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.

Circadian Rhythms

Or: I wanted to skip my afternoon nap, but I didn’t have time

I’ve been aware of circadian rhythms for many years but they have recently come back into my focus after listening to several episodes of the Feel Better, Live More podcast and the work of Nick Littlehales. The ideas (and how they could improve my life) resonated so strongly with me that I quickly became fascinated.

To start, let’s get our definitions straight. Circadian Rhythms are natural cycles within the human body that determine, among other things, sleepiness and alertness. The rhythms themselves are affected by light and dark and the sleep patterns of the person in question. One cycle lasts about 90 minutes, with the first half being a period of more alertness, and the second half being a period of less alertness and more sleepiness. You are most likely to wake up naturally during the “alert” section, and you can consider this the start of your first cycle for the day.

(I’ll also add that this is not new-age airy-fairy medicine. There’s lots of studies on circadian rhythms and in 2017 someone won the Nobel Prize for research in this area!)

The most obvious issue is if you try to go to sleep at a period of high alertness: you are very unlikely to fall asleep. This can lead to frustration which leads to even less ability to sleep. Fortunately, the solution is simple: time your bedtime with a dip in alertness. This might be bleeding obvious because I’m basically saying “go to sleep when you’re tired” – but a lot of people don’t do that! They go to bed at some arbitrarily defined bedtime (or when the TV show you’re watching finishes) that might not be the right time. If you’re not sleepy wait around 45 minutes and a dip might just come along.

Beyond this, we can use our new knowledge to help plan ahead. Let’s say you are yawning at 9pm: probably a little early for most people to want to go to bed. However, this is an indicator that you are in a dip, and that the next one will arrive in around 90 minutes, so 10:30pm would be a good time to plan to go to bed.

This method can be enhanced and refined through routine – by getting up and going to bed at similar times you can know in advance at what points you will be most alert and most sleepy through the day and plan accordingly.

The beauty of knowing about circadian rhythms, however, is you can take advantage of it even if your routine is disrupted, or you don’t have a regular routine because of (for example) shift work. You don’t have to throw yourself into bed at the soonest moment and deal with the ensuing frustration of insomnia – you can be more efficient by timing it with the cycle.

I often struggle with waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to get back to sleep. I get annoyed and anxious that I’m wasting time that I’m neither working in, resting in nor enjoying. Circadian rhythms brought the revelation that it was actually natural and totally ok to wake up during the night; it’s simply a point of alertness in the cycle. Historically it has been typical for people to get up and do something for a period during the night, and then go back to bed and return to sleep. By doing this we are not disrupting our natural cycles but working with them to be more content and relaxed. I know now that when this happens I don’t have to freak out, I can just roll with it.

One of the nice things about knowledge of C.R. is that it takes the stress out of a lot of things. It is nice to know it’s natural and normal, when waking through the night or during the day when there are periods of tiredness.

Speaking of daytime tiredness, C.R. help us with this too. Everyone is aware of the “post-lunch slump” at work, when it feels like you are moving through treacle. This is a natural consequence of C.R. and it’s comforting to know if you weather the storm for 45 minutes a wave of alertness will arrive. We can take this further, however, and make the most of our dip in alertness. Rather than pushing through with very low productivity, why not have a nap? It will come naturally due to the point in the cycle, and it will enhance productivity during the upcoming alert phase. It is even possible that just taking a rest and a break during this downtime (without actually sleeping) can help.

Now obviously there are many more factors to good sleep and good health than managing circadian rhythms, but this area is not well-known and offers simple, significant benefits. Honestly there is much more to be said on this and here I have just distilled my biggest personal takeaways. If any of this resonates with you I would strongly recommend listening to this episode of the Feel Better, Live More podcast ( or reading Nick Littlehales book (

Park Run Progress!

I have not written about my training progress for a while but it has been quietly proceeding in the background. My social life has gotten in the way for the last few weeks but this last Saturday I managed to squeeze in a Park Run at Temple Newsam. One of my targets for this quarter was to get a Park Run PB there so I really had my sights set on it.

On the morning I was feeling ok but the rain was coming down hard. I could feel the grip on the tarmac was going while I warmed up so conditions were not ideal. My previous PB was 21:10 so I knew what I had to beat. I was fortunate for the presence of a 21 min pacer who I could use to my advantage.

Started off in the middle of the pack, struggling to get around other runners. By the time we had descended the first steep hill I had let loose a bit and managed to make my way to the top 10 group, and I was actually ahead of the 21 min pacer.

Towards the end of the first lap, going up the big hill, I was really starting to feel it. I am usually strong on hills and try to take advantage of that, but today I really felt like I was plodding and was overtaken – crucially by the 21 minute pacer.

