WHEN I FIRST DECIDED I wanted to change my life, the most palpable objection I faced was not from anyone else, but instead from my own mind. Young and naive, I believed that I inherently had the ability to achieve what I wanted to do; I believed it so strongly that it didn’t seem like a question as to whether I could accomplish it or not. But just as I believed this, I also knew, with certainty, that I could never trust myself to do it. I knew that even though I could accomplish what I wanted to, I was almost guaranteed not to. As if in response to my self-belief, a voice would say:
“Yes you could do it, but you are going to piss your future away.”
As far as my life was concerned, I was someone who started things then abandoned them. I was someone who got periodically obsessed, burned myself out, procrastinated, doubted myself, then gave up.
I was a quitter.
And really, given the overwhelming evidence – a lackluster school performance, failure at not one but two university courses, and a tendency to fantasize about my future rather than actually finish any attempts to achieve it – why would I think otherwise? Why would I trust myself?
When the way we’ve lived results in a life we’re unsatisfied with, then more often than not it’s due to the bad habits we’ve accumulated on the way. When we’re young and stupid, we give no thought to the life we’re building for ourselves, and often let various unconscious inclinations lead us to develop patterns of behavior that create a life we would never have consciously chosen.
So we want it to change. But just as we unconsciously built a life we never wanted, in equal measure do we learn to lack trust in our ability to build a life we’d consider worthwhile. Even though we might believe we have the capability to achieve what we want, we have zero trust in our ability to actually do it.
The trick then is rebuilding that trust.
LESSONS FROM A SALESMAN
To start, I need to talk about selling. Why? Because that’s where I came up with this idea.
Sales jobs, if you haven’t had one, are what I’d describe as the worst-best jobs ever. The worst, because you’re constantly exposed to how much bad performance crushes your self-esteem, and the best, because they show you just how ruthlessly productive you have to be to get exceptional results.
In order to stay profitable in a sales business, you have to develop a work ethic that is reliable. Sales is an emotional process. The closer you get to a sale, the more heightened your emotions become; positive and negative. When things are going well, you get excited, energized and elated; when things are going bad you get anxious, stressed and irritable. And it is this exact heightened state of emotions that engineers the haphazard work ethic of sales employees.
When things are going well, their priories shift. When things are going bad their priorities shift. But in reality, it is rare that the actual nature of their effort should ever change. In any sale, the fundamental elements are almost always the same. In any sales pipeline*, the fundamental elements that go into building that pipeline are almost always the same. Therefore, it stands the reason that the same consistent actions should be carried out.
Outside of sales, the importance of a work-ethic can be harder to grasp. In activities that aren’t like sales (i.e directly tied to your income), it can be harder to emotionally connect with the importance of consistent actions. In fact, more often than not people confuse their lack of emotional connection to their work for an inability at it or a fear of failure. Often, it’s neither, it’s simply the perspective they’re viewing the work from. But if you’re building a business, writing a novel, or developing a saleable skill (like, for instance, coding), then the consistent actions you take determine the eventual success you will have in that field – no matter how far off or abstract they are.*
Whilst the eventual reward might seem far away, it’s eventual materialization exists in the here and now; in the choices and actions you are making day by day. In sales, we described this as “every action you take now pays off 3 months from now”, and it lies at the heart of what necessitates a solid work ethic.
And in my experience, this work ethic always boils down to three truths.
THE THREE TRUTHS OF AN EXCEPTIONAL WORK ETHIC
1) Focused work trumps ‘hard work’.
2) Consistent, targeted work trumps ‘hard work’.
3) Trust is built on consistency and predictability.
Truths 1 and 2 are simple. When talking about their work ethics, people often like to brag about how hard they work, how many hours they put in, and what time in the morning they like to wake up and so on and so forth. But in my experience, the amount of time worked isn’t the crucial factor, and in fact, isn’t always the best perspective.
And that’s for a simple reason.
The more aggressively you push your body, the quicker you will burn out in the long term (crashing, losing motivation), and the quicker you will burn out in the short term (procrastination, creative blocks).
This is not to say that you shouldn’t push yourself (you can and always should), but your metric of success for your work ethic should never, ever be the degree to which you’ve pushed yourself; but instead the caliber of the work ethic you’re engaging with.
When I say focused work trumps hard work, I mean to say that 1 hour of attentive, focused work trumps 3 hours of distracted, multitasked work. When I say that consistent, targeted work trumps hard work, I mean that 1 hour, repeated each day, of specific and productive work, trumps 3 hours of random, unpredictable working.
This means that your work should be judged not on how much time it required, but by…
THE THREE METRICS OF SELF TRUST
- How much undivided attention you give your work.
- Whether you do your work every day.
- Whether your work was specifically targeted in a way that has a strong influence on your desired outcome.
And the reason that all three of these metrics are important is that, when combined, they bring us to the 3rd truth:
The easiest way to stay on top of an excellent work ethic is to have the trust in yourself that you are capable of achieving the work you need to achieve and that you are definitely going to do it. And this truth is built on nothing more than a reflection on your own consistent and predictable output, that in turn nets you constant and predictable results. The way we apply our energy informs the habits we build. The habits we build inform the person we become. The person we become not only informs the results we get but the trust in what we can continue to get.
When you’ve put in consistent effort towards your work, you’ve developed the trust that means you’ll never stop.
*A sales pipeline is a rolling forecast of prospective deals that are currently in process and may or may not occur.
*If they’re right actions, that is. For instance, writing a lot is a more efficient at making you a better writer than reading a lot is.
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