided myself on being the hard working wrestler on the team. I’d train night and day just so I wouldn’t get tired in the third and final period of my wrestling matches. I always wanted to be on the offensive, attacking the other guy and winning by exhausting him. I didn’t care about technique or strategy. Those things took too long to think about. I’d rather do what I was comfortable with and what I was known for—working hard.
Working hard was my safety net. As long as I worked hard and gave it my all, it didn’t matter if I won or lost. Working hard was my identity too. Isaiah might have lost or came in second but he’s one of the hardest workers I know. Hearing something like this was enough of an ego boost to get me past the fact that I didn’t win.
All of this came crashing down on my head right when my heavyweight friend told me that I cared more about working hard than winning. It was the first time I recognized this about myself. The next day, I created a new plan for my third match. When the match started, I did something completely different—I stalled.
If Working Hard Is Your Safety Net, Burn It
The team captain was a great defensive wrestler. In previous matches I’d stayed on the offensive, attacking over and over, usually unsuccessfully, while wearing myself out at the same time. Meanwhile, he stayed fresh. This time, I waited for him to attack. He never did. We both danced around, fought for position and, ultimately, did nothing.
Our coaches called both of us for stalling. Then they called stalling again. And again. By the end of the third period, it was 2-2. We had both given up 2 points for stalling. I eventually won the match in double overtime. The match was ugly, embarrassing, and completely unlike me. It just felt wrong. But, it was a win.
Why Hard Workers Can Have A Hard Time Changing
Hard workers and gamers are biologically different. In your prefrontal cortex there’s an enzyme called catechol-O-methyltransferase, or COMT. This enzyme’s job is to clear out excess dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter most famously known for lighting up your brain’s reward center and giving you a jolt of energy (or mental high) after a big win. The dopamine rush you feel after accomplishing something is great but if the dopamine is not cleared out relatively quickly, bad things happen.
The COMT enzyme is critical to balancing your dopamine levels. Too much dopamine in your prefrontal cortex can lead to things like anxiety, panic attacks, and nervous breakdowns. On the other hand, a dopamine shortage can lead to things like mania and hearing voices. This is why it’s so important for the COMT enzyme to function properly.
There are two kinds of COMT enzymes—a fast-acting one and a slow-acting one. The slow-acting one clears dopamine 4 times slower and is often found in hard-working, type-A people. These people are characterized as chronic worriers who outperform their peers on a day-to-day basis but tend to underperform in big competitions. They practice exceptionally well but sometimes crack under pressure. Why?
The Difference Between Hard Workers And Gamers
Hard workers crack under pressure because their COMT enzymes can’t clear dopamine fast enough. As stress builds, more and more dopamine is released until, finally, the hard worker’s brain is overloaded and he spins out of control, causing them to fail, sulk, and put themselves through a massive guilt trip that crushes their self-esteem.
But people with fast-acting COMT don’t have this problem. Instead of cracking, these gamers (only) get turned on when there are high levels of stress. They underperform on a day-to-day basis but outperform their peers when the stakes are high. The problem is gamers can get so used to underperforming that they eventually stop challenging themselves. They turn into full blown lazy people. Hard workers don’t have this problem, but they do have their own challenges.
The Two Biggest Mistakes Hard Workers Make
Hard workers have two main problems. The first is they can get stuck in a rut, doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results that never come. Studies show that people with slow-acting COMT have trouble seeing new things. They tend to get overwhelmed by novelty—their senses spike and their dopamine levels peak. This either renders them incapable of using the novelty to their advantage or it blinds them to the novelty’s usefulness altogether. The solution here is for hard workers to turn their natural tendency to worry into a productive strategy session.
The second problem hard workers face is they tend to melt down under pressure. When the stress is high, dopamine overloads their brains and they panic or breakdown. The solution here is simply for the hard worker to train more. Studies show that people with slow-acting COMT can outperform even gamers during highly stressful events if they prepare for it in advance. With enough practice, hard workers can prevent excess dopamine from building up in their brains.
12 Mistakes Hard Workers Should Avoid
Hard work can be a disadvantage. Like when you channel your energy into unproductive areas of your life, giving tons of energy to something that takes you no where. If you’re a hard worker, your biggest obstacle is yourself. You—your refusal to change your focus or your approach—is the only thing that will keep you from being successful.
