Hard Work + ________. (or: The Secret To Doing Better Work.)

About two weeks ago, I started swimming again. There’s a guy who’s been at the pool each time I’ve been there. He must weigh close to 300 lbs.

But every time I’ve looked up, he’s been lapping me. He’d be a lane or two over, and I’d start racing him, trying to beat him to the wall.

I’d get to the wall, and he’d already be on his next lap.

And this started to piss me off. I’m 6’5”, and I’m as skinny as I’ve been since college, and I’ve got big hands and big feet, and I’m just not fast in the water. I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ve got Michael Phelps’ size but absolutely none of his talent.

But to find out that I was way slower than this fat guy? It made me mad. What was his secret?

Yesterday, all the lanes were taken, so I shared with the fat guy. I hopped in the pool and looked down at his feet.

He was wearing flippers.

The secret was out. He was swimming with an outboard motor attached to his feet.

But it also reminded me of a common misconception. Many people will tell you that hard work alone guarantees success. It does not.

Lots of people work hard, but much of it is not the work that people are most passionate about. I know people who work long days, but their jobs are filled with conference calls and TPS reports, and they burn out. Hard work is a prerequisite for success, but it’s not the only prerequisite.

Hard work has to be paired with the right things — like passion, ideas, good people, the right tools and skills — in order to actually take you somewhere.

Here I am in the pool, kicking like crazy, and the 300-pounder in lane 2 has fins attached to his feet. Both of us are putting in the work in the pool, but when it comes to pure productivity, he’s far exceeding my output. With those flippers on, he can probably swim twice the distance I can flipper-less in an hour. He told me that he’s trying to swim a thousand meters each day. With the flippers, he can do that in about 45 minutes in the pool.

That’s fantastic. He’s pairing the right work with the right tools to meet his goals. He’s focused in how he goes about the work.

Then there’s me, flailing about in the water. Talking to the guy with the flippers yesterday, I realized that I hadn’t set any goals for the pool. I was showing up to do work, but I wasn’t sure what work I wanted to do.

As a result, I was doing empty work. I was sweating my ass off without any real purpose in mind.

I owe the guy with the flippers a thank you the next time I see him. Because the next time I go to the pool, it’ll be with specific goals in mind. I’ll be swimming with purpose.

When you’re trying to do good work, that can make all the difference.

Thanks to @hadleyvictoria for the excellent picture of flippers.

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