Don’t Be Afraid of Hard Work

There comes a point in everyone’s life when they realize that hard work is overrated.

Each person in his or her own time will have a moment of epiphany that forces them to respect the complex array of variables that go into the making of a success story.

This epiphany is at once heartbreaking and liberating. Heartbreaking because we’re aroused from the comforting illusion that we’re in complete control over all the factors that determine our destiny. Liberating because we’re freed from the stress of believing that we always need to be hustling and bustling in order to make good things happen.

Stories abound of people who toil day and night only to suffer the disillusionment of a world that doesn’t always honor a rigorous day’s work. We’re also flooded with movies and TV shows illustrating the emptiness and regret of the person who spends too much time at the office and too little time doing things like sitting by the ocean, watching the sunset, gazing at the night sky, conversing with friends, watching the children grow up, and so forth.

These narratives have created a legitimate demand for task management systems and other approaches to work that can help people minimize the harmful effects of the daily grind. A great deal of self-help and personal development now centers around the idea of showing us how to hack productivity, how to optimize creativity, and how to get more results out of less effort.

And I love every bit of this cultural shift towards making work more fulfilling and less stressful. I wholeheartedly believe that everyone on the planet could benefit from learning how to simplify their workload and increase their efficiency, BUT…

I also believe that we’re running the risk of forgetting one very important, empirically attested fact:

Hard work isn’t a sufficient condition for fulfillment and success, but for most of us, it’s very likely a necessary one. 

In his advice to other artists, Pablo Picasso counseled “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

That is, there’s no point in reinventing or rebelling against the rules if you’re completely clueless about what the rules are, why they were established in the first place, and how they can be useful in certain contexts. Some people are so eager to be unorthodox (or so afraid of being seen as rigidly orthodox) that they wholly disregard the valuable lessons to be learned from custom and convention.

I consider Picasso’s observation concerning art to be true of hard work:

You have to know what it means to step outside of your comfort zones, push yourself, and work vigorously before it means anything to master a bunch of techniques for hacking your schedule. After all, you can’t optimize a process unless the process has already begun. Optimization isn’t a precursor for action. Optimization is an aide to action. You have to act before you optimize. You have to learn how to hustle before you learn how to hack.

It’s easy for people to make the fallacious leap from “hard work isn’t everything” to “hard work isn’t anything.” We may very well be a culture guilty of working too much, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the idea that there’s such a thing as working too little.

I travel the country giving talks and lectures at dozens of colleges, high schools, churches, and conferences per year, and I’m noticing a trend among many young people: a fear of becoming an overworked adult who wastes 30 years doing meaningless work.

These sincere and well-meaning students are disenchanted and discouraged when they see us adults running around looking stressed and exhausted by our jobs. And the last thing they ever want to become is us. But for many of them, this fear translates into an inability to stick with any tasks beyond the point where it ceases to be fun or “spiritually fulfilling.” “If I work on something for a longer period than what feels exciting, I’ll end up being trapped with a meaningless soul-sucking job until I’m too old to change things” many of them seem to think.

This weekend, I gave two talks on the value of entrepreneurial thinking for artists at the Moving Picture Institute. The seminar was attended by several young business and film students. During a panel discussion, someone asked the CEO of a production company for advice on how to be successful in highly competitive fields. His advice was interesting:

“Be more of a worker than a dreamer. Everybody claims to be creative and passionate nowadays, but nobody knows how to work hard anymore. If you can consistently work eight-hour days, you’ll be way ahead of most people. It sounds sad, I know, but the bar is that low. Nothing is harder to find than a young person who can be consistently reliable with executing ideas and following through on the things they start.”

I have no interest in debating people about how big of a problem we have in this country with young people being afraid of hard work, but I thought I’d pass this CEO’s advice along in case you happen to be one of those people who struggle with the fear of getting stuck with a monotonous life as a result of working too hard.

I’ve had several business owners over the years tell me about “creative-types” who came to them seeking opportunities, but who were turned away because they hadn’t proven their ability to stick with something for longer than a few weeks or a few months.

Contrary to the contemporary fad of mocking the “follow your passion” idea, I’m one of those people who still believes that you should follow your passion. But here’s the key: If you give up on your passions when obstacles, inconveniences, and hardships get in your way, then you’re not actually following your passion. You’re following your obstacles, inconveniences, and hardships. If you truly want to follow your passion, then you have to keep pursuing it even when stuff gets in your way. That’s the difference between following something versus just focusing on it when it happens to be standing in front of your face.

If you’re a young person reading this, here’s my two cents for you:

Follow your passion, but don’t mistake that for having it easy all the time. Go after your dreams, but keep going after them even when they drag you through a muddy pile of hard work. Don’t guilt-trip yourself into doing things you hate, but love your goals enough to hustle beyond the happy hours of comfort and convenience.

