Effort is the enemy – why hard work is overrated

Success and effort, we’re assured, are inextricably linked. There is no success without effort, and (short of some cruel misfortune) there is no effort without success.

You want something? Then put your back into it. Starting a business? Be prepared to work 20 hour days. This narrative – that sweat is the currency that buys success – is woven deep into our cultural psyche. It’s a narrative that glorifies hard work, and makes it something to be proud of, even to boast about.

But that’s not quite how things work.

Far from being a virtue, in many cases hard effort is a consequence of a flawed approach – and furthermore can be extremely damaging and corrosive to you and the world around you if persisted with.

The truth is that lots successes, in every walk of life, actually emerge quite effortlessly. Yes, they might take time and energy, but that time and energy will not be interpreted as a struggle, or as anything like hard work. It will instead feel like a seemingly effortless flow, where everything clicks together just right, and the outcome emerges almost of its own accord; like it was meant to be.

Such easy successes aren’t fluke, or even the exceptions – they are instead the result of good strategy: where the actions taken are perfectly fitted to the system in which they occur. Like a round peg (your action) fitting into a round hole (the context).

For a very basic example, if you want to get in shape, and find a method which matches your tastes and resources, then the process will be pretty easy – even enjoyable.  But if you force yourself to do something you can’t stand, the likelihood of success drops to near zero, and the feeling of effort increases dramatically.

When graft emerges like this, it is a signal that there is a mismatch between your actions and the situation – a square peg into a round hole as it were. In such scenarios brute force is required to make something succeed in spite of its bad strategy – and therefore such effort shouldn’t be celebrated; it should be taken as a warning that you are on the wrong path.

Thinking about this in the context of business, if things feel difficult, that shouldn’t be taken as an invitation to “work harder” – quite the opposite.  It should instead be taken as a sign that the market doesn’t value what you are offering. Typically this will mean one of two things:

1- Your idea is a bad idea, meaning that the market doesn’t want it, and therefore won’t pick it up and elevate it

2- Your idea is a duplicate of existing ideas, providing a value that already exists in the market, which is simply another way of failing to add value

In other words, you business has a poor market fit.

Now businesses like this aren’t necessarily doomed to failure, but they will have to apply brute force to succeed. For example I remember earlier in my career working with a large corporate who wanted to enter a particular category which was in growth. To do this, rather than thinking of a way they could add new value to the market and diversify it, they produced a product which was completely generic and provided no incremental value whatsoever. Would a product like this be able to succeed effortlessly? Certainly not – and that’s why they had to spend more than £100 million on marketing and retailer incentives in order to force the product into the market. Money, naturally, is a unit of effort – so this was their equivalent of an entrepreneur working day and night to force a bad idea.

Needless to say if their idea had been well fitted to the market – a round peg in a round hole – far less effort would have been required.

For an example of that, look at the emergence of Halo Top, the low calorie ice cream brand.  After a few years of largely unsuccessful experimentation, they eventually managed to get things correctly aligned resulting in a sudden unexpected 2,500% growth in 2016 – on the path to becoming the number 1 ice cream in the USA. As their founder observed, “From there it seemed to take on a life of its own. It grew quickly and it very much shocked us”.

“Shocking ease” like this is the consequence of strategic wisdom and alignment of action with situation – of “system fit”.

Ease is not the only reason to avoid effort. It’s also important to do so because effort can be extremely destructive – to you and to other parties.

The only way you can force something to succeed which can’t succeed of its own accord is, in essence, to “break the system”; making it in some way less healthy in order to accommodate your bad idea.

In the case of the nameless corporation I mentioned earlier, their success (if you can call it that), came at the expense of that market. They lowered the quality and variety of options on offer to consumers and encouraged the pathologies of paying for listings and permanent deep-discounting. This kind of “crony corporatism” is bad for brands and customers, as well as being extremely costly for the guilty party – all of which could have been avoided if a good strategy had been in place.

Ultimately your job is to be like water, effortlessly flowing down a mountainside by following the contours of the land – rather than bulldozing it in order to plot a path of your choosing.

If you’re finding it tough, finding it a struggle, don’t interpret it as some noble rite of passage, the hero’s journey, or – worst of all – “hustle”. Instead see it for what it is: a sign. A sign you are following the wrong path.

Because for the most part, when something’s right it just comes. Maybe not quickly, but certainly pleasantly and fluidly – and in a manner that will enrich both you and those your idea touches.

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