If you reached the top of your game, would you credit it to hard work or luck?
Most of us quite easily slide into crediting our success to hard work. But what if hard work isn't necessary? What if we've been slogging for no good reason at all? Let's find out more in Episode 1 (yes there are two episodes) in this series on hard work vs luck.
There is one incorrect statement that almost all of us have heard from our parents.
Almost every parent, at some point in their lives, would have looked at their child and said: If you work harder, you will be successful. And that advice, as well-meaning as it is, is entirely off the mark. If anything, hard work just gets you digging a deeper hole. And not only is hard work the wrong advice, but it fails to acknowledge the power of luck. No parent ever turns to a kid and says: Wait for luck, then pounce!
Is hard work as wrong as we're making it out to be? If you're shaking your head a bit in disagreement, it's because we've heard that “hard work” mantra too many times. And we've all worked hard, but it hasn't necessarily got us the rewards that we'd have expected. If hard work isn't the answer, what is? Let's find out.
Let's look at three elements:
- Hard work vs skill
- Hard work vs luck
- Hard work vs what's needed
1. Hard Work vs Skill
How many dosas do you have to make to get really good at it?
A dosa is a type of pancake or crêpe, made from rice flour and ground pulses, typically served with a spiced vegetable filling. If you watch a YouTube video, the process of making the dosa seems relatively straightforward. You pour out the batter on a hot pan, and with a circular motion, much like a crêpe, you make the dosa.
Over the past three years, I've made approximately 2700 dosas
At the rate of three per day, and around 900 days, you'd think I'd have learned to make the perfect dosa. But that's not the case at all. Almost everyone else seems to turn out a dosa slightly softer than mine. Make no mistake—the homemade dosas is tasty and crispy, but I can't seem to replicate the dosa that's made in thousands of restaurants across India.
In short, we have a situation of hard work vs skill
When our elders mean to give us advice, they mix up the concept of “skill” and “hard work”. Hard work is just donkey work. You put the hours, endlessly, often mindlessly, trying to learn a language, study for an exam, or practice a sport. And that donkey work may be pretty useful in some areas, but by and large it's the hardest way to get from A to B. Skill, on the other hand, is when you can execute something at high speed, without necessarily resorting to hee-haw methods.
Take for instance the act of drawing a cartoon
If you ask most people if they can draw, they seem to resort to a single stock phrase. That phrase is: I can't even draw a straight line. If you were to take a random group of 500 people, put them in an audience, you'd find that all of them, without exception, can draw a reasonably good cartoon in under 5 minutes.
To prove this point, we started doing a bit of a demonstration both at our workshops and our events. We didn't pick the crowd attending the event, which in itself makes it a random group. Then, we get them to draw a whale—the version that comes before and a second one. The second one is based on a specific set of instructions.
Five minutes later everyone's drawing of the whale has improved dramatically
If we were to repeat the exercise once more, you'd find there's another massive leap. From there on, that group could go on to draw monkeys, elephants, aardvarks and dinosaurs—yes, dinosaurs too! Wait, isn't there something wrong with this picture we're painting?
Where's the “hard work”? How did the clients get suddenly talented? How did they go from drawing whales that looked like guppies to an actual cartoon-like whale? And what if we were to treat this not as a five-minute session but a two-day workshop on drawing animal cartoons.
If we learned to draw just three-four animals per hour, we could leisurely cover about 24 in 6 hours
Six hours is the average time taken for a full day workshop. With a fair bit of repetition and fun exercises, the clients would be able to draw close to 50 animals in two days. It's important to remember that these weren't people interested in drawing, let alone drawing animal cartoons. Yet, in two days, they have something equivalent to a business.
You see the business model, don't you?
50 cartoon animals make for a great children's workshop. Many parents would be happy to send their kids—especially the younger ones—to learn to express their creativity. Children not your cup of chai? Well, how about adults who want to learn to relax? A workshop would work fine for them too.
And if workshops itself aren't that interesting to you, then you might want to make a video series. Five hundred people could walk out of an auditorium after two days of training, and they would be able to not just draw with confidence, but be in a pretty good position to teach. And notice the absolute lack of hard work in the entire exercise.
