It's Risky to Work Hard

Good email exchange up between Bill Simmons of ESPN Magazine and Malcolm Gladwell. Their sports knowledge is way over my head (I am only a mediocre fan, after all) but Gladwell touches on something really interesting.

It’s very risky to work hard.

Because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn’t work hard. It’s a form of self-protection. I swear that’s why Mickelson has that almost absurdly calm demeanor. If he loses, he can always say: Well, I could have practiced more, and maybe next year I will and I’ll win then. When Tiger loses, what does he tell himself? He worked as hard as he possibly could. He prepared like no one else in the game and he still lost. That has to be devastating, and dealing with that kind of conclusion takes a very special and rare kind of resilience. Most of the psychological research on this is focused on why some kids don’t study for tests — which is a much more serious version of the same problem. If you get drunk the night before an exam instead of studying and you fail, then the problem is that you got drunk. If you do study and you fail, the problem is that you’re stupid — and stupid, for a student, is a death sentence. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare. People think that Tiger is tougher than Mickelson because he works harder. Wrong: Tiger is tougher than Mickelson and because of that he works harder.

I see this all the time, and indeed have practiced this form of self-protection myself. It’s also a treadmill that you can never get off once you’re on. If you establish a reputation for working as hard as you possibly can at X, and then fail at X for whatever reason, everyone is going to say you failed. You’re a failure. It wasn’t just that you blew it off. That’s why people specialize in something, announce to the world that they’re good at it, and make sure they never screw it up.

How many times have you gotten something from someone with the cover note, "This is just a really rough cut, let me know your thoughts." I have both received and sent this kind of thing all the time. People are very cunning at revealing how hard they really worked at something.

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