Reflection on University, Work Ethic and Success

In the final months of my time at university I began to look to the future and what it would hold. I had found university incredibly difficult in almost every regard, and that was only mildly compensated by the knowledge that what I was doing was, actually, quite hard. Cambridge is, people say, a hard university to get into and the work there is difficult. Consequently I concluded that if I could pull out even a moderate grade at the end of it all, I would have demonstrated my ability to do a very hard thing. Furthermore, given that I’d just done the very-hard-thing and that society is built to accommodate everyone of all abilities (not just Cambridge graduates), I should be able to shoulder all my future responsibilities in the outside world without much trouble. The arrogance.

Specifically, front and centre of my mind was the job for which I had held an offer for half a year at that point. It was a good, well-respected place on a graduate scheme, but not Oxbridge exclusive. Using the flawed logic above, I anticipated it would be a doddle.

It may not come as a surprise to the reader, although it did to me, that this was not the case. Life is in fact quite difficult, for everybody, most of the time. Even the most intelligent and talented among us (a category to which I do not belong) have to approach their challenges with vigour and enthusiasm in order to succeed. To approach anything with the cynical, complacent outlook I had is an exercise in futility.

A compounding factor that should not be neglected here is how utterly, brutally burned out I was as I left university. I had spent four years in various stages of turmoil, dragging myself from one setback (real or imagined) to the next. Thankfully I’d obtained a respectable grade but there was truly nothing left in the tank. As a result, I probably couldn’t have put in the effort I should have, even if I’d wanted to.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all of this to me personally is my complete ignorance to any of it at the time. I naively ambled into the world of work thinking I was a coiled spring, ready to make some big moves. In reality I was a naïve mole who, tired from digging, had found himself in the middle of a minefield.

At university I was naïve about a lot of things, and downright wrong about a lot of others. A topic I think I was on the right lines about, however, is that of the nature and consequences of work ethic. A few years into university I had a good sense of how my level of ability compared to that of others around me. I saw success as a combination of hard work and natural talent, in which a deficit of one could be compensated by an excess of the other. I looked at other students as all lying somewhere on a two-dimensional graph of work ethic and talent (the most brilliant of my peers being those with an excess of both).

As such, I could explain away the extra success of students around my ability level because they had a better work ethic. Being as neurotic as I am, I like my ideas to be quantified and in this case I thought in terms of “hours worked per day”. To me, at the time, that was a good measure of work ethic. Maybe it still is. I could work, say, six hours per day. That was the amount of work that was manageable and sustainable to me. Sally could work eight hours per day, Billy could work ten hours per day. If we were all of similar “natural ability”, our performance would then correlate to our hours worked.

This was actually a comfort to me, because it meant I had an excuse for my comparatively low performance. “Well I’m just as smart as Billy” said 20-year-old Jake “but he can work more hours than me”. This sounded like an excuse to me then*, and it certainly does now, but I do think there is some truth to it. We are not all the same, and some people can naturally work more than others. That doesn’t mean those people have it “easier”, but it certainly means they have desirable characteristics.

*These thought processes definitely led to some “well if I worked as much as him I’d be as good as him” conclusions

This outlook subsequently provides a useful framing for your own improvement: if my allotted amount of hours is six, then seven sounds achievable and is a way to squeeze some more performance out of myself. Forget Billy and his ten hours (some people’s work ethic is simply unmatchable), I just need to push my own work ethic a little outside its bounds and I can see some improvement I can be proud of. This is the hand I’ve been dealt, and here is what I can do to make it a little better.

I hadn’t thought about these ideas for a long time as adult life consumed me, but I’ve come back to them recently. Unlike a lot of my thoughts in my early-twenties, the truth of these prototype ideas still rings true with me today, and in context of the wider world.

It’s instructive to consider an example like an Olympic athlete. In order to achieve that level of success, one has to be very high on both the “talent” and “work ethic” axes (this is a given). However, the most successful are the ones who take their raw “work ethic” parameter and push the envelope as much as they can. How much outside their default they can push themselves may vary, but I believe it is the act of pushing (rather than just simply a strong work ethic to begin with) that generates the highest highs.

