Blood, toil, tears and sweat

by seangljacobs

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat,’ Winston Churchill famously declared in 1940. He had just been elected Prime Minister of Britain and was speaking of fighting Nazi Germany. But his words remain useful in recognising the sheer grind that is a prerequisite for any success.

Today our sport stars tend to capture the more lively examples of all-out effort. Tiger Woods, for example, spends five hours a day just hitting golf balls on top of an already maniacal training regime. The swimmer Mark Spitz – the Michael Phelps of his day – apparently swam enough laps of the pool to swim the distance of the equator. Daley Thompson, the Decathlon legend, famously quipped that he trained on Christmas Days because he ‘knew his opponent wasn’t.’ It should be remembered that training for these folks isn’t just a stroll in the park but consists of relentless and carefully calibrated effort.

‘Coming early and staying late’, as the saying goes, requires an element of persistence beyond simply turning up – the effort must be sustained over time. Andres Ericsson, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on performance excellence, says that elite status is built only after years of toil – twenty years, in fact, of what he calls ‘devoted effort.’ This applies not just to athletes but experts in any field – scientists, doctors, fighter pilots, writers and so forth.

What we often see, and want right now, is the finished product of such toil. Mozart, as some might be surprised to learn, never conceived his works without great effort. ‘Surviving manuscripts,’ Geoff Colvin writes in Talent is Overrated, ‘show that Mozart was constantly revising, reworking, crossing out and rewriting whole sections, jotting down fragments and putting them aside for months or years. Though it makes the results no less magnificent, he wrote music the way ordinary humans do.’ Mozart, in other words, sweated just like anyone else.

Again, such examples are found in any arena. Former American President Ronald Reagan, for example, was seen as a great ‘natural’ communicator for his strong messages and smooth public appearances. But, as his speechwriter Peggy Noonan notes, ‘he was a natural because he practiced so hard.’ It’s hard to imagine President Obama, or any other great public communicator, not doing the same.

We don’t have to become President, reach Olympic heights or historical greatness to appreciate that even litres of talent amounts to a small trickle without hard work. ‘Life is a grindstone,’ says founder of Black Entertainment Television Robert E. Johnson. ‘But whether it grinds you up or grinds you down depends on what you’re made of.’ Much of your effort isn’t measured by any public yardstick but by your own internal standards.

This is particularly important to recall when leaving school and entering into your twenties. Many of the so-called gifted and talented of our school years have largely failed to reach the Spartan heights they were earmarked for. The main reason they don’t, according to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, is ‘they may have believed all the hype, the idea that they just have it. And they become afraid of making mistakes. They become afraid of tarnishing their image.’ The people who do well out of school, Dweck observes, are ‘the people who maybe didn’t have an image to uphold, didn’t feel the weight of other people’s expectations, and just followed their passions and developed their abilities.’

For someone who didn’t enjoy strong success when leaving high school I would add that, in particular, many of my schoolmates didn’t quite understand toil. When setbacks arrived I saw that excuses prevailed. Discipline lagged. Drugs took centre stage and the spirit of perseverance faded. Sport, plus a host of other factors, made me appreciate hard work. Certainly, the slogan of ‘no pain, no gain’ takes on real meaning when your school friends are out partying and you’re burning up laps in the pool or the gym.

For many, of course, sport may not be the avenue to appreciate the blood, toil, tears and sweat. We’re fortunate that many of us don’t live in a period where bombs are being dropped on our homes – as they did when Churchill gave his golden words. Appreciating hard work can be found in a library, in a lab, behind a desk, behind a wheel, or in front a sheet of music or a computer. I have friends, in real estate to publishing, enjoying success not only because they appreciate hard work but they ultimately enjoy what they do. ‘If you can find the work you were born to do,’ says the rowing Champion Steve Redgrave, ‘then hard graft never seems like too much of a slog and the fun comes naturally.’

Other self-help topics such as finding the work you were born to do, maintaining ‘staying power’ and building focus will be covered in future Winners Don’t Cheat posts.