Being creative in today’s world means so much more than having a big imagination and a cool personality. It also means having the sense of artistry to create massive opportunities out of mundane tasks. It also means having an imagination that’s big enough to discover new ways to manufacture your own inspiration as you navigate the peaks and valleys of the creative process.

In your quest to create a 4-hour work week, don’t forget about the value of the 40-hour work week. Freedom from hard work is often the reward of learning to find freedom in hard work.

Stop Looking For Something That Works

Sometimes things will work really well for other people, but they won’t work so well for you. Sometimes things won’t work out for other people, but they’ll work really well for you.

Professional advertisers have a phrase for this: “Individual results may vary.”

This simple fact of human experience isn’t limited to services and products sold in the marketplace. It’s also true in the realm of ideas, relationships, family life, physical fitness, non-profit activities, and everything else under the sun.

Every single thing that you will ever glean value from will also be the very thing that breaks someone else’s heart. And every single thing that ever annoys you, angers you, or makes you sad, will also be the very thing that fills someone else’s life with joy.

Whenever I hear people say “Individual results may vary”, I think to myself “Wrong! Individual results MUST vary!”

When investigating a project, person, or program, we often make the mistake of looking for some kind of universal validation to make us feel like everything is going to be okay.

Will I be okay if I get involved with this project? Will I be okay if I date/marry that person? Will I be okay if I enroll in this program? 

What sort of data could possibly give you that information? How in the world are you ever going to get the security of knowing you’ll be okay from discovering some fact like “Celebrity X endorses it” or “Professor Y gives it two thumbs up” or “Senator Z says it’s the right thing to do”?

Now let me be really clear here for all the readers who might fear that I’m belittling the process of critical thinking. I’m not saying you should dismiss the validity of background research or skeptical inquiry altogether. It’s important for you to have some assurance that you’re not marrying an axe murderer who’s merely posing as a stockbroker. There are situations in life that would clearly put us in danger if we turn our brains off and merely think in terms of cheesy platitudes like “follow your heart.” But there’s a big difference between doing background checks to ensure you’re not unknowingly engaging in something that’s criminal or dangerous and looking for someone to give you a guarantee that you’re following a path that won’t possibly fail you.

Everything can fail you. Everything. The church you choose to attend might let you down. The university you choose to attend might disappoint you. The degree you work so hard to get might fail you in the marketplace. That conference you choose to attend might be nothing like you were hoping. That boy or girl who sweeps you off your feet might turn out to be completely incompatible with you.

As I wrote in a blog post four years ago,

If you’re looking for a fool-proof approach to personal development, there isn’t one. Every good piece of advice that has ever been given is fully capable of making your life worse if you aren’t careful, conscious, and creative in your personal application of it.

Good self-help always begins with the self. Each person is, in the end, responsible for dealing with the variables of his own life. There is no system or teacher that can save any of us from this responsibility. The most beautiful bit of wisdom is immediately transformed into an ugly tool of destruction as soon as it is placed in the hands of someone who surrenders this responsibility to another.

How do we make decisions then? How do we figure out what the right option is? How do we separate the legit stuff from the stuff that’s B.S.?

It’s actually quite easy to separate the fluff from the valuable stuff when evaluating ideas and opportunities.

“Valuable Stuff” = A system, approach, or relationship that actually works for you.

“Fluff” = A system, approach, or relationship that doesn’t actually work for you.

Separating the good from the bad is only hard when you’re approaching the process philosophically, but relatively simple when approaching it pragmatically. If the goal is to establish some objective truth about what everyone should believe, then that’s a difficult task. If the goal, however, is simply to conduct experiments for the sake of seeing what works for you, then things are far more cut and dry.

The hard part is getting to a point where you can accept what works and doesn’t work for you without being too attached to any opinions about what should and shouldn’t work for others.

When making decisions about your life, discovering objective facts about people, places, and projects is overrated. It matters, but not nearly as much as we assume.

Sometimes people will have good advice and good intentions, but their advice still won’t apply to you. It’s not enough to merely find the “right” answers, the “best” ideas, or the most “trustworthy” sources. You still have to calculate your own risk tolerance and conduct your own experiments.

Your physical body is different from everyone else’s physical body. Your personal history is different from everyone else’s personal history. Your style of processing emotions is different from everyone else’s style of processing emotions. Your advantages and disadvantages are different from everyone else’s advantages and disadvantages. Your past mistakes are different from everyone else’s past mistakes. Your combination of heroes, enemies, and friends are different from everyone else’s combination of heroes, enemies, and friends.