And it's not like we don't already know skill is superior to hard work
When you show up to a writing course, for instance, you've already done more than your share of hard work. You've tried valiantly to read every possible article, watch videos and do a lot of writing—too much in fact. The results are anything but rosy. And forget the article, or the sales page for a moment.
Just the headline sends you into a tailspin. You're not sure if it's the right type of headline, or if it will work. You see a headline course or a writing course, and you know what you want right away—and more importantly, what you don't want.
You're sick of the hard work
All of those problems you and I are having. All of that stuff stems from the misplaced advice we got as kids, then right through our teens, and possibly even now. Hard work is the weirdest way to go through life. A simple piece of advice, a slight nudge in the right direction and we can get to the point where we can cook, draw, write, dance, even if we were sure we weren't born with the right genes.
It's at this point that we can do a complete U-Turn as well. We could point to hard work as a predictable way to get to the top of almost any field.
Take for instance the story of Emmanoul Agassi
Emmanoul, or Emmanuel Agassi, was born in Tehran, Iran. He's the father of the tennis star, Andre Agassi. By the time Andre was six, his father was forcing him to hit 2500 tennis balls every single day. His goal was for Andre to hit a million balls a year. He built an exclusive tennis court just for this purpose and had a ball machine called “The Dragon”. This machine would spit out balls at the younger Agassi at 110 mph.
The result of all of this hard work?
Agassi was the first male player to win all four Grand Slam tournaments on three different surfaces (hard, clay and grass). He won the Australian four times (1995, 2000, 2001, 2003), the French once (1999), Wimbledon once (1992) and the US Open twice (1994, 1999). He was a significant finalist 15 times.
Sounds like hard work does pay off, doesn't it?
It sure sounds like it, because we have many examples of precisely this hard work when we look at someone like Olympian, Michael Phelps. He was in the pool three to five hours a day, seven days a week, for five whole years in a row. He didn't take a break for Christmas or even his birthday. When we look at people around us, we know the hard workers. We see them making it to the top of every field.
And yet, if we were to look at the guy who lost to Agassi, or came second to Phelps, there's no shortage of hard work, is there? If we were to rigidly stick to the advice, “work hard, and you'll be successful”, we could—theoretically at least—spend five years non stop in the pool and hit a million tennis balls a year. Some people work as hard, or harder than you and don't get anywhere in a hurry.
There's a reason why hard work is so misused
Just trying to make yet another dosa, or try to paint yet another watercolour is barely enough. If you dig deep into the psyche of what makes people successful, they'll quickly or eventually all head down the road of acquisition of a skill. And that skill may take a while or may be ready to roll in the next 48 hours. Incredible as it may sound, they'll also mention something else.
It's called luck.
Which, to most of us, is likely to be the most frustrating part of this piece.
If it's just luck, then is everything pre-destined? Or if we were to look at it another way, is everything just down whether we turn left or right? Is luck really such an overriding factor or just a small player? The answers are reasonably surprising, as we're about to find out.
2.Hard Work vs Luck
When I was growing up, I read MAD Magazine a lot. But one cartoon stayed with me through all these years. And it goes a bit like this.
A man reads about a plane crash. He sees it on TV. He hears it on the radio. He decides plane travel is too risky. He avoids the plane and takes the train instead. And the plane crashes on the train.
Every time I think about that cartoon the irony of luck isn't lost on me
Every time you think about how you were born, and how one tiny sperm caused you to be alive, luck not hard work, seems to be dominant. And it's not like we don't pay homage to luck. We talk about good luck and bad luck a lot every single day. Yet, the moment we are asked why we're successful, we seem to quickly credit our hard work. And now we're aware that there's a difference between hard work and skill. And that at least at some level, skill will take a fair bit of hard work.
The problem with luck is that it's impossible to fathom
Let's take a look at the story of Lynda Weinman, from Lynda.com. The story that you read on the Internet is one of how Lynda.com was bought over by LinkedIn for a sum of $1.5 billion. But how do we link that story to a friend's advice? If you go back, far back into Lynda's story, she talks about how she was just a teacher looking for a book in a bookstore.
Every single book she encountered was seemingly written with the programmer in mind. And Lynda's clients were artists. It made sense that a book that explained HTML to artists would fill a much-wanted gap.