Disheartened but not yet ready to surrender, I gritted my teeth and fought to stay with him. Every time he seemed to get away from me I found the force to regain the lost ground. Coming to the end of the second lap I was frequently checking my watch and I could tell it was going to be close. The 21 min pacer was about 10 seconds in front of me, which put me exactly at my previous best time.

Passing through the rhododendrons the 21 min pacer, still ahead of me, shouted back that he was ahead of time and if we pushed we could beat 21. This was exactly what I needed to hear and I put in all the power I could for the last hundred meters. Collapsing over the finish line in the rain, I stopped my watch but was nervous to check it. When I finally looked down I saw 20:55, beating my PB by 15 seconds!

Training Update – Week beginning 31st July

I woke up very early on Monday so just set out on my long run at 5am – did around 7 miles. It was nice being out so early when it was quiet. Put in another decent run on Tuesday (5 miles) and a shorter one on Wednesday and Thursday (around 3 miles).

On Friday I did 10 x 1 minute intervals over a 4 miles route and worked pretty hard. Did not Park Run on Saturday due to hangover, but did put in a hill session in the afternoon. Did about 5 miles over a route containing around 5 or 6 significant hills. Put in a lot of effort on the hills to try and make the training session count.

Had Sunday off as a rest day.

Roundhay Rampage – 6 miles – 19th July – Race Report

Yesterday evening the weather was quite good for racing, warm but not too warm with a bit of drizzle in the air. I arrived in plenty of time and had a good warm-up. Felt fine before the race, and had in mind the lessons I’d learned a month ago at Tempsey Torture. I needed to not push too hard at the start so I had something left in the tank to push at the end.

The race began with a steep decent followed by a similar climb back up the other side of the arena. I was getting overtaken at this point but had in mind to run my own race. AS planned I was not competitive on the hills, letting those who wanted overtake and hoping I would catch them again alter when they tired. 10 mins into the race I had fallen into a small pack as we left the lakes behind and headed into the woodland in the north of the park.

I was following the leader of the pack for a long way but his pace began to drop off and I knew I needed to overtake. This was facilitated by another member of the pack moving to overtake and I followed. We left the group as a pair and moved further into the woods.

The new runner I was chasing kept up a good pace that I felt I could hold. Unfortunately as the terrain underfoot got worse I lost him in the forest (and never saw him for the rest of the race!). For the next five minutes I didn’t see another runner but felt strong and tried to put in some work as I moved through the uneven woodland.

I caught the next guy ahead of me as we were leaving the woods. A navigational error on his part enabled me to overtake and he never came back. This brought us to southernmost point of the course at the south end of the lake. One of the marshals kindly pointed out that I had a 30% gradient back up to the lake – although I stayed strong and did not walk.

Overtook a couple more on the final straight back to the finish, and managed not to walk on the final hill up to the end. I was a bit disappointed as I thought the course was longer than it was and still had some energy left at the finish.

Crossed the line 49:23 with 47th place. This is fine but I feel I could have gone harder. I took my own advice too much and held too much back. This is a lesson to be learned for the final race in the series.

Training Update week beginning 10th July with Park Run report

cologne_cathedral_rhine_river_bridge_germany_koln_domI was away in Cologne this week but managed not to miss a session. Got a long-ish run (6.5 miles) in before my flight on Monday, then had a cool run along the Rhine on Tuesday morning. Got lost in Cologne and I’m not sure about distance but it was something like 45 minutes of running. Used up my rest day on Weds due to hangover and tiredness (we had done a lot of walking around the city the day before). Flew back on Thurs but sneaked in a short run in the evening. Friday I ran 5 miles with Mum at a slow-to-medium speed.

Saturday morning saw the Park Run in Temple Newsam back to its usual route. It wasn’t raining at the time of the run but the ground was wet, which is not favourable to me because my ankle is still weak from the break. I wasn’t feeling especially strong before the run either.

Started off ok but has a lot of the pack in front of me, including the 22 min pacemaker. Overtook him about 2/3 of the way around the first lap of the two. On the big hill at the end of the first lap I didn’t overtake as strongly as I usually do.

Down the hill at the beginning of the second lap I was overtaken again by the 22 min pacemaker who was blasting it and appeared to be putting in an inconsistent run. Used this as motivation and overtook him and started laying down as much power as I could in the latter half of the lap. Overtook strongly on the final straight past the rhododendrons, passing one guy that I had targeted when he passed me on the first lap.

Came in 15th overall, 9 seconds off my PB. A PB was clearly achievable as running buddies Lisa, Lucy and Pete all got PB’s (and it was Pete’s first run on this course!)