What this means is that your life is not a syllogism. You can’t expect to be guaranteed a certain kind of outcome merely because your premises are correct and your rules of inference are valid. There are all sorts of variables and wildcards that make up your life. And the only way to navigate the maze of subjectivity and complexity known as “your way” is to face the uncertainty with poise and overcome the need to have a formula for everything.

Life is a journey, but that’s not the only metaphor. It’s also a battle and it’s also an art. Some answers will have to be fought for and some answers will have to be created.

What do you want? What is your tolerance for risk? What are you willing to try? What are you willing to sacrifice? What are you willing to bet on? What keeps you awake at night? What does your conscience tell you?

Don’t outsource your judgments and responsibilities to someone else. Your questions are your questions. Answer them for yourself.

Stop looking for something that works for everyone and start looking for something that works for you.

Fame Is a Sideshow and It Can Distract You from Either Direction

The pursuit of popularity has two extremes:

  1. Some people bend over backwards to get it.
  2. Some people bend over backwards to avoid it.

Both courses of action miss the point.

“But I want to have lots of fans who adore  me and validate my message…”

When you bend over backwards in order to have fame, you risk compromising the integrity of your message. Substance and self-authenticity take the backseat to sensationalism.

If this is your temptation, it might be useful to remember that having a big crowd doesn’t necessarily mean having a big impact. As Dorothy Day wrote, “It is people who are important, not the masses.”

In the long run, you’ll be much happier and more effective if you build a brand that’s fun to maintain than if you’re constantly revising your modus operandi just to sell tickets. Being widely known doesn’t equal being deeply loved nor does it equal being easily fulfilled.

The blessings of fame are brilliant at concealing the burdens that accompany them. Fame is like fire. It’s a powerful tool that can empower you to do what others only dream of, but it will blind you and burn you to ashes if you immerse yourself in it.

“But I don’t want to be like those cult-leaders or cheesy celebrities who have tons of weird followers…”

Is your message so unimportant to you that you’re willing to abandon it just because thousands of annoying people might like it? Do you believe in your message enough to stand by it even if it means having to put up with being adored by a few irrational or overly enthusiastic loyalists? Do you detest being called a “celebrity” so much that you’re okay with watering down your convictions and suppressing what you have to say?

It’s a good thing if you don’t want to become a cult-leader. It’s a bad thing if you believe the solution is to look at followers and fans as wicked little demons that need to be repelled at all costs. It’s a good thing if you don’t crave fame. It’s a bad thing if you treat all publicity and praise as if it’s a germ that can infect your integrity.

When you bend over backwards to avoid fame, you’re still guilty of prioritizing numbers over the integrity of your message. Assuming that you’re a winner for having a small following is just as superficial as assuming that you’re a loser for not having a big following.

Some leaders go out of their way to distinguish themselves from superficial celebrities and they just end up becoming a mirror image of the very people they despise. “I never want to be like those goofy people on TV”, they say while running like the wind from every invitation to share their gifts with new audiences.

Being obsessed with staying small is not automatically superior to being obsessed with going big. Being afraid of mass exposure is no more virtuous than being intoxicated by it.

If you can’t handle the crowd that comes and goes with your message, then you can’t handle the message.

Fame is a sideshow and it can distract you from either direction.

Fame is neither inherently good nor inherently bad.

When you idolize fame, you make it a god. When you fear fame, you make it a devil. Either way, you lose because that attitude causes you to give power to something other than yourself.

Your personal power isn’t determined by the number of people who know your name. It’s determined by what you do with whatever degree of influence you happen to have.

You can’t always control who will be drawn to you. Sometimes you’ll be liked when you’d rather be left alone. Sometimes you’ll be left alone when you’d rather be liked.

What matters, in the end, is your commitment to something that can’t be measured in terms of masses and minuses. Character, not crowds, is what makes the world go round.

Love: Before & After

Life often takes the form of a two-fold battle:

  1. Learning to love yourself enough to pursue your dreams even when others hate you for it.
  2. Learning to love yourself again after you’ve pursued your dreams, failed to realize them, and lost your pride in the process.

Self-love: Sometimes we need it in order to be our best. Sometimes we need it precisely because we aren’t our best.

Sometimes we need it in order to motivate us to work. Sometimes we need it precisely because motivation doesn’t always work.

Sometimes we need it in order to create new beginnings. Sometimes we need it in order to make peace with our endings.

I’ve never consider myself a hopeless romantic, but there’s at least one thing I’ve always admired about them: They find a way to make love survive even when they can’t keep all their dreams alive.

You should do the same.

Love yourself enough to go after what you want, but don’t stop loving yourself just because you fail to get it.

Before and after your dreams, your life is still worth fighting for.

