The Failure of Hard Work + Hope

September 8, 2022

Mathias Gran

The small Midwestern town where I grew up had a public golf course that offered a “Junior Membership” for about $100 per year. That’s right – unlimited golf for $100. I would take any chance to get out there and play. My clubs and shoes were padlocked in a musty basement locker. I even had some cash stashed away for a candy bar or beverage in case I wasn’t properly fueled.

I played a LOT of golf. One year, when I was still a young golfer, our high school team won the state championship. I could not wait until I could play for that coach. I played a LOT of golf. And I counted down the years until I was eligible for the varsity team. And I played a LOT of golf.

Eventually, my dream came true. I earned one of six spots on the varsity team. I was so proud to carry my school colors on my golf bag and travel all over the state doing what I loved.

In each match, the top 4 scores from each team were added up to decide the winner. My score never counted. Not once! For all the time I spent on that course, the thousands of swings, the countless zig-zagging steps through fabricated nature in all weather conditions, it never counted.

Here’s the problem: I was working really hard and hoping to be great.

The state championship coach had retired. I didn’t really have someone helping me see the slight tendencies that were resulting in 75% chances of me slicing it out of bounds off the first tee. I was completely blind to the things that were holding me back, yet also deeply disappointed in the mismatch between my perceptions of my abilities (“Maybe I’ll get a scholarship!”) and my demonstrated abilities (“Bogey golf is a fine showing.”).

Wouldn’t it feel empowering to have someone you trust deliver very specific and thoughtful observations to help you improve in an area you deeply care about? Don’t you WANT to be excellent at the things that matter to you? Do you think that working hard is really all it takes?

Daniel Ricciardo is a champion Formula 1 driver. In an interview on Armchair Experts, Daniel was asked how ritual or superstition fits into his racing life. He said, “I’m pretty anti-superstitions, because… I feel you’re putting doubt in your head… and it’s an excuse for something to go wrong. It’s easy to have a lack of accountability if you have a superstition…. I might brush off the reality of why I had a bad race.”

He is not hoping for the best. He trusts his team, his car, the track. By acknowledging that his decisions and actions influence the outcome, Daniel welcomes specific feedback about things he can do differently to improve his performance, and therefore the performance and satisfaction of his team.

If I had that mindset and information on the golf course, I would have been working hard on every swing to keep my left hip from sliding forward, which opened up my clubface 75% of the time on the first tee. If I had that mindset, I would practice the movement of my wrists toward contact hundreds of times, increasing the chance of a square contact with the ball. And, I would have someone I trust watching me do it to make sure I was doing it well, not just “working hard.”

Athletes spend hours “watching tape” – watching video footage of themselves and their opponents, looking for tendencies to either adjust or leverage. SpaceX constantly monitors, reviews, and reflects on “telemetry” when developing or launching spacecraft to build a better machine.

Who’s recording your meeting? How are you tracking your telemetry as a leader?

Let’s not be too naive. It is incredibly seductive to just “work hard.” It feels productive. It feels like you are doing something and it might seem rational to expect results to follow. But that rationalization is the “hoping to be great” part of the equation.

Stop hoping. Start redirecting that hard work into the uncomfortable, ego-bruising territory of accepting feedback, reflecting on your performance, and getting high-quality reps with someone you trust. Otherwise, you’re just working too damn hard.