The Truth About Effort
Jennifer Wilson

“I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

       Thomas Jefferson


If there is something that truly troubles me these days, it’s a nagging fear that our nation is losing its competitive edge and that, once lost, it will take a Herculean effort to regain.  While this issue is as complex as any we’re facing, part of our challenge crystallized for me when I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell ( earlier this year.  I’ve been wrestling with “my findings” from this book and am now at a point where I want to talk – and blog – about some of them.  So, in this first of a series of blogs on the subject of our nation’s competitive advantage, I’d like to explore the role that effort plays in our success.


In Outliers, Gladwell seeks to explore the secrets to success by relaying the stories of those who have over-achieved in their given field, including Bill Joy, the Beatles, Bill Gates and even Mozart.  According to Gladwell, these winners – and others like them – all have a common element to their success:  10,000 hours.  Gladwell asserts that to develop mastery and rise to the top in your chosen field – software development, composing, performing or even accounting – you have to invest 10,000 hours of practice or effort working at your craft.


Gladwell cites a study of musicians conducted by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and two colleagues at Berlin’s Academy of Music.  The study set out to examine whether innate talent was the key to musical success – or whether it was something else.  After studying a group of musicians, the findings suggest that, “once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works.”  Gladwell goes on to suggest that the people at the very top don’t work a little harder – they work much, much harder than everyone else.


There is much conversation in the U.S. today about “younger generations” and whether they are willing to work hard – to put in the effort needed to truly succeed.  At ConvergenceCoaching, we study and teach on the subject of generational differences and there are certainly many dimensions to this discussion.  To their credit, young people want to leverage technology and challenge old norms to ensure they are working smart, too.  Perhaps this is being mistaken for unwillingness to put forward the effort.


However, much has been written on the subject of how we, as a nation, have over-parented our children for decades now, enabling them to gain much without much effort.  We have substituted physical tasks with technologic ones – television, video games, internet, e-mail, and text messaging – making physical tasks feel burdensome and mundane.  In our great desire to ensure that our children “have it easier” than we had, we may have made their future – and the future of our nation – much, much harder. 


10,000 hours of effort is considerable – especially if it is effort that is outside of your typical work day.  It constitutes years of investment and hard work to reach a level of mastery.  What I’m grappling with is this:  Are we losing our ability to put forward this kind of effort?  And, if we are, what can we do to reinvigorate our entire nation, refocus our energies, roll up our sleeves and go beyond the degree of effort that is comfortable, balanced – even easy – to regain our nation’s position on the world stage?


I welcome your thoughts, answers and potential solutions on this subject.  Please share your feedback – we can all benefit from this dialogue!


“Hard work spotlights the character of people:  some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don't turn up at all.”

       Sam Ewing






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10 Responses
  • Howard Wolosky on November 12, 2009

    I am more optimistic for a number of reasons. Yes because of the multitude of changes there is discomfort, but what is happening is very good. Communities are being developed where creating and maintaining trust are the keys. I envision these communities to develop codes of conduct, responsibilities, and ethics to be adhered to. I also believe we as a nation and as individuals will maintain our “competitive” edge only by collaborating and searching for win-win in all our interactions.
    Howard Wolosky

  • Jennifer Wilson
    Jennifer Wilson on November 12, 2009

    Thanks for your comments, Howard. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic — just concerned that we may be losing our commitment to effort and “elbow grease.” And while that may sound “old school,” our nation has been built on sweat equity and diligence. No technology enhancement can replace good, old-fashioned effort to solve problems like healthcare, our deficit, the environment, a cure for cancer and more.

  • Sue Sandler on November 12, 2009

    Hi, Jen. Good food for thought here and I agree with what you say–and what Howard says above about new possibilities. I don’t think “elbow grease” has gone away nor will it. What’s happening now is that the kind of grease, so to speak, is changing. The change is scary but also offers opportunity. We will go on working very hard–but in different ways. This blog is one example of how that is changing in the realm of marketing professional services and related services. Yes, this is a tool, but the effort behind it is much like the hard work that has always gone into achieving and solving our problems. And it may well be right now that being aware of and seeking out the new opportunities is part of the “new” elbow grease.
    Please keep blogging! These are very good and thoughtful pieces and I am enjoying them.

  • Jennifer Wilson
    Jennifer Wilson on November 12, 2009

    Thanks for your words of encouragement, Sue!

  • Mark Remington on November 12, 2009

    With three kids (ages 19 -24) under my belt, I see the issue with them and their friends slightly differently but with the same over arching concern. This generation is akin to those who grew up in the 60’s. They view the world as a place without fear and competition – despite the reality. They want to volunteer, help, and make a difference. These kids are not the ‘me’ generation of the 80’s who drove to the top. Therein lies the problem. They don’t think in terms of hard or easy, but in terms of effort and return. They calculate that some rewards are not worth the effort and tend to give up when the hours drag on. They fundamentally do not think a ‘dues paying’ system exists. They don’t get that. They think in terms of equity as a ‘should’ equation not a function of honing skills through time and experience to achieve a reward. So ultimately the challenge is to show them (because they respond to tactical experiences) that achieving a goal personally, or to put the country back on track, requires a ‘me’ moment where they internalize that they can make a difference, but only through effort that has a future and uncertain return.

