Constantly, wildly successful people are often asked the secret to achieving great things in life. Invariably, at the top of their lists is simply “work hard.” It is difficult to argue with that succinct statement. Most people at the top of the heap have worked hard, sometimes very hard. When I hear that statement, my knee jerk response is to agree and go to the famous quotation of my hero, Teddy Roosevelt, who said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty...I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
My man, TR, was an advocate of what was known as “the strenuous life.” It makes sense that he thought everything was a struggle when, as a sickly child, he had to overcome some difficult illnesses and succeeded. As the years have passed and with much observation, I have done some revisionist thinking on hard work and see it as important but do not see it as the guaranteed pathway to success.
Over the years, I have seen people who put more quality hours in than anyone around them and they remained stuck in their dead end jobs. Some were too low key to rise, others were content, but many bristled as newcomers came in above them. I vividly remember telling a client contact that he was not promoted as he always made his boss look good.
Three years ago, I flew back back to Rhode Island to visit a sibling and see another who was visiting. It was a nice time. At the airport, a voice called out, “Don, it can’t be.” The speaker was someone whom I had not seen in perhaps 30 years. We both had a good hour before our flights were called so we had a great talk. My old acquaintance was known for not tolerating fools well so it was clear why we did not work together for very long. He worked in a different discipline than I but we crossed paths a lot and I respected him greatly. He bounced from job to job compared to many of us but always seemed to land on his feet better than anyone whom I have ever met. I asked him how he did it and he gave me some real gems in terms of career advice for young people (he reads MR and corresponds with me regularly these days).
Here is some of his advice:
“Have your OWN vision. Don’t waste you hard work on someone else’s. Find your path and stick to it.”
“Run your own career; don’t let anyone run it for you.”
“Have your psychological bags packed at all times. Be ready to leave within an hour. You may have to!”
“Forget who signs your paycheck. Work hard but never forget that you really work for yourself.”
“Andy Grove of Intel had it right when he said that, ‘only the paranoid survive’. Trust yourself.”
He once asked me some 20 years ago in a phone call whether I had prepared business cards listing myself as a consultant. When I said no, he burst in to a diabolical laugh and said, “I have one. Get one, Don.”
My friend’s comments seem to betray both the concept of hard work and loyalty to his employers. Actually, he worked hard and still does. And, while he has had more jobs than most of us, I have never heard him utter a derogatory remark about any of his bosses or past companies. His point is that you are the CEO of your own life regardless of your current title. So, he is a Horatio Alger type telling you to strive and succeed but, at the same time, have no illusions. Do not drink the corporate Kool-Aid and never get comfortable.
In a world of downsizing and constant mergers, maybe my aging friend is on to something. He has never played politics and stubbornly remains his own man. And, to this day, he works hard. His only regret was that the job shifts and multi-state moves were difficult for his wife who also had to switch jobs and his children who had to adapt to a new school on several ocassions.
If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at email@example.com