Training update week beginning 3rd July with Park Run Race Report

19702027_1372222282862973_6842366654360839978_nSnuck in a couple of long runs this week, Monday and Thursday. Thursday was particularly challenging as it was very warm and took a hilly route. Tuesday and Wednesday were shorter faster runs and Friday was a rest day as I wanted to be fresh for the Park Run on Saturday.

The Park Run was an alternative route due to an event in Temple Newsam. There was confusion with parking but the run began only five minutes late with 160 in attendance. Weather was hot from the get-go and I had been warned in advance that the route was tough. It was two laps of a route with each lap containing two or three moderate hills.

After the first half-lap I had fallen in with a group who I stuck with for basically the remainder of the race. Learning lessons from the 11k race I did a few weeks ago I wasn’t too competitive in the first half, which paid off when I had fuel left through the second half to fight the group I was in. Annoyingly I hadn’t worn my watch so didn’t know what pave we were doing and also had no concept of where I was In the pack.

On the final straight past the rhododendrons there were 3 runners in front of me so I increased my pace. I knew I could take the nearest two, who were running as a pair, and hoped to catch the third. I overtook the pair easily and engaged with the third but he he was stronger than me and beat me by a couple of seconds (so not even close).

I was happy with the effort that I put in and asked the guy who beat be what time we did, and he said 21:35 which is a good result for me. The results were released later that day and I found I had come 5th overall and 1st in my age group which is by far my best positional performance and the Park Run, and very satisfying. The time was also good but not comparable to other runs due to the alternative route.

Overall a good performance and encouraging that the training is paying off. Based on the other times posted, gaining another few places is very achievable in the coming weeks.

Training Update – for week beginning Mon 26th June

Taking on board the difficulties I’d had on the race last week I incorporated some longer runs and hill sessions into this week’s training. On Monday I ended up running two separate sessions because a friend asked me to go out when I had already run, making a total of about 10 miles that day. The hill session on Thursday was around 4.5miles with 4 large hills. Today I ran 5 miles with 9 x 1:30min intervals. Planning on doing a longer run (~7 miles) tomorrow or Sunday.

Race report – Tempsey Torture – 11km

The race was last night, on the evening of the 21st June. It was the longest day of the year, and one of the hottest. The start time was 7pm so things had cooled down a little but it still wasn’t as cool as I would have hoped.

I was feeling good before the race, arrived in plenty of time and had loads of time to warm up. I didn’t know exactly what the course would be but I was naive about two things: I thought the course was only 10k and I didn’t appreciate just how hilly it was going to be.

I started at the front of the pack and probably let them drag me a long too fast. I was too competitive going up the first hill, fighting for positions it didn’t really matter if I kept and using precious energy in the process. 10 mins in the hills were really starting to bite but I kept my head down and fought through the struggle.

The hills were continuous, constantly up and down, but around 20 mins I regained some strength and was feeling good. There were no mile markers so I had no idea what pace I was doing really. Between the 20 and 40 minute period I was roughly holding position with the guys around me but losing strength all the time.

By the 40 minute point I was really struggling but at this point still thought I was only doing 10k and was nearly at the end. As the course kept coming though and it was obvious it was going to be longer than that I was really mentally defeated. The last kilometre was a steep downhill, at the bottom of which you turned around and ran right back up it, and I took it at what was basically a slow training speed.

Eventually finished in just under an hour at 59:38, and in 33rd position out of 160.

I think there are two main takeaways for this for me – I need to train more at longer distances. Although the course was slightly longer than expected, I should have been able to handle that (some more hill training probably would have helped too!). Secondly, a lot of my collapse in this race was mental. I need to work on fighting off the negative thoughts.

When I was done I felt good even though I hadn’t done as well as hoped. The course was very tough and I’ll be better prepared for the next race in the series in 1 month’s time.

Training Update – 14th June

The big gap in posts was due to a trip to Barcelona to Primavera Sound festival (which was excellent, by the way). I didn’t run while I was there but according to my phone did more than 25,000 steps per day – festivals can be very active! – so I didn’t feel too bad.

Returned from Barcelona on the 6th of June and took running back up straight away, building up to my longest run of the year on Friday. It was a 10 miler which actually went fine, felt good throughout. Also sneaked in a 10k on Monday night so I’m doing ok for miles.

This is good because my first event of the year is next Wednesday, a 10km race called Tempsey Torture at Temple Newsam. Looking forward to competing again because I haven’t been able to do any park runs for over 2 months.

As an aside, I also fasted for 24 hours on Monday. I have read about the health benefits of fasting for a while (most notably from Tim Ferris) but the real inspiration was one of my students who was participating in Ramadan. To understand her better and as an act of support I decided to fast for just one day (out of her 30!). I actually found it not to be too bad – I felt that my mind was very clear and wasn’t crippled by hunger through the day. I was looking forward to breaking the fast by the end of it though. I would recommend and probably will do it again myself.