  • Jennifer Wilson
    Jennifer Wilson on November 12, 2009

    Mark — it is so good to hear from you! And wow, your words here on the lack of buy-in to a dues paying system are profound. I’ll have to give that some thought and somehow incorporate it into my thinking/writing/teaching. Thanks for commenting.

  • Accounting Tomorrow on November 13, 2009

    I think this is a really interesting discussion and as I was thinking about what I wanted to contribute, I found there is a similar debate happening in popular culture right now in regards to the Country Music Awards.
    Taylor Swift is 19 and won four awards -including Entertainer of the Year- at the ceremony Wednesday night, setting off a storm of commentary, especially since she beat out some musical heavy-hitters.
    Probably most frank is a statement from Wynonna Judd, who most know as a veteran in the country music business:
    “You want my honest comment? It’s too much too soon,” Judd told USA Today. “Time is God’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. It’s just too much of a good thing too soon. My thing is, being a home-school mom, I want kids to earn it, and I think some time … ’cause mom and I rode in a car for the first year of our career to visit radio stations. There was a making of the star, there was a rising up, and the fans went with us. Now it’s over coffee breaks, the success, almost. You have to play catch up. … It’s like the girl who wins an Oscar and she’s under 20. What do you do from here?”
    Judd later retracted her statement, but her sentiment remains.
    Some people are just lucky and though they might make it to the best school, they may not have what it takes to be a star, no matter how many hours they put in.
    Of course, it depends on how you define star and success. And sometimes effort doesn’t pay off in rewards and good grades and prosperity.
    I also think there needs to be balance – the younger generations have a new way of working and being productive and the older generations should be open to the ways these newer generations find efficiency and success. Still, I do think there is a tinge of entitlement coming with the newer generations (along with a desire to do good) because they see how it was done before them and don’t want to take the same route, sometimes bypassing the valuable knowledge offered to them by those before them. And we all know how that makes the older generations feel.
    Effort is subjective, I think. While members of past generations certainly have rolled up their sleeves and put in their hours to be successful their challenges were different than the up and comers face today. The new generations have a different set of challenges and perhaps a lower threshold of tolerance for long hours and piles of paperwork when they don’t know what it’s for. Does this mean they don’t work as hard? I don’t think so. It means they are working hard in a new and different way, looking for the context in what they are doing and redefining how productivity and success looks to those who work with them and around them.
    -Liz Gold

  • Jennifer Wilson
    Jennifer Wilson on November 15, 2009

    Liz — great comments and a lot to think about. I agree that the concept of effort is subjective and I think that’s the vein I’ll travel in the next blog on the subject — my definition of it. Success if also subjective, but mastery is not and that’s what I believe leads to breakthroughs in performance, unheard of solutions, new cures, etc. Such a great, deep dialogue is possible on this subject. I feel a course or roundtable coming on!

  • Howard Wolosky on November 16, 2009

    Point 1: There are two quotes that I always remember and connect together. They are “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” by Anais Nin and “Every man [or woman] I meet is my superior in some way in that I learn from them.” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
    Point 2: We of all generations need to become skilled change agents that are comfortable living in a change-ready environment.
    All the best.

  • Tamera Loerzel
    Tamera Loerzel on November 18, 2009

    I witnessed what Mark is referencing to as “effort and return” last week at my daughter’s sectional dive meet where the girls competed to go to state. This is my daughter’s second year on the varsity dive team where she started while still in junior high. She has struggled off and on with her commitment to put the time in to practice, especially outside of the season, yet she has high goals to letter and compete at state. This year her goal was to compete in every segment of sectionals without getting cut and ranking 15th, which would qualify her to letter. She accomplished one of the goals – competing in the entire sectional meet – but ranked 16th instead of 15th. It was exhilarating to see her – and her teammates perform – and maintain an incredible attitude and positive energy throughout the meet, which had its ups and downs. She cried during the second cuts when she found out she qualified to complete the meet and at that point she realized the reward for her efforts. She saw the rewards even more profoundly when her teammate came in first and qualified for state. Her teammate not only puts in the time during the season but practices at the University of Minnesota 4 times a week year-round. Now my daughter sees that there is a payoff for the effort and time in practicing, so she is looking at local swim clubs that she can participate in this winter.
    I agree that we need to show the young professionals that while the future is unknown and risky, there is a reward for those that put in the effort and the time. For example, sometimes we see partners keep the “goodies” a secret rather than sharing the benefits of taking the road to become partner with their up-and-coming leaders. While it’s not automatic for the younger generations to do what it takes to reach their goals, we can work together to continue to keep the possibility of the future rewards in front of them and realize smaller rewards along the way. Next year my daughter’s goal is to letter and qualify for state – today she sees the benefit of putting the time and effort in and I will likely need to remind her of that in March!

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