(The Olympic example is also useful for consideration because most of us don’t really feel inadequate in comparison. Most people were never going to be, never stood a chance of, standing on the podium. So, it doesn’t worry us. But why can’t this be extrapolated to everyone else? Why compare your incomparable outcomes to someone else’s?)

As an adult, work ethic isn’t as directly measured by hours worked. The quantification is more complex, and the outcomes more abstract. Nevertheless, I suspect each individual has a good idea of when they have worked hard and gone to (or beyond) their natural work limit and when they have just gone through the motions.

For me personally, my “default” work ethic is roughly to complete my professional responsibilities, and to exercise five or six times a week. I can also do the menial tasks of personal care and making my living space livable. I can do all (?) that comfortably, and feel a little exhausted by the end of the week. My instinct is to spend the rest of the time melting into TV and video games.

To be clear, doing what I’ve described above is sustainable, probably for the rest of my life. More than that, it’s respectable – if someone else told me that they can do all that comfortably and sustainably I would tell them that they’ve nailed it. But I know, for myself, that doing those things is just going through the motions. I know that this is where I naturally land, but the real magic happens just outside of these bounds. If I can just do a little more (be it writing or business or exercise or whatever) there could be amazing material results, but more importantly I will know that I’ve taken the hand I was dealt and tried – at least tried! – to make the best play with it.

In a sense this approach gets easier as I get older, as dramatic changes become less frequent and routine sets in. I’ve developed a clearer picture of what working hard looks like and what cruising looks like. Once you’ve worked for 1000 days you start to see the patterns. This makes it clearer (though not necessarily easier) to know how to break them.

For example, for me, pushing my “natural limit” would be to spend an hour writing instead of watching TV, on top of my normal duties. This would be great even if it was one evening a week.

At this point I would like to emphasise that I am not advocating for everyone to work themselves into the ground. Pushing it all the time is unhealthy and I extremely discourage it. There are times to push and times to relax and the contrast improves both. It is fine to get to a stable spot in life and just maintain it for weeks, months or years. Really what I am describing is an approach that can help people who really want to progress out of their current spot.

Once my original premise is accepted, herein lies the real challenge: the striking of the balance. The answer to this is for me still hidden in the fog; I don’t even begin to have a solution. In my personal case, I find it very challenging to relax. I am very lazy and curse myself for it. I find myself in a constant state of wishing I was doing more, while lying on the sofa. I have yet to find the right delineation. (I hopefully I can write about some progress in this regard in the future)

I would also like to acknowledge the natural variations in each individual’s “raw work ethic”. Out in the scary adult world we are at the mercy of many currents pushing us in different directions, out of our control. These factors might include (but not be limited to) professional stress, availability of free time and health. I’m currently of the opinion that one should largely just move with these tides, and not get too upset if you find your motivation decreasing. These things happen, and I feel strongly that if each person is honest with themselves, they know when they are pushing themselves and when they are not. 

(Side note: the assumption of “honesty with oneself” is not trivial and is worthy of a separate essay)

A way to mitigate the natural tides of motivation, and in general to squeeze that extra bit of effort out of ourselves, is through routine. It is well documented that routine decreases the amount of motivation needed to complete tasks, so make the most valuable tasks part of your routine. Make the things you get the most out of as easy to do as possible.

To wrap up, I’d like to acknowledge that the above might not apply to everyone. It is likely that it is a way of framing the world that allows me to manage my neuroticism and give me some hope for redemption. I do believe there are people who don’t constantly feel they should be doing more, and I must congratulate those people and express my envy. I wish I could just chill for a second. For those of us who can’t, remember you have a natural limit, but it is not a hard limit. It can be pushed. And it is through the (careful) pushing of this limit that not only do we see results, but we feel that we have really done something.

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