Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

We don’t want to believe the key to success is to work more.That’s why we succumb to such easier prescriptions as, "Believe in yourself," "brand yourself," "and dream it and you can do it."

But fact is, unless you’re unusually intelligent and ideally winsome, your chances of success and life satisfaction are far greater if you embrace this less comfortable truth: Success and contentment usually require focused and sustained skill development: spending lots of time getting good at something.

That doesn’t necessarily mean getting a certificate, let alone a degree, although in many professions, the government requires that. But if you have a choice, there often are more effective and certainly more time-effective ways to get good.

For example, if you want to be a fine coach, you might read key articles and try them out in practice, if only with your friend, and asking for honest feedback. You might have masters watch you in action and give you suggestions. And repeat, and repeat, and repeat until you're confident you’re darn good. Yes, work more.

If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, sure, there's the anomalous person with the natural gifts to succeed with no training. But more likely, a wise approach to getting good might start by reading key articles. That, rather than say a course, let alone a business degree, is a time-effective way to reach that early point of diminishing returns when additional preparation time is more wisely spent applying what you've learned. Such application might be working or even volunteering at the elbow of a successful, ethical entrepreneur. Or it might be starting your own simple, low-cost business, and as needed, getting advice from a master. And repeat and repeat until you’re successful enough. Yes, work more.

If you want to be a great fundraiser or its for-profit analogue, salesperson, read top Google-search articles on the topic. Maybe attend a one-hour or even  one-weekend intensive. Start fundraising or selling, if only as a volunteer. Beg for feedback, not just from prospects but from ethical master salespeople who accompany you on sales calls. Pay those masters if necessary. That's far cheaper than a degree. Keep learning: Read, apply. Be watched. Apply lessons learned. Repeat and repeat. In short, work more.

Once you’re good, should you let up? Strive for work-life balance? That bears on the eternal question: What’s the meaning of life, the life well-led? Most of my  contented clients work more than 40 hours a week, not because of pathological compulsion—workaholism—but because they find it more rewarding, psychologically and often financially, than spending hours 40+ on recreation or family. Doing what you do well and getting better at it feels better to many people than recreation or hanging out with your romantic partner, kids, or parents. Haven’t we all become more frustrated dealing with family members or even in sports than when doing work we’re good at? The family fights and golfer who throws his club come to mind. I’d guess that if a meter that measured blood pressure and cortisol release were attached to people, on average, they’d be more stressed outside of work than when doing work they're talented at and are working to get better at. So, even if you're already good at what you do, it may be wise to, yes, work more.

The takeaway

The standard advice on the life well-led includes “the pursuit of happiness” and “work-life balance.” But for many although certainly not all people, a wiser path may be to focus more on accomplishment. That may not yield as much fun as a life of nonstop sex, eating, and NetFlix but may well make you feel better about your life and your contribution. Yes, maybe you should work more.

This article emanated from a conversation with Cal Newport. I commend his books to you, including his latest, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net.

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