There is no American trope more commonly upheld and widely dispersed than the notion of the ever-valuable hard worker. Yet, despite the pedestal we tend to place this ideology on, few seem to rise consistently to the occasion when the opportunity to work infallibly hard at something presents itself.
The Problem: Working hard at anything becomes relatively challenging to sustain long-term when the familiar and common methodology is akin to running through brick walls until you hopefully reach your goal. Because of this, people tend to burn out and give up before reaching the end.
I don’t believe this happens because people are inherently lazy.
I think it happens because they haven’t yet collectively performed a contextual analysis on what constitutes sustainable work practices in an arduous environment. We say, “Just get up and do the thing”, which ignores the diversity of social environments, personality types, work styles, learning styles, and the psychological makeup of those expected to “do”.
It would, of course, be obtuse to ignore the realities of what working hard demands from a person, too. The work itself isn’t easy on its face, and no hard work can be performed without some form of opportunity cost. I’m just saying that when the mind sets the stage for what the body can do, some very practical, sensible ways in which to harmonize with the difficulty you’re experiencing can be found—thus making the practice of working hard toward anything more formulaic and sustainable in the long term.
The (really, ‘A’) Solution: Deconstruct the problem, determine where you can sustainbly and productively function within an answer to said problem, then develop a systemic approach to it.
Easier done than said in this situation, but I’ll try my hand at saying it anyway.
Finding the Right Fuel
The need to be “motivated”, while effective to ensure a strong start to a thing, is not what will enable you to cross the finish line. Your inner fuel needs to burn slow and clean — to stand up to bad moods, unforeseen changes, and down days with relative ease. When you depend on riding unpredictable highs, you’ll never truly achieve stasis as you progress.
What drives you is up to you, but I’ve found the “cleanest burn” to derive from an idea, self-concept, and mission that isn’t dependent on specific, “motivating” circumstances beyond merely desiring to show up and do whatever must be done.
Here are some practical ways in which achieve a slow, productive burn:
- Think less about what needs to be achieved over a given amount of time, and more about what is directly in your power to impact in the present —“the present” is this second, this hour, this day.
- Learn how to extrapolate gratitude from all things—you’ll be surprised at how being thankful for what is serves a grounding purpose in your daily flow.
- Genuine interest in what you're doing—you don’t have to love it, but it has to be interesting enough that on your absolute worst day, you can still show up and solve whatever problems you’re tasked with solving.
- Wean yourself off of falsely conflating your intrinsic self-worth with tangible, socioeconomic success. It’s no secret that it’s hard to participate in the game when playing at all is contingent upon receiving the fruits of a win.
Understanding Micro <> Macro
Ambition has its place in the psyche but generally is devoid of pragmatism or actionability. Of course, however, practicality and analysis for the sake of itself only translate to spinning one’s wheels endlessly without the presence or direction of a long-term vision. At this intersection lies the need to understand the synergetic relationship between the micro and the macro facets of whatever you aim to achieve.
Getting too caught up in the day-to-day will lead you to crash, and living as a perpetual visionary often will lead to having seen and discussed a lot without achieving any substantive progress. Micro doesn’t trump macro; macro doesn’t supplant daily effort.
So, how do you find balance?
Trust your intuition. As silly as it sounds, intuition plays an integral role in informed execution. It doesn’t have to mean you’re acting impulsively. Intuition is a form of cognitive muscle memory. The more you practice employing reason and other building blocks to intellectual proficiency (however that looks for you), the better your ability to execute moment to moment with implicit trust and confidence in your ability to meet the demands of said moments.
The head > heart idea is only true where those two perspectives lack harmony. And that’s all they really are — be it head vs. heart, or micro-actions vs. macro ideas. They are two perspectives on one spectrum of thought; not two separate, antithetical states of being.
You’ll find that it’s much harder to burn yourself out when the notion of a bigger picture can guide you through murky waters of a sometimes great, sometimes terrible, sometimes exciting, sometimes mundane path toward completing anything of importance to you.
Harmony between thought and feeling may not feel practical, but consider the benefits before presuming it to be fluff-speak:
- Clearer, faster discernment when decisiveness is paramount.
- A deeper understanding of how you process emotions and information, which better informs how to leverage what you feel and what you know when it’s time to make a concrete decision.
- Refusal to allow analysis to supersede the need to complete a thing, which will play a major role in working hard at anything.
- Improved ability to self-regulate and to maintain a reasonable perspective despite the ebb and flow events that are beyond your control, which will serve as a foundational framework for sustainable, productive effort over longer periods of time.
The concept here is simple—forget what “should” be, and deal with what is in front of you. It sounds very common sense, but in American culture specifically is it easy to lose sight of the present, tomorrow, or even a week from now for an obsession with what should be five years from now.
