Hard Won Success

‘We shy away from hard work because inherent in hard work is risk. Hard work is hard because you might fail.’

Seth Godin


Success feels sweet. But easy success is hollow. Feeling hopeful, not helpless comes from knowing that we have done difficult things in the past and managed to do them well. And we surprised ourselves by achieving things we didn’t think we could do. So we need to do two things to inoculate ourselves against feeling hopeless when faced with something which feels daunting. We need to trawl though our memories for a few times when we thought something was beyond us and rerun it in our minds. It could be related to our work, to our relationships or to something we do in our own time. Something which seemed really tricky, or uncomfortable, but we went ahead and did it anyway. And surprised ourselves with the fact that it went well. This is securing our resilience and setting us up to be hopeful, not helpless for the next big thing.


It could be that we committed to doing a charity walk or run. Further than we have ever done before, and we just weren’t sure how it would go. But we took one step, and then another, and then another. And we did it. Often, with other people for company, doing the same thing. Think back to the feeling of what it was like to arrive at the finishing post. The feeling of exhausted pleasure at a hard job, well done. If we can do something like that in the past, we can translate those feelings of anticipation missed with fear before we started, to the pleasure of finishing. And we can apply that to the job we are facing now. That is how we grow, by extending the muscles and doing things which we haven’t done before, or gone further than before. And it’s painful en route, but the sweet sensation of achievement more than compensates.


For many people, the fear of public speaking is on a par with the stress and sorrow of bereavement and divorce. They would rather do anything than stand up and talk to other people. But those who have felt the fear and done it anyway, talk about the tremendous rush of adrenaline and pleasure which comes from going through the pain threshold, actually doing it and finding that they survived. So, it is hard won success. But it feels sweet. One of the things to remember about speaking to an audience, is that we talk to people all the time. And most of us are happy to talk to one or two people. Well, a large audience is made up of lots of individuals, so we just need to imagine that we are talking to one or two of them. Another thing to hold in mind, is that most people are not out to catch us out, they are interested in what we have to say, and we don’t need to be word perfect. In fact perfection puts people off.


Or we might have done something difficult in our spare time. Learnt to ride a motorbike, grow vegetables, cook a demanding dish, complete a difficult crossword or a challenging puzzle. These are all examples of success which did not just land in our laps. We had to work at them, put some effort and sweat in and be prepared for them not to work. In other words, effort and being prepared to take a risk. It is in these examples that we learn that success can only be a hard one. That things which come too easily are not stretching and strengthening the muscles and sinews of resilience.


How does this translate into the workplace? Well, we shouldn’t make things too easy for ourselves, our colleagues or the children we are teaching. Otherwise they won’t savour the sweetness of success. It is in the struggle and the uncertainty that the real work goes on. And if things don’t work out as we hoped, then we learn from them. It is better to have tried and not got something than not to have tried at all. Being prepared to fail is one of the conditions for savouring success. Because if everything were certain, we would have no satisfaction when things go well. However, in the workplace and in classrooms, this will only work if we have created the conditions where it is ok to make mistakes, to fail and to talk about them. No-one wants to be made to feel like a muppet. And neither we, nor our colleagues or children will be prepared to put themselves into a space where they might fail, if they think that they are going to be humiliated. So, we need to work on the conditions for high challenge, low threat, first.


What are these conditions? Well, first they are talked about. This is an important aspect for setting up the space for all of us to succeed. The atmosphere doesn’t happen by chance, it is created by the way we do things, talk about success and failure, acknowledge that mistakes are good because they are routes into new learning. We have to make them concrete, by talking about them. People take their cue from others. If other people are prepared to say that it is alright to fail, and exemplify this by talking about their own mistakes, then others will realise that it is acceptable to talk about their mistakes as well. This doesn’t happen by chance and it has to come from leaders first.


Then, we talk about the things which we didn’t think would go well, when we thought we might fail but which turned out just fine. Here, we are not boasting or blowing our own trumpets, but are talking about the twin sides of effort and hard work, which sometimes comes off and sometimes doesn’t. And that’s fine, because most of what we do is not brain surgery. And nobody is going to die.


From ‘Hopeful Schools: building humane communities’


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