Hard work has been romanticized since corporations existed. In the business world, idioms about how sleep is for the weak or how no amount of talent can supersede hard work were doled out for decades. The underlying assumption was that if you worked hard enough for long enough, you would succeed. However, this advice misses one big point: Most people fail not because of a lack of effort but because their effort was misdirected or misaligned with their interests.

Don’t get me wrong. Hard work matters for success. And while hard work and success are most certainly correlated, correlation is not causation.

Over the years I’ve had the chance to be a part of several global communities, including my alumni networks. In my chats with high performers, I’ve seen a pattern: People who make informed and intelligent choices about the work they choose to focus on have been quicker to reach success. Hard work has helped them get there, but only because they’ve chosen to focus on tasks, projects, and roles that align with their long-term growth goals.

If you’re new to an organization and want to get ahead, or just entering the workforce and trying to figure out where to focus your efforts, use these insights (that I’ve learned through observation and conversations) to guide you.

Explore, then exploit.

As an early-career professional, you may not always know where to direct your hard work. And that’s okay. You’re still at the beginning of your career, discovering your values and interests. Make sure you give yourself time and space to explore. Figuring out what you what excites you — as opposed to diving “all in” and burning out as soon as you land a job — will pay off in the long run.

One way to do this is by conducting micro-experiments to test the waters. Consider the example of Khan Academy founder Salman Khan. He started his career as a hedge fund analyst, but he was always interested in teaching. On the weekends, he started using online tools to tutor a cousin in math. When the rest of the family learned that free tutoring was available, more started taking part. Then, a friend suggested that he film the tutorials and make them available for others to watch on YouTube. This led him to create more videos, and eventually, build one of the most iconic education companies in the world.

In your own career journey, think about taking up weekend projects in fields that pique your interest. If you’re already working somewhere and want to explore how another department in the same company raise your hand for stretch projects and volunteer your time. If you wish to explore roles in a different industry, connect with peers working in roles that interest you. If you want to start your own venture, build a prototype or a minimum viable product.

The main insight here is that thinking is not enough. You need to leave enough time and space in your schedule to learn about your interests and curiosities, and this can only happen through actually doing the work. As you go through your micro-experiments, ask yourself:

  • Am I truly enjoying this?
  • Would I want to do this every single day, and does it bring me joy?
  • Am I good at it and will it make it money?
  • Will doing this get me closer to my goals?

If the answer if no to any of those, you likely haven’t found your niche yet, and may need to do more exploring.

Use the 80-20 rule

Consultant Richard Koch once recounted his experience working with Bill Bain, the founder of Bain and Company, a global consultancy that works with leaders around the world. He said that Bain would often accompany his consultants to meetings with top clients. Bain would exchange pleasantries, talk about sports, and then leave within the first five minutes saying, “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go now, and the reason I’ve got to go is I want to leave you with [name of consultant]. You’ll like them. They’re really good. In fact, they’re better than me.”

This is a classic example of the Pareto principle, or the 80-20 rule. It suggests that 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. In the above example the 20% is the first five minutes of the meeting, the 80% is the long-lasting and successful client-consultant relationship that would often ensue after. To apply this to your own career, think of it this way: Don’t focus on everything — work hard at the vital tasks, projects, or roles that will give you the greatest results.

Take a hard look at everything you do. Which tasks and projects have the biggest impact when it comes to getting closer to your goals? Once you realize that not everything you work on matters equally, you can train yourself to prioritize the actions that move the needle. Start your day by working on a few vital few activities. Once you’ve finished them, move on to tasks that you need to do in order to fulfill the work expectations set by your manager. Once you’re more senior in your role, you can potentially outsource or reallocate lower-impact action items to others.

When I was working on building my company, Network Capital, I took a similar approach. I wrote down the outcomes of each task on my to-do list and after weeks of reflection, it struck me that speaking to Network Capital community members one-on-one was the single most valuable thing I did for the company. While it didn’t take up a large part of my time, it gave me insights that helped shape our services and create a close-knit community. That doesn’t mean what I did the rest of the time wasn’t valuable, but it had a much lower impact. I still had to get the other (relatively lower impact work) done, but I learned to put a greater emphasis on the work that moved the needle.

Prioritize systems over goals.

“Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress,” said James Clear in his book, Atomic Habits. Keep in mind that both successful and unsuccessful people have similar goals — both want to win. The difference comes from having systems in place that make your hard work matter. The best part about having good systems in place is that you can achieve your goals with relatively less effort, as they are likely to compound your output.

Fundamentally, systems are about instilling daily habits that help you achieve your tasks in more efficient ways. This takes a personal commitment to developing processes that will help you continually improve.

Say, for example, your goal is to become the salesperson of the year at your company. While that might mean you need to finish with the highest numbers, it would be futile to focus only on the value of each transaction you close. If this were the case, you would expend all your energy making cold calls, following up with clients on orders that may not have closed, or chasing people to release payments.

A smarter approach would be to focus on the system: Building stronger relationships with a few reliable clients, giving them excellent service, resolving their queries in time, and aiming for minimal complaints. That might result in clients renewing their contracts in the following year while also helping you achieve your sales quota for the current year.

The system you build personally will depend on your industry and your goal. They key is to take a step back, look at the big picture, and understand the steps you need to take to have a long-lasting impact as opposed to securing a quick win.

. . .

If you feel that you’re putting in the hours and not achieving the desired results, increasing your efforts may not be the answer. Think about whether your hard work is rightly directed or if you may be putting in too much work for things that have little impact. While hard work can help you establish yourself in a job, it will only take you so far.

Source: hbr.org | Utkarsh Amitabh

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