Working Hard And Doing What Works — Burning Energy Or Refining Fuel
US Olympian Tyler Clary called out Michael Phelps on his work ethic yesterday.
“The fact that he doesn’t have to work as hard to get that done, it’s a real shame,” Clary said “I think it’s too bad. You see that all too often, where you get athletes that are incredibly talented that really take it for granted. I think the things he could have done if he’d worked as hard as I do would have been even more incredible than what he has pulled off.
“You see it a lot in sports and it’s always the same story. Reporters come to them and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, I work so hard, I have all these goals … blah blah blah.’ You go and actually watch any of those people for just one workout, without them knowing you’re there. All it takes is one workout, and you can easily see it’s a whole difference as far as work ethic goes.”
Nothing in my work creates a more heated argument than this idea of hard work. When swimmer Jeff Rouse and I gave talks about Easy Speed, we often were chided for saying it was soft and gave people permission to slack off which, of course, we were not doing.
Clary might be right. If he believes this, if it affects him in some way as part of the US team, then he should say these things to Phelps in private. Hold him accountable in person, but don’t judge him publicly. Working hard is simply that– working hard. I know this from experience. I worked my ass off as a basketball player and while it got me so far, I never learned how to do what works. I never valued discovering what worked as much as or over working hard. And at times, I found myself jealous of teammates and opponents who I thought didn’t care because they didn’t work as hard as I did. Looking back, I would’ve been better served by asking myself if I was doing what worked.
So for 25 years, I’ve studied people who got where they wanted to be, world class performers who won and had lives they actually enjoyed, that transcended their success. What did I learn?
That hard work is a given. It is the ticket in. But it’s not nearly enough. Malcom Gladwell made the 10,000 hour principle famous and his name is widely used as the expert on the subject. What people miss about the study, however, is that it is not simply 10,000 hours of working hard. Lots of people put in 10,000 hours over their lifetimes, work hard at something, and never really get where they were trying to get. The original study talks about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice– 10,000 hours of discovering and doing what works.
So would it be reasonable to examine Clary through a different lens? Is he “working hard” doing what works or just working hard? Not for me to say. Don’t know the guy. Don’t know enough about swimming. There are a lot of people out there who work their asses off on the wrong thing and then wonder why they’re not getting where they want to go. They’ve bought into working hard not because it works, but because they can say they’ve done everything they were supposed to. They tried and when they failed they wanted someone to tell them that it was okay because they tried.
Work takes energy. Hard work takes more energy. It can push our limits and test our resolve, but in the end, there is no evidence that burning more energy in and of itself makes us better or gets us closer to where you want to be. There is no Olympics for seeing who burns the most energy or who can go the farthest and furthest on an empty tank. Sometimes you’ll need to be ready to push yourself, to know what it feels like, and not be afraid of it when you run out of energy, but need to and want to keep going. But I’ll bet on the guy who who doesn’t measure himself merely by how much effort and energy he used, but by how well he performed as well.
The difference I saw in the people I interviewed who got where they were trying to get and the people who didn’t was that the successful people refined raw human energy into fuel that drove them forward.
Think of it as refining raw crude oil into the cleanest, most effective gasoline that drives your car. Hard work can be done with unrefined human crude, but at what cost, and there’s no evidence that it gets you there. But to drive your car you need the crude oil to be extracted AND refined into gasoline. Human energy is refined by knowledge, by understanding, and by meaning. Fuel is energy that knows what to do, how to do it, and why it is worth doing. Grinding out laps in the pool, doing the most and the hardest sets, running the hardest and farthest, simply uses up energy and 10,000 hours can take a lot of energy. Knowing why you’re doing it or how to do it well allows you to burn energy effectively and makes it easier to go faster and farther, but it takes reflection and time to learn those things.
Don’t get me wrong and make the false argument people often use against me. I am not saying hard work doesn’t matter. I’m saying it is not enough and not even worth a discussion beyond a certain point. If you want to get better faster, if you want to get faster better, do the work, but take the time to figure out what works.
I don’t doubt that Phelps’ motivation is waning. But what if it turns out that he is not merely relying on natural talent, but that the work he’s done, the things he learned when he was more motivated help him go the same speed or faster with less tension or effort than Clary understands? Isn’t that the point? The assumption that more effort translates into faster and better simply is not supported by reality. If that were true, I’d be headed to the Hall of Fame along with my former teammate Ralph Sampson. Maybe Phelps’ fuel is less refined because this is his fourth Olympics and he wonders what else is out there for him, what’s left for him to really accomplish. Maybe the meaning has faded. Maybe he’s avoiding the criticism he’d face for retiring without trying. Let’s see how Clary feels in his fourth Olympics.
A former Olympian I was talking to recently said it best. It’s not simply testing your limits, but finding the limits of what you’re doing, and in the case of water, finding and understanding the limitations of water. At some point, there is a diminishing return regarding effort, a point where trying even a little harder creates tension that actually slows you down and wears you out.
The best find and test not only their limits, but also the limitations of the things they are attempting. They learn to work within whatever it is they are doing and when that happens, they might even find Easy Speed. Flying without trying, the point where energy has been turned into fuel, where tension fades, and real work is done.
Why do I believe that? Because that is what I heard in my interviews– effective effort that translates directly into high level performance. That is what I’ve taught successfully to people who worked hard, but found themselves stuck and beginning to burn out and needed a better way of doing their work.
“Water doesn’t care. It is unforgiving and relentless,” the Olympian said. “It doesn’t care how hard you work. It demands that you discover and do what works.”
Working hard will certainly show you your limits, but it might not reveal the limitations, the demands of the thing you’re trying to do or the places you’re trying to go. Working hard is a given, but not enough.