However, luck is not flowing Lynda's way
Peachpit Press, the publishing house, rejects the book idea, so Lynda decides to write articles for a magazine instead. The magazine editor agrees to a monthly instalment. In effect, she was writing the book, but in instalments. By the time she finished the book, not one but two publishers were fighting over her. Lynda wrote the book in a friendly tone, with lots of pictures and the editors came back with a version that was stodgy, boring and not acceptable at all.
Lynda was upset but unsure what to do next
I spoke to another friend of mine who had a book contract, and he said, “Well, if you don't like what they've done with it, just tell them that you consider it to be a rejection and you want your book rights back.”
See that lucky moment right out of the blue?
Let's be clear about one thing. This isn't all about luck. But it isn't all about hard work either. The story that follows has a load of hard work, but the luck that seems to pour in, can't be ignored either. The publishers agreed to take her book as Lynda had envisioned it. Then they priced it at a whopping $55—a lot back then. Still a lot, today. Everyone expected it to sell, but no one expected it to become a huge best-selling book for the publisher.
If you track the journey of Lynda from there on, a lot of her journey stems from that one book
The reason you're reading this article is also a result of a story so freakish that it sounds right out of a novel. I wasn't keen on getting to New Zealand. I wasn't even marketing. Our initial goal was to move from Mumbai to Bangalore. Bangalore was the garden city of India, with lovely cottages and enormous amounts of greenery. But our luck changed.
Bangalore became a hub for technology companies, and we decided to move elsewhere. Canada, perhaps, or maybe Australia. New Zealand wasn't even on the radar. We'd tried to get into New Zealand, but the immigration consultant said we wouldn't make the points.
Then, one day, many months later, while shopping for groceries I got my ticket to New Zealand.
My friend Joan Shenoy ran into me, and asked me: What are you doing here? I'm buying groceries,” I said. “No,” she countered, “weren't you moving to New Zealand?”. “We tried to move there,” I said, “but things didn't work out”. “You should try now,” she said as she handed me the card of her friend—another immigration consultant.
The only person I knew in New Zealand lived on the North Shore
That's where we ended up, and we love it here on the Shore. But what if someone we knew lived in a different city? Or a different part of Auckland? What if we arrived when the dollar was high? Our luck was so good that the dollar was at its lowest and the housing market was pretty dead.
My brother in law even offered to give us a loan for the house out of his savings. We didn't need it after all because the bank came through but look at all of the planets lining up one by one to give us this luck.
And luck can, at times, be almost invisible
Take for instance a lot of the clients on the cartooning course. Many of them (not all, but many) now use a tablet like the iPad. What does a tablet do? It allows you to undo your errors. Go back just ten years, and no decent tablets existed. This meant you either had to do battle with Photoshop, had to have a scanner, etc.
In short, the amount of time and chance for error increased manifold. Plus you had to be in a position to buy a scanner and any software that was needed to draw. And let's not forget that you had to be chained to your computer the whole time.
Notice, this has nothing to do with drawing at all
Someone who tried to draw just ten years ago might have run into endless frustrations. Now, that very same person could take the tablet, head to the cafe and have a great time, while learning a skill that seemed clearly out of reach.
Skill, not hard work, is essential.
That skill might be acquired in 48 hours or 48 years, depending on what's at stake. But luck is endlessly bobbing in and out helping us on our way. Sometimes it's seemingly bad luck, like our immigration issues, or a publisher rejecting Lynda's proposal. If we're willing to put in the skill to good use, we end up with a lucky moment. And if you're really honest with yourself, your entire life has been one endless run of lucky moments.
If we ever have any doubts about how lucky you are think of necessities we take for granted.
60% of the world's population don't have access to flush toilets or adequate water-related sanitation. You and I reach for a glass of water or go to the toilet when we feel like it. We may even grumble when our house doesn't have two toilets. Now consider how many drawings, or writing code, or running of your business you could do, if you had to queue up just to go to the toilet. Just to get water to bathe, to cook, or drink. That's hard work.
It's clear that skill and luck are partners. But that doesn't stop us from wanting what someone else has. How do we avoid that “sperm-sort-of-luck” and is there a way to engineer our way forward?