“Research suggests that once a musician had enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.” – Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
Malcom Gladwell’s quote above aptly links meaningful levels of achievement with substantial hard work. There simply is no other formula for achievement, nor shortcuts to differentiation. No individual who has made a mark on our history or found themselves on the front cover of some magazine has fallen backward into that position of renown or influence. Albeit an icon for many, especially us runners, Forrest Gump, falling backward into renown works in Hollywood and fairy tales, but it only works there. Hard work, razor-honed talent, and an incessant commitment to work is the key. Like it or not, prodigious work is the compulsory initial step.
Several years ago, I sat down over coffee with a man I respect. In this conversation over exorbitantly priced coffee and desserts I cannot pronounce, he stated, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” I care about this man, so I smiled and acknowledged his statement. The thought that came to my mind was, “Hey Forrest, life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get, but rest assured, what drops in your in your lap will almost always require a napkin.” But judiciousness and civilized deportment won the day, and I took another sip of my overpriced coffee and bit my tongue in the name of brotherhood.
Let’s all get honest and make a collective admission here. Mere mortals and yours truly, would often rather sit down on a warm Sunday afternoon and take in the sun, catch a game, or even take a nap. In fact, I have personally learned to use sophisticated words and philosophies to excuse and justify my enjoyment of the “good life.” Nevertheless, you allow me to pursue a dream or a goal and this Sunday afternoon sloth transforms into a relentless, workaholic, crazy man. Is it the hard work that creates this internal burn and passion? Not a chance. But the vision unmistakably does. Steve Jobs, Founder, CEO, and the previous generation’s greatest visionary nailed it when he said, “If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed. The vision pulls you.” A simple but irrefutable truth that if grasped, will utterly transform how you approach life.
We all intuitively understand that there is nothing more dangerous or intimidating than backing someone into a corner or pushing them to “a point of no return.” Energies, focus, and commitment previously laid dormant, ignites into an unbendable resolve that is simply unstoppable. Take for example, Julius Caesar. In 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, marched into Italy and violated nearly every code that had been established by the Roman Senate to protect their authority and rule. Army’s had to be disbanded before entering Italy. For whatever reason, Julius Caesar decided to cross the invisible line of treason and its grounds for execution and standing on the edge of the Rubicon, stated, “Alea iacta est”, “the die is cast.” At the edge of the Rubicon, the point of return was cast, and both figuratively and literally, he prepared his men for a battle they simply could not lose. Why? Because he had to win, there was simply no alternative. Had he marched his men into Italy and been deterred, he would have been executed or at best, arrested. The Rubicon was Julius Caesar’s point of no return, and he played it masterfully.
In 1519, Hernando Cortes, packed up his gear, boarded a ship and led an armada to the shores of Veracruz, Mexico with the intent of expanding the Spanish colonization of the Americas. The environment was harsh, riddled with disease, and to make matters worse, a committed native opposition who had found themselves backed into a corner, committed to holding their homeland. Suffice it to say, the prospects for Cortes did not look bright. Morale among his men was low and more than a handful were intent on leaving the island. Knowing the prospects of success, Cortes did what any normal person would do [insert sarcasm here], he destroyed the ships and in doing so, eliminated all hope of escape or returning home. Confronting the overwhelming odds and the psyche of his men, he did the only logical thing possible; he eliminated any alternative to victory. Retreat and a safe passage home were no longer viable. In ordering the destruction of the ships, he backed his men into a corner, and they somehow found the resolve and focus to finish the mission.
The simple message of these tales of conquest is simple. Our beliefs regarding what is possible, dictate what is possible. Nothing more, nothing less. Your own visions or the visions of the organization must be more than compelling enough, as well as its consequences for failure, to push people (or yourself) into the corner and create an outcome. But for most mere mortals, the fact of the matter is that we are not lazy, inept, or incompetent…. We are simply too fearful of failure and lack the courage to “go all in.” It is called timidity, it’s the ride of the coward, and that my friends, is why you are not living the life or leading the organization you know is possible. Impact and influence first begin with the ability to simply say, “Alea iacta es” – The die is cast, now go burn the ships. Until that call is made, cash it in, leave the table and pass on the torch to someone who is.