The (not so secret) Power of Hard Work
To find some of the most profound truths, sometimes we need look no further than a good ol’ fashioned children’s story. Remember the fable about the tortoise and the hare? In Aesop’s story, the hare ridiculed the tortoise for being slow, so the tortoise challenged him to a race and won. Sure, the hare had the “natural talent” (I mean, those legs! Those strides!). But because the tortoise happily did the work and remained focused on his goal, he was able to eclipse that talent with action. And let’s not forget “The Little Engine Who Could,” who climbed a daunting mountainous track–and not just because he believed in himself (“I think I can” is always helpful, but there’s more…). He kept on chugging with a smile on his engine face and his smokestack eyes on the summit, and so he got there.
Hard work is more than just a physical or mental act–it is a spiritual pursuit. Kabbalah teaches that only the things we invest time and energy into will bring the blessings fully back to us. More simply, we are most aligned with the Creator when we earn what we receive. This is because the nature of the Creator is to give. And, since we are made in the image of the Creator, we, too, have the same inclination. When we work hard, we receive some sort of compensation–be it a paycheck, a finished job, or a product. However, when we receive without effort, we risk experiencing what kabbalists call “the bread of shame.”
Our daughter Abigail loves the song “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” from the Leap soundtrack. A few years back, I asked her if she knew what the song’s title meant, and she did not. So I explained that it refers to always doing our best and trying our hardest, no matter how difficult something may seem. It implies never giving up. This was a timely metaphor for a girl who happened to be learning how to ride a two-wheel bike at the time. (You know, a few scraped knees, a dose of frustration–but we always emphasized the getting back up part as the key to success!) Anyway, after my explanation of the song, Abigail asked, “What if the blood, sweat, and tears all happen at the same time?” She was deeply concerned about all that fluid loss at once, which I found adorable. But the truth is, if that messy experience did happen, well then, we’d treat the wounds, take a shower, and–barring any severe injuries–that’s right: we’d rise up and keep at it!
In fact, the kabbalists teach that facing some sort of opposition is the biggest indication that we’re doing something worthwhile–even if it does not involve the need for medical intervention (or lots of towels!). Because if we’re doing something that feels difficult or oppositional, it signifies that we’re tapping into a necessary element for our growth or improvement. Nothing worthwhile comes too easily.
Sometimes we forget this. We look at successful people and assume that whatever they have now just magically came to them. We don’t realize that this is far from the case. For example, golfer Tiger Woods hit at least 1,000 balls following every round in the Majors. Skier Lindsey Vonn averages eight hours a day at the gym. And for most every other success story–be it in sports, science, the arts, or elsewhere, there are endless hours of effort that have led to it. Michelangelo once remarked, “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”
What the majority of those who have achieved some level of mastery do have in common is a growth mindset. They remain curious and continue working beyond any specific outcome. If Shakespeare had stopped writing after his first published poem, the English language would be missing 37 important plays, 154+ sonnets and poems, and countless sayings still in use more than 400 years after his death!
A recent study published in Biological Psychology confirms the idea that focusing on hard work (versus talent or genetics alone) is the key to success. In one experiment, test subjects performing a task were praised either for their intelligence (as in, “You’re so smart!”) or for their effort ( “Look how hard you worked!”). As the tasks became more difficult, subjects in the second group fared far better, even after making mistakes. Being praised for their hard work resulted in the desire to learn from mistakes, rather than to simply avoid them. Being praised for a set-point of intelligence, on the other hand, can lead one to think, “This is just how I am,” which essentially blunts the growth mindset.
Everyone has something incredible to bring into this world… and our investment of great effort and perseverance puts the control of our lives back in our own hands.
Circling back to Aesop’s fable, it didn’t really matter whether or not the hare could win the race. What did matter was that he didn’t try. Meanwhile, the tortoise, who lacked the gift of speed, possessed the perseverance to work for the win. We all have the power to cross almost any finish line we put out there for ourselves–as long as we ignore the sleepers and the naysayers, believe in ourselves (I think I can!), and stay attuned to the opportunity for growth through the process–blood, sweat, tears and all!