You can outlast, grind down, or sidestep everything else. But not yourself. To be successful, you must alter your thinking and behavior by avoiding these 12 success-killing mistakes:
1. Doing the same dumb task over and over again.
You can’t get to the top by running headfirst into the same wall over and over again. Be smarter than that. Too many hard working people do the same stupid tasks repeatedly because they think that brute force is all they need to succeed. These people are idiots.
Repetition, by itself, does not make you a hard worker. Any ignorant laborer can do the same thing again and again. Staying in the office until 10PM just to be seen or going to every meeting you’re invited to doesn’t make you a hero. It makes you a pawn.
Winning requires something different. It requires you to attack the same problem with more than force—with creativity, strategy, and wit. Start changing your approach. Seek out allies to help you, circle to the side and attack your problem’s flank, or pause, step back and make your problem come to you.
2. Always trying something new and never following through.
Hard working people love saying yes. Can you help me with this? Yes! Are you up for the challenge? Yes! Are you going to be a team player and pitch in? Yes! Hard workers want to do everything for everyone. They have a hundred great ideas a day and start 10 of them before noon. By the end of the week they’re juggling 50 projects that won’t bring them any closer to their biggest goals. What a waste.
If you’re a hard worker, resist the temptation to keep starting new projects. Instead, follow through on what you’re doing. Success, by definition, requires succeeding—it requires finishing something. You have to hit a result. Starting is not a result.
3. Never practicing live or failing first-hand.
Hard working people love to practice. They love to get up and grind it out, getting better and better at what they do. But sometimes, they love it too much. They get so addicted to practicing that they never compete. They never make a real attempt.
You know these types of people—the bloggers who never put together a book and publish it, the wannabe entrepreneurs who spends $200 on a professional logo made but never put together a product to sell, of the athletes who crushes it in practice but then chokes during the game.
Nothing matters until you go up against other people—until you test your worth in the real world. You can break bricks all day but that’s not going to make you a Kung Fu master. Bricks don’t hit back.
4. Feeling comfortable or noble after a loss.
Despite what the world has been telling you for the last 30-40 years, there’s no nobility in losing. Losing makes you a loser. It’s not something you should get comfortable with. It should hurt every single time.
Without that pain, you’ll never make a change. You’ll never get the itch to go back to the drawing board and try again. To be successful, you have to hate losing. You have to hate it in your guts. This kind of hate will erase any fear you have of losing and inspire you to get better and better.
5. Chasing recognition over passion.
Hard working people are driven to have an impact. They want their lives and their work to matter. This is what gets them up in the morning.
The problem is too many people confuse having an impact with getting noticed. They think that being recognized for their work is the only way their work can be great. This kind of mindset will kill any progress you’ve made towards success. Once you start relying on others to make you feel good about yourself or your work, you’re screwed.
Greatness doesn’t require acknowledgment. Greatness, without acknowledgement, is still great. Stop seeking approval and recognition. Instead, chase passion. The things you’re truly passionate about are tied to your identity, which is a much stronger driving force than someone patting you on the head and telling you good job.
6. Mimicking the behavior of someone in charge.
My fourth year of college we got a new assistant wrestling coach who was extremely hard working. He practiced with us and was always the first one to show up at our morning lifts. But he had this annoying habit of repeating everything that our head coach said word for word.
“You guys need to get in the right mindset for this match.” “You guys need to get in the right mindset for this match.” Seriously. That’s what it was like. A couple of the guys on the team started calling him mouthpiece and that was the end of his credibility.
Too often, hard working people idolize their bosses or the people who have authority over them. They want to make a good impression or they think that kissing up will help them climb the ladder. Nothing could be further from the truth. People who kiss up, stay put. No one wants to promote an automaton without an identity of their own. When you sacrifice your identity for success, you end up with neither.
7. Choosing friends based on popularity.
Picking friends and colleagues based on popularity is a recipe for failure. Popularity is not an indication of success. It’s an indication of blandness–of lack of creativity.
Too many hard workers think that playing up to the popular people in a particular industry will help them get ahead. But it won’t. Popularity is a distraction. Playing up to people is a waste of time. If you want to get ahead, surround yourself with like-minded people, not popular people.
Seek out other hard workers who have similar values but different strengths. These people will bring you closer to your goals by keeping you motivated and by compensating for your weaknesses.
