Getting Stuff Done: The Right Attitude

So much advice was given about working smart rather than working hard. It may sometimes create a picture of a vast number of brainless robots working sixty hours a week instead of reading a book to get all the wisdom and somehow create a bigger success by working on the right stuff, the right way in half the time and have twice the success. It sounds great, sadly it very rarely ends up that way.

Working smart helps

I’m not saying one should be a mindless drone and just work hard in hopes of succeeding. You need to ensure you work on the right things and you need to constantly look out for ways how to work smarter and how to be more efficient in the way you get stuff done. You might be hardest working person on Earth but if you don’t focus on the right things you will get nowhere. What are the “right things”? These are tasks that not only get the actual job done but they also have aspect of giving you a chance to improve or learn new skills. In this context even making a presentation about your product for the twentieth time may give you something new if you constantly focus on improving the week points from previous attempt.

Over my career I interviewed hundreds of people for various technical and management positions. Based on what I have seen my conclusion is that “years of practice” just don’t matter at all. I could talk to a software developer with 10 years of experience who turned out to be no better than someone with 1 year of experience. How is that possible? This person was working on one product for last 10 years. He was doing a good job, but there was zero opportunity to learn and grow. So in fact he had 1 year of learning experience and 9 years of limbo. Keep in mind, he could be doing magnificent job, he could be key to the success of his project, he could be working really hard, but it doesn’t change the fact he was working on the wrong stuff.

I like the term “deliberate practice” coined by a psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. He proposes that the true genius is in working hard on the right stuff. If you want to be a great tennis player, great pianist, great developer or a great manager you won’t get there just by constantly practicing things you already know. You get there by deliberately practicing the things you need to improve. Eventually, you will build a broad portfolio of skills that will help you succeed.

Working hard is a must

No pain, no gain. Working smart is a good start but you cannot take shortcuts. You have to put in the hours of hard work if you want to succeed. I know many really smart people who don’t have particularly big success in life simple because they just rely on their talent too much and got lazy. They have a huge potential if only they would decide to give it a try. At the same time I know many people who by working on the right things and working really hard stepped out of their own shadow and are the top performers in their teams and have a great success in life.

In my former life I had a guy on the team who started as a junior developer with less than impressive educational background. But his relentless focus on learning and improving combined with incredible persistence and willingness to work really hard made him in couple of years a true expert in his field. He would take no shortcuts, which annoyed me when we were under tight deadline. To give you a nice example, most of the modern software development tools provide a means to build the skeleton of the software application for you. They will create all the required files, link all the libraries, create the template for your classes, and do bunch of other “only developers would understand” stuff. This guy would ignore all this and wrote everything from scratch. Instead of having the basis of the application done automatically in 1 minute he would spend a whole day writing it manually. However, at the end of the day he would know exactly why each specific thing was there, what happened if it wasn’t, and how to optimize it. He truly understood.

Doing what you love is the win

The key to success at the end lies with working hard and working smart on the things you love. That is what will make all the effort worthwhile. That is what will make the deliberate practice easier and that is what will help you succeed. I started my career as a developer. I believe I was doing a decent job, I would spend nights and weekends getting better and better at the craft. When being asked to do project management, to lead people and move to the management role I took the opportunity just to test the waters. I wanted to try and see if that is something that would be fulfilling. I didn’t take it for money, I didn’t take it for fancy titles.

To my surprise I found out that being a professional manager is actually even more fulfilling than writing code. Suddenly I found that working with people, helping them to grow and achieve their goals brings me lots of personal satisfaction. I stopped coding over the weekend and I started to read books and articles about managing people and leadership. I would spend time coming up with initiatives to engage my team and test different approaches how to work with people. I would get regular feedback to identify what I need to improve as a leader and then deliberately put myself into a position to practice that skills.

Chicken and egg is the problem

Here is the interesting thing. Even though I claim that you should do what you love and follow your passion, chances are that you first need to get good at something to turn it truly into passion. The better you get at something, the more you enjoy it. The more you enjoy it, the more you are willing to invest into it to get even better. So the true trick is to stick with something that looks like you could love it, focus on deliberate practice, work hard and eventually you will be good at it and you will love it.

I’m not a particularly sporty person but some of my friends are and this is what they said. Let’s say you decide to do something for your health and start jogging, or maybe you decide it would be really cool to run a marathon. The first time you go for a run you are excited about it but you get tired really quickly and come back home destroyed and demotivated as you just realized how bad you really are. If you just keep pushing and run every day after couple of weeks and months you will get into a great shape, you will be able to run faster and longer distances and you will just love it.

What is your philosophy? Do you work hard or do you work smart? Or both? What is your recipe for success?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

2 thoughts on “Getting Stuff Done: The Right Attitude

  1. Pingback: The Puzzle Of Performance Goals | The Geeky Leader

  2. Pingback: Holiday Special – The Best Posts Of 2014 | The Geeky Leader

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