Timelines, milestones, and accomplishments cannot be the primary drivers (in my experience) because those things each derive from more of an egoist self-view. Consider these ideas when shifting away from should to is:
- Nothing has to be anything, and you are owed nothing. Instead of aiming high for what it might get you, consider doing it out of legitimate gratitude for the ability to participate at a higher level at all. The ability to actualize one’s aspirations is in itself a privilege, and taking that into account will really help when comparative thinking creeps in and you start to burn out by getting in your own way.
- Embarking upon any journey where an arduous effort must be put forth cannot be done so with contingencies. In other words, “I work hard so I can have X, Y, and Z” or “I only do ____ so I can do ____, and that’s when I’ll be happy.”
- The discipline of consistency is best achieved when your primary end is to face down reality without emotionally attaching to what you wish was different about it, how you believe you may be disadvantaged in it, or how you want an outcome to look. There’s nothing wrong with having a goal. I believe it only harms you, however, when you believe working hard automatically equates to deserving anything beyond the satisfaction of having finished. The term deserve is just another way of saying “I should have that”, and it sets you up for an eventual numbness and apathy that will only diminish the returns of your labor in the long term.
Submission to “the Process”
We’ve all heard this phrase, but do we actually understand what it means, contextually speaking? Do we understand the elements of this school of thought enough that we can apply them to our respective life experiences?
When thinking about submission to the “process” of challenging myself as I attempt to pursue a purpose-driven life, these are the primary elements on which I have designed my drive:
- You can’t make anything happen — ever — but that’s a good thing. No matter how much effort you put in; no matter how long — you’re only ever truly improving your chances of success. Chance can mean 23.8% or 99.95%, and you’ll never truly or irrefutably know where you stand, so there’s no use in attempting to will yourself into anything. The best you can do is prepare and execute to the best of your ability. So many people burn time and energy trying to get everything right and trying to make things happen for themselves, only to find that they experienced the most growth when they weren’t gripping the wheel for dear life.
- Plans and foresight exist to hopefully mitigate the inevitable obstacles, uncertainties, and guaranteed forks in the road. I don’t think it’s healthy to assume that things will always go wrong because that’s not a productive perspective. Rather, an understanding that you will eventually give your absolute best just to reach another false summit frees you of the burden of egotistical control over your environment and outcomes.
- Pain cannot be avoided and comes in many forms — some of which will be lessons. Regardless of what the pain is or how it happens, anticipating the discomfort that will accompany any great aspiration opens you up to the teachings of said discomfort. Within this school of thought, pain becomes less of a thing to endure, and of a thing accept with grace. Resistance only saps more of your energy, thus inhibiting your ability to go on.
The Intersection of It All
I’m aware of how ridiculous it looks to analyze a thing that can be summarized as essentially being egoless, being open to the realities of life as they transpire, combining reasonable consideration with intuitive action, and knowing yourself enough to dial into the internal ebb and flow driving consistent progress when doing anything of uncharacteristic difficulty.
The point of digging deeper, however, is to pinpoint how exactly to apply it to yourself. Not what to think, but to offer a solid, scalable framework from which to build one’s own why and how.
Hustle culture and the many mainstream ideas that surround accomplishing any great feat always seem to start and end with a baseless notion that being efficient and effective for any stretch of days, months, or years is esoteric. This is merely my attempt at a measured, democratized approach to replicating the mental building blocks of hard work, as well as how to approach mitigating the subsequent, unavoidable obstacles that will accompany said work. Not for those of you who already have a system, but for the folks who can’t seem to hack it, and unfortunately believe it to be the result of innate inferiority.
So, In Summation
- Hard work becomes sustainable and replicable in the long term when you accept the reality of what it is, not what you want the result of it to be.
- Acceptance of said reality means accepting the need to balance the energy expenditure between what you’re doing now with what you’re working toward overall.
- Burnout mitigation while on this journey consists of the understanding that sheer will won’t get you there and expecting specific results on a specific timeline only inhibits your ability to leverage what you learn along the way.
- The more you lean into accepting the unassailable nature of doing any challenging thing, the easier it will feel to not just survive, but thrive within discomfort.
- Working at anything doesn’t guarantee a single result, outcome, or opportunity in any regard. Nothing is owed to you and you don’t deserve anything for your work, so you had better be there for a legitimate reason beyond the prospect of a material reward.
- Most importantly — the absolute most you can ever do within your power is show up and improve your statistical chance of achieving your ends.
On its face, this perspective can be somewhat unnerving because it may appear as if you’re giving up “power” over your life. But the entire concept of power (within the context of American culture) is far too dependent on the ability to dominate everything around you, as opposed to leveraging self-awareness and what is within your physical or intellectual ability to impact directly.
So, in essence, no; this perspective will not actually make your feat any easier from a physical perspective. You will still be tired, and may still experience moments of tremendous self-doubt. The point isn’t to achieve literal ease, but to find peace within cognitive palatability.
These varying elements, learned traits, and schools of thought each can combine to make what you may have once dreaded into a better learning experience; to enable you to go hard at a thing without losing sight of self or purpose; to ground you as peaks and valleys present themselves; to show you the only success that really matters is found in how you’ve grown, and how you used what you learned along the way to make an impact.