8. Showing up first and trying to be a part of everything.
Showing up too early is a common mistake hard workers make. Most hard working people think that showing up to an event before anyone else will show how eager and dedicated they are. Wrong.
Showing up early doesn’t show others you’re eager or dedicated, it shows them that you’re disruptive of other people’s schedules and don’t know how to manage your time. Likewise, trying too hard to be a part of everything shows people that you’re insecure and have too much time on your hands.
You’re hard working. You want to be a part of the action. You want to show people that you care and you’re valuable. I get it. But showing up early and begging to be a part of everything is not the way to show this. Instead, speak through your work. Focus on yourself and take action to add massive value to everything you do. Then, people will get up early and come to you.
9. Acting like everyone’s boss.
Hard working people thrive on getting stuff done. Their dopamine levels are high on a daily basis, which drives them to take charge. Taking charge during critical situations is a strength. But taking charge during casual interactions or in the midst of meaningless drama is a mistake.
Don’t get sucked into trying to control every interaction. Don’t be a know-it-all. This is how everyone responds to a bossy person—they nod in agreement, wait for him or her to leave the room, roll their eyes, and then go back to what they were doing.
Bossy people are not admired. They’re ignored and strategized against. The more you try to boss people around, the more other people will subtly work against you. They’ll undermine you behind your back and set up roadblocks just to watch you go nuts.
Don’t be bossy. Instead, be friendly. Focus on connecting people around a cause instead of pushing them to do what you want. Motivate them by appealing to their identity and to their self-interest. This is much more effective than trying to use fear or force.
10. Never capitalizing on the up front work of a project.
The fastest way to fail in life is to accept mediocre levels of success. Hard working people find so much pride in working hard on a project that just a little success makes them quit and move onto something else. For them, the success is in the hard work itself.
Success is not in the hard work itself. Why work hard for days, week, or even years just to let off the gas right when you start building momentum?
Winning is everything. All the hard work you’re doing is meaningless if you’re not ready to capitalize on each and every breakthrough. The recipe for massive success is always the same. You work hard for a very long time—longer than you want to, then you catch a small break, and then you leverage the hell out of that small break until you turn it into a big, lasting win.
Too many hard working people get stuck on the small break. They work hard, catch a break, enjoy the break, and then go back to doing what they were doing.
Don’t throw your hard work away. Instead, look ahead to what could happen if things start taking off. Have an opportunistic mindset. Imagine that your business starts to explode suddenly. Imagine that your article or video goes viral. Are you ready to capitalize on it? Do you have the necessary systems in place? Do you have the necessary content or products in place?
11. Blaming their problems on other people.
Other people aren’t your problem. You are your problem. No one is sitting at home, staring at the wall, swirling brandy, and meditating on how they can defeat you.
Sure, some people might try to hold you back when an easy opportunity presents itself. But no one cares enough about you to dedicate their lives to bringing you down. You’re just not that important.
Plus, people are lazy. And flaky. They might get upset with you today but a few days from now they won’t even remember why they’re upset. Their emotions will change. Even if they do stay angry and figure out a way to get back at you, they’ll be too busy or too lazy to execute it.
Quit worrying about other people. Stop seeing everyone as a villain. The only villain is you. It’s your worrisome and self-defeating thoughts that will keep you from success, not other people.
12. Always second-guessing themselves.
Hard workers are worriers. They’re type-A people who are addicted to overthinking things. Too often, these people will make a bold move and then pull back at the last minute. Or they’ll sprint in a thousand different directions without ever committing to a single path. Every time they start to commit, they’ll sabotage themselves and come up with a bunch of excuses for why they couldn’t commit.
Always second-guessing yourself will destroy you. It will make you hesitant, weak, and unproductive. Stop fearing the unknown. Turn your tendency to worry into an opportunity to strategize. Hard workers have better working memory than most, which means they make excellent strategists. But, they’re only great strategists when they take the time to strategize.
Create a strategy for what you want. Sit down and rationally map out where you want to go. Then work back wards to get there. Be alert and flexible, but don’t change your overall course, no matter how hard things get. Hard workers succeed based on strategy, not by winging it. Any battle you prepare for, you’ll win.
Are you a hard worker? If so, which of the above points resonated with you the most?
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