If you work hard, you can achieve anything.

These fine words are burned into our collective conscience. It’s part of our DNA, the American dream. We need to believe that hard work can triumph over circumstance.

Look no further than our ready and rapid acceptance of the 10,000-hour rule, which many (incorrectly) interpreted to mean that if we only put in so much work, we too can reach mastery. No longer, did that inconvenient item called talent bind us; we could overcome.

And so the idea has spread. Work hard and you too can make it.

But let’s flip the message on its head. What happens if we work hard and we don’t achieve our goal? The implication then is that we didn’t work hard enough. If the reason we succeed is because of the work we put in, then the opposite must be true. If we failed, it’s because of us, our work ethic wasn’t up to par. Upon failure, we go back to the drawing board, determined to double down our effort. Wrapped in the security blanket of hard work, we press on, comfortable in knowing that with our renewed sense of work, we too, will overcome.

When we are stuck in the mindset of hard work overcoming all, the answer is always in the work.

While the sentiment is a noble one if we accept it for all of our endeavors a strange condition occurs. We become slaves to the work, putting it before all else.

How many of you have experienced anxiety from completing 76 miles for the week instead of the prescribed 80? Or had a momentary freak out because your coach changed the Wednesday pre-weekend race workout from a hard effort to an easy run with some strides. Alarm bells go off in your head, worried that you are going to “lose fitness” over the impossibly short time frame of a few days. Or perhaps you have a rough week of training and believe that you have to “make up” for it, by doubling down the following week.

This is what I call the Insecurity of Hard work. The need to do something, anything, to feel like we are making forward progress. It’s what happens when driven individuals lose sight of the big picture and believe that hard work is the only ingredient to success. Forgetting the bigger picture of what goes into performance.

This isn’t to say that working hard should not be celebrated, it should. As Percy Cerutty stated, “It is the overcoming, not the success of, that is important.” The magic is in the work; it has to be done. However, the work can also become a security blanket, a fall back that prevents us from actually figuring out what is wrong or why we are not achieving our goals. In many ways, it can prevent driven individuals from reaching their goals. When the marker of work, be it miles run or pages written, gets mistaken as the barometer of success.

For “pushers,” the challenge is not in working, but in NOT working. In having the confidence in our abilities to understand what we need to do, and to do just that. Or as Fred Wilt told his marathon protégé (and future World Record Holder) Buddy Edelen before a race:

“I can’t say this 40-minute  jog will hurt you. I can say it does not help two days before a race. This is a manifestation of uncertainty. There is time to train and a time to rest- not halfway rest. This is a bitter lesson you have not accepted.”

For more on the psychology of performance, check out my NEW book Peak Performance. Available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold! If you are interested in the TRAINING, check out my book The Science of Running.

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    1. Michael I on October 16, 2017 at 8:46 am

      A great post once again (but also a very important one)..

      I do think that many of us have experienced to fall into the insecurity trap of hard work. Of course, an athlete in a given sport must, as a rule, have a certain amount of talent to at least become a part of his/her sport. However, my point of view is that it is the coach’s responsibility to guide and in some way also educate the athlete to understand the importance of the underlying factors that will lead to great achievements in the long run. Of course… it’s not that easy :). The understanding of the big picture and the continuation of the needed patience just don’t come right through the door, but it’s the part of the job…

    2. Steve Cheek on October 16, 2017 at 9:21 am

      I think this is an important article! As a master’s runner, I continually worry about taking time off from training because fitness is harder to achieve now than it was in the past, and I don’t want to anything that I have worked hard to get! However, not taking proper rest means that I worked hard and then had a disappointing result when I did a time trial, or worse…an injury! Thanks for recommending the Percy Cerutty book; I bought it and will be excited to read it.

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