 

Distracted By The Opposition

“When left to my own devices, I feel neutral or antagonistic towards X. However, I’m going to willfully transform myself into the kind of person who actively supports X for no other reason than that some people are silly in the way they express their hatred for X.”

“When left to my own devices, I feel passionate about X. However, I’m going to willfully transform myself into the kind of person who actively fights against X for no other reason than that some people are silly in the way they express their passion for X.”

If this is the logic you use for determining your direction in life, you might want to think twice.

Why?

Because there’s nothing you could possibly believe or support that’s ever going to be entirely free from some kind of association with people who express their convictions in a way that seems silly or shameful to you.

If passions and causes were sports teams, everyone would have at least one embarrassing player on their team. And although you may see yourself as not belonging to any particular ideological team, you will almost certainly be lumped into the same category with some very unlikeable people merely because they share certain sentiments in common with you.

Are you really willing to betray your interests, tastes, and ideas just because of those people? Is your sense of ambition so small, your sense of inspiration so weak that it’s only worth following when your convictions are solely shared by individuals who receive your stamp of approval?

There’s a wide and wonderful world of possibility waiting for you out there. There’s also a bunch of “idiots” who enjoy exploring those same possibilities.

What’s more important: getting the most out of your experiences or never being seen standing next to an “idiot” who roots for the same things as you?

Life is filled with many good things. Don’t abandon those things just because your enemies and opponents like them too.

Learning is the Cure-all

The ability to learn is the basis of hope.

Without the possibilities of education, we would all be condemned to remain the same people today that we were yesterday.

Every mistake would be consistently repeated. Every failure would be doomed to happen over and over again. Every time we were stumped by a tough question or baffled by a complex problem, we would have to live with the anxiety of knowing that those things would never get any easier.

Our capacity to glean insights from our struggles gives us power and promise. Each time we’re exposed to a new challenge, we gain the power of resilience. Each time we engage a new concept, we experience the promise of greater possibilities.

Learning is the art of familiarizing ourselves with the unfamiliar. To learn is to become a bit more familiar with what doesn’t work, what’s worked for others, what might work for us, and what’s worth trying. When we combine this familiarity with deliberate practice, we aquire mastery over ourselves, over our gifts, and over various aspects of the world around us.

The pursuit of mastery through self-directed learning is the key to staying fueled with inspiration.

The people who feel hopeless are the ones who see problems as fixed, enduring, and definite (“this bad thing just happened, it feels bad, and it’s going to feel exactly like this forever”) while the people who are invigorated by hope are the ones who see problems as transitory (“this is a terrible situation, it feels terrible right now, but everything changes”).

For the hopeless, problems are permanent. For the hopeful, personal growth is permanent.

When you allow yourself to become static and complacent, you’ll end up being a sitting duck for every bit of discouraging news that comes your way.

If you want to overcome hopelessness, fill your heart with as many ideas, stories, and experiences as you can. Build a vast vocabulary of metaphors, distinctions, questions, and examples that will help you outgrow mundane and limiting perspectives.

In T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Merlyn offers this sage advice:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

There is no end to the challenges we face in life. Fortunately, the same can be said about our opportunities to learn, grow, and evolve.

Dear Everyone,

Whoever and wherever you are, I wish you nothing but freedom.

The things you believe, say, and do, even if they annoy me or make me uncomfortable, will never ever extinguish the fire within me that burns for the freedom of all (including yours).

My desire for the liberation of all individuals won’t be compromised by personal vendettas nor will it be weakened by the sometimes irritating actions of people on the left, people on the right, people in the middle, or people who couldn’t care less about those kinds of labels.

I am not a proponent of freedom because my life happens to be going really well right now. I am not a proponent of freedom because freedom is where the money is. I am not a proponent of freedom because everyone likes me. I am not a proponent of freedom in order to get back at someone I dislike.

I am not a proponent of freedom as a reaction to current events or recent political debates. I am not a proponent of freedom because of what some celebrity randomly happens to believe this week. I am not a proponent of freedom because I think freedom is edgy, trendy, and provocative.

I am not a proponent of freedom because I went to a conference where someone told me that freedom was easy.

I am a proponent of freedom because freedom is life. I am a proponent of freedom because without a deep and abiding respect for individual rights and personal autonomy there’s no sense in being a proponent for anything else.

There are an indefinite number of things one can react to in this life. Whatever there is to react to, however, I have no plans to react in a way that leads me or anyone else away from freedom. Freedom is my cause, not my effect.

So whoever and wherever you are, I wish you nothing but freedom.

Be free in whatever way you know how to be. And if there’s anything I can do to encourage your journey, don’t hesitate to let me know.

Yours freely,

T.K.