Trudging to classes, day in day out. Love the struggle.

Life Pivot Post #3: Did you regret working so hard, and if so, would you prefer that to the regret of not working hard enough?

After finishing a community college course in Calc III as I pivot to a career in robotics, a fellow classmate, who is herself still in high school, asked me a series of questions. This is the third answer. You can see the first here, and the second.

Not at all.

Even though I traded passion for grades, I am proud of how hard I worked in high school. I had a job to do–getting great grades–and I did it to perfection.

Maybe my motives were off, and maybe my energies were misdirected, but that habit taught me how to get stuff done and has stayed with me my whole life.

It has also given me the confidence, from very early on, to take on challenges of any size, because I know I can grow to handle them.

I did learn two important lessons though.

1. Hard work for its own sake isn’t worthwhile.

It’s just a pile of sand. It will blow away eventually. Still fun to climb, but keep things in perspective.

We tend to lionize hard workers, as if the simple act of working hard at something is itself a worthy and admirable thing.

In general, it’s good to be willing to work hard, but sometimes this can lead us to put the hard work above either the results or the enjoyment. Even lacking a true purpose, we make sure to “work hard” and demonstrate to others that we have “worked hard.”

This is a mistake.

People are actually more impressed by those who accomplish things without appearing to work hard.

It may be uncomfortable because the viewer doesn’t relate (after all, we know how hard we work to accomplish our goals) but nobody wants to hear about the practice hours, the frustrations, the rough drafts, or the self-doubt. They only want the finished product.

Even a teacher who shows his own struggles to help the students feel less intimidated will face doubt in his ability. It takes a special kind of relationship between teacher and student.

This creates some weird interactions with the American obsession over hard work. You need to show that you can work hard, but that it isn’t hard for you to work hard.

Our capacity for work is pretty much infinite, which makes “work” cheap.

This is something a lot of people don’t really get, but even if you dedicate hours and hours and hours of work to something, if that thing fails, you can still get up and do it again the next day. You recharge and you come back to it. There is no permanent drain on your resources.

We want to recognize our work as something that adds up and speaks for itself (that’s not the same as recognizing our actual accomplishments). How hard something was for us to do only matters to us. The work is just part of the process, like breathing. We don’t count our breaths. Why should we count our working hours?

This is why the only two people who care that I worked so hard to overcome my social anxiety are me and my mother. Thanks Mom! ;-)

We are really bad at judging how hard we work.

Everyone thinks they work hard. Even people who were actually handed life on a silver platter think that they work hard.

Our perception of effort is influenced by our baseline: if you’ve never run more than 10 minutes, 30 minutes might seem extreme, even though you’re probably capable of running for hours if truly pressed.

The other reason is that we have an interest in inflating how hard we appear to work, so we tend to trick ourselves as well. A system from the SEALs is that when you think you’ve hit your capacity, you’re actually at about 40% effort.

Be careful not to get stuck in a spiral, creating work and working for the sake of working.

In college, I went through my first three years committed to working my butt off and proud of that. I didn’t really enjoy those three years.

When I got to my senior year, however, I was finally able to be honest with myself: I didn’t really care about the classes I was taking or the degree I was getting. I didn’t intend to be a psychologist or a diplomat.

I determined to work as hard as I needed to in order to do well, but I wasn’t going to sacrifice my peace-of-mind and sleep just to get an A.

I still got all A’s. That taught me I was making things harder than they needed to be.

I was able to enjoy my last year of college and still do well.

2. Hard work combined with passion is a truly unstoppable combination

It wasn’t until I started taking math classes at FRCC that I found myself happily engaged in learning in a way that I had never really experienced before. I loved Calculus. Not only was I willing to work hard at it–nothing new–but I wanted to! I didn’t begrudge the study time and I happily turned down other things in order to study.

I enjoyed the simple act of trying to figure out math problems and working through the proofs.

Our teacher actually once scolded me for being stuck on a problem for 7 hours without asking him for help. Maybe that was stupid, but I was enjoying the struggle, and now I will never forget the solution.

For the first time, I wasn’t working at a class simply because it was a hoop someone asked me to jump through, but because I genuinely wanted to understand. As a result, the class changed the way I think and the way I see the world.

Calc III is, in my mind, my most successful academic experience to date. A little late in the game, but at least I am still excited about learning!

You can usually tell that you have found that magical combination when you start going beyond the baseline requirements because you want that much more mastery.

The other things in which I found this combination were martial arts (practicing Katas blindfolded on uneven ground with distractions), and flying (which required a 1 hour bus ride to and from the airport for a 3 hour lesson every week during my freshman year of college).

Despite what was apparently a lot of hard work, I didn’t feel like I was working hard, or at least I didn’t mind.

Watch out for this trap!

From what I said above, it may sound like passion enables hard work, but the opposite is true. Hard work enables passion.

You can be interested in something, but that’s not the same as passion. If you work hard at things you’re just not interested in, certainly you’ll never find passion, but if you expect your interest to turn into passion without hard work, you will find disappointment.

I think what made the difference for me was that I studied the things above because I wanted to learn them for myself, not for anyone else or a credential. As a result, I didn’t care what others thought of how hard I was working, which ironically freed my energy to work hard in creative ways that took my understanding to new heights.

I’ll probably revisit this topic later, but just remember: don’t waste time in the belief that, “if I could just find my passion, THEN I’ll be able to work hard and enjoy it.”

Often (but not always) the hardest journeys are the most rewarding. Make sure you know where you are going.

So, hard work is subjective, and when you can combine it with a passion, it really doesn’t matter.

I don’t regret working so hard in school. I regret working hard on things I wasn’t passionate about instead of doing what I needed to and putting my time and effort into things that really mattered to me.

If I could redo it, I’d take more time to understand the role school needed to play in my life and allocate my effort accordingly. It was important in helping me accomplish my goals, but it didn’t need to be the center of my life.




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