I have discovered the secret to success.
Don’t worry. I am going to share it with you in a moment. But before you get your hopes up, you should know that the secret really isn’t a secret at all. Sorry. It’s an old lesson that we learn around the same time that we start looking both ways before we cross the street.
We just keep forgetting this particular lesson. We leave the well-worn truth of it at home and go off chasing hot, young opportunities. Those new lovers promise to fulfill our wildest dreams. The real thing back at home—quiet, predictable and even tedious—cannot compete.
I invite you to give up the chase.
- the silver bullet and the sure-fire solution,
- the wonder drug and miracle cure,
- the business elixir and magic potion.
Give them up.
Instead, make the right commitments in your heart. (Did he just use the “h” word? I thought this blog was about business.)
One of my new favorite children’s books is Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear. The author Lindsay Mattick got it right with this remark about Harry Colebourn, one of the book’s real-life characters: “Then his heart made up his mind.”
It’s time to let your heart make up your mind about an old kernel of truth that can grow into prosperity if you’ll let it.
Work really hard—harder than anyone else you know.
That’s it. That’s the secret to success.
Are you disappointed? That’s understandable. I suppose I should have shared six little-known growth hacking tactics that can 10x your business in under 30 days.
But all that stuff starts to seem like hokum after awhile. The same get-rich-quick gimmicks spun out of recycled hype.
I’m all for smart strategy. I’m all for big breakthroughs, major wins, and hockey stick-shaped growth trajectories. By all means, leap from this innovation cycle to the next one.
Work really hard and really smart.
And all the while, keep a close eye on how much time you spend at the altar of Easy Money. Stop and consider: Have the supposedly quick and painless opportunities really delivered on their promises? Did they bear fruit and build character?
You want character more than Easy Money because character is what brings peace and a full heart.
Answer these questions for yourself:
- How many times do you try before giving up?
- How hard are you willing to work?
- From how many angles do you attack a seemingly insurmountable obstacle before you walk away from it (and from the goal on the other side)?
30 Seconds or 22 Minutes
One tiny blurb from a Malcolm Gladwell book called Outliers got snagged in my memory. In the sixth section of Chapter 8, Gladwell has this to say about work ethic and the other character traits that orbit it:
“Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.”
Gladwell spends the chapter making connections between millennia of wet-rice production in Asian countries (Singapore, South Korea, China/Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan) and the present-day dominance of those countries in math. He cites the work of Erling Boe, an educational research at the University of Pennsylvania, who analyzed scores on the TIMSS exam and came to this conclusion: “We should be able to predict which countries are best at math simply by looking at which national cultures place the highest emphasis on effort and hard work.”
Growing rice requires 3,000 hours of labor per person per year, and such labor-intensive agriculture engenders a patient tenacity: Whether your goal is growing enough rice to subsist or untying the tricky knot of a geometric proof, you keep picking at the goal until it unravels in your hands.
Transplant that patient tenacity to math, to education, to business and the rest of life, and something mundane becomes a competitive advantage.
With enough time and sweat, you can turn a mountain into a molehill.
What I’m trying to say is that my approach to problem-solving often lacks a richer, more grounded perspective. I have a white-knuckled Determination.
- Attack with a fury.
- Beat the obstacle into a pulp.
- Spit on its corpse.
I would like to learn how to not spend undue emotional energy on what is, in the grand scheme of things, an insignificant obstacle. Urgent, maybe, but not life-threatening.
We need perspective. An unexamined life is not worth living, and an unexamined business isn’t worth growing.
There’s that old saw about Abraham Lincoln, who, when given four hours to chop down a tree, spent the first three hours sharpening his ax. In my mind’s eye I saw him drawing the whetstone alone the curve of the ax’s blade. Probably, spectators danced around him, throwing up their hands, pulling out their hair, crying out, “For the love of God, man, get on with the work! Stop sharpening and start swinging!”
Adversity comes for all freelancers and business owners, and it comes in many guises:
- A client who wouldn’t know style if he stepped in it tells you that he doesn’t like what you sent over.
- A client cancels a project halfway through (or after you’ve already delivered) and stiffs you.
- A business partner takes cash out of the business, puts it in his pocket, and shrugs when you ask him to explain. He thought he deserved a little boost.
And all of the examples above assume that you have enough work. How do you respond when your pipeline dries up? Do you indulge in a freak-out and let the mental disease known as anxiety eat away all your gumption? Do you immediately start swinging a dull ax at a mighty thick trunk and hope for the best?
Or do you take the counterintuitive approach and slow down. Examine your tools. Check their edges. Find your whetstone. Commence forming your plan of attack while you prepare your mind and sharpen your tools.
We do have at our disposal an abundance of tools and strategies, and this abundance can create its own kind of lethargy. Analysis paralysis. We, like Lincoln, can’t prepare forever. The clock is ticking. The bank account is dwindling.
Yet, business is trial-and-error. The breakthrough may come with the fifth strategy you try. What if you had given up after the first?
So the chopping at the problem, the trying again and again and again from different angles, is deceptive both in its simplicity—You’ve got to keep trying—and its implicit demand for patient tenacity.
Some people seem to lead charmed business lives. They are modern day Midases. King Creosotes. Everything they touch turns to gold. They run record-setting sprints, and their beautiful hair and designer frames don’t budge an inch.
Maybe some people really do have more luck, more talent, more raw IQ, more admirers, more social capital. Doors to treasure rooms swing open for them with a brush of their finger tips.
The secret to success is, um, a little boring.
Whether or not that is true, your course of action and mine stays the same: Work really hard—harder than anyone else you know—and work really smart.
It doesn’t sound like the secret to success. It’s not glorious, glamorous, or even fun. Neither is wet-rice production. Neither is math.
The only thing standing between us and what we want is patient tenacity, a vigorous willingness to spend twenty-two minutes, not thirty seconds, finding a solution.
We have more power than we think. We’re not destined to fail. We need to give it more time.
Adversity usually submits to the most persistent adversary who was too wise to give up.
Maybe I’m just talking to myself, or maybe this struck a chord with you.
Regardless, I hope you’ll not take a fatalistic posture toward adversity in your freelancing business. I hope you will instead try, try, and try again. I hope you’ll outwork everyone.
Your work ethic may not win you awards, but I believe it is the secret to success. It will win your desired future, and more peace of mind besides.
I do believe there is rest for the weary. But there’s no rest for the worried. Worry less. Work more. And be quick to ask for help.
Let’s get to work.
“No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.” – Chinese proverb
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