Persistence and Hard Work Are Necessary But Not Sufficient For Success
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
In recent years, Timothy Ferriss gained notoriety with his book The 4-Hour Workweek and its sequels. Nothing could be more appealing than success without effort. Like almost anyone seeking success, I’ve read the book. I’ve selectively applied some of its principles.
Ferriss and I can probably agree that I haven’t fully tested his ideas and so can’t fairly conclude that they are more myth than fact, so I will agree only to unfairly conclude that success—even in 2019 with help from virtual assistants in Bangladesh and/or the Philippines—requires hard work.
While it may not be fair to say that persistence and hard work are synonymous, I would argue that you cannot conclude you have been persistent without having worked hard and vice versa. Hence, I find wisdom in the following few sentences attributed to Calvin Coolidge.
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
– Calvin Coolidge
Still, hard work and persistence—even when piled high with determination—are not omnipotent. Yes, I’m saying Coolidge lied.
It is has been my extraordinary privilege to live and travel regularly in the developing world. I’ve seen hard work. Let me describe some of it.
A woman who herself lacks enough food to eat and cannot adequately feed her family in Honduras, rises at 3:00 AM to begin making tortillas that she and her children will attempt to sell throughout the day. Her day lasts about 16 hours. This is her task seven days each week. She has limited access to healthcare, education for herself or her children, and has no effective means of saving. Just to survive, she works harder than I ever have or ever will.
In Uganda, I visited women whose lives had been completely changed by the opportunity to extract the absorbent fiber from banana trees for use in feminine hygiene products. The brutal process requires beating the flesh of the tree with a club to extract the fiber. Once extracted, the women hang it to dry. Then they bag it for Bana, the company that makes the pads. They told me how happy they were to do this difficult work because it pays so much better—about $60 per month—than their other options. Their other options include making baskets, which take untold hours to make and then sit outside their homes awaiting a buyer who might pay $1 for it.
Almost no one who reads this article does the sort of hard, physical labor that billions of people do every day to survive. Most of those billions are unlikely to ever own a car; a 125 cc motorcycle is the pinnacle of conceivable success for many.
Meeting people in such circumstances is a profound experience. They are often happy. One lesson that affluent visitors often take from such a visit is that if the residents can be happy with so little, the visitors who have so much should be happier with it and more grateful for it.
That’s an easy lesson. Harder to see are the faces of all the people who didn’t survive at all. The ones who died in childhood or childbirth. Missing, too, are the faces of migrant laborers who have traveled at the peril of their lives to send a little money back home to a family they may not see again for years. On my most recent visit, I saw a man die in an accident that could only have happened in a low-income country.
Many of those in the developing world whose lives are not defined by hard work want that more than anything. They dream of an opportunity to work and provide adequately for their families, to send their children to school and make better lives for them in the future.
For me, the hard-working people I’ve met in low-income countries are a reminder that no matter how hard I think I work, I really don’t have a clue what hard work is. I love what I do. I would do it for free. I would do it for fun.
Success in life does require hard work. The sort of success we generally aspire to in the prosperous, industrialized countries of the world, also requires or depends upon opportunities:
Health: Fewer than 20% of people of employment age Americans who have a disability are employed.
Education: Americans with a college degree on average earn more than twice what high school dropouts earn; those with professional degrees on average earn 60% more than that. Coolidge seriously got this wrong; the world is not full of “educated derelicts.”
Economic Opportunity: Without the capital to form a scalable enterprise, access to a market where your product could be sold or advisors to help you grow your business, success is much more difficult.
Absence of Bias: Women and minorities in the United States receive a tiny fraction of the startup capital made available to white men.
LAKE MEAD NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, AZ – MAY 12: Hoover Dam (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) GETTY IMAGES
All this and a little luck is required—in addition to hard work—for you to be successful. Persistence is powerful. Water wears away stone, but the Hoover Dam is ample evidence that persistence is not omnipotent.
It is or at least should be the mission of the impact investing and social entrepreneur community to level the playing field to give everyone the same opportunity to work hard and succeed.
By the way, if you’re working four hours every week and living on the beach, please send me a postcard.
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