5 June 2022

The hardest worker in the room

Eternal teachers, inflection points and algorithms for getting what you want

The year was 2010.

I was 15 years old at the time, and somewhere along that year I had suddenly realised that nobody had any obligation to move my life forward, except me.

Everybody appeared to be playing their own games, and it seemed like they had their lives organised and pointed towards specific directions, whereas I felt like I was just floating in the current. It was not like life was catastrophically bad or anything, but there was a certain sense of not going anywhere, not wanting anything, not dreaming about anything — of just going through the motions of what I was ‘supposed’ to do.

Wake up in the morning. Eat breakfast. Go to school. Pay attention. Socialise. Make it to the end of the day. Go home. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

I was following a schedule, paying close attention to staying within the arbitrary box that was placed around my life. Time flowed by ceaselessly, and I did not give a damn.

The thing that shook things up for me was within a book by Stephen Covey, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I do not recall what was within the book exactly, or how I even gained the courage to crack it open and read the pages when I was spending the majority of my time playing video games, but I do still remember the core essence at the very bottom: here are some rules that could make your life better, it is completely within your control as to whether you choose to accept them or not.

  1. Be proactive.
  2. Begin with the end in mind.
  3. Put first things first.
  4. Think win-win.
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
  6. Synergise.
  7. Sharpen the saw.

Simple, implicit, almost-too-obvious-to-need-to-be-said lessons that universally could be agreed upon as sensible. Important and solid guiderails for life, right?

Yet, why was this left completely up to chance? Where were these words when I was 10 years old? Or 5? Was it a case of having to be at the right place and at the right time of life?

Books are not the ultimate answer, the single source of truths, either. Important lessons can arrive to us in a variety of shapes and forms — it could be within a conversation with a mentor, a friend or a random generous stranger on the street. It could be within personal life tribulations, moments of achievement, witnessing art, being humbled, moments when we teach, when we learn or when we are striving for something.

It is very tempting to be impatient in such a process.

If only I knew!’ No. You were not ready to see yet.

So what happened for me, after discovering the 7 Habits book, was that my life quickly transitioned from night to day. I went from being a distracted, minimum-possible-effort student to an attentive, curious and gritty student. The proof soon showed up in the scores I would receive on the report card. For the rest of my years in high school, I accumulated immense pride in being the hardest worker in the room.

Something had clicked.

So you’re telling me that I can alter my circumstances by just… trying?

My priorities were immediately shifted from being a top shooter on first person video games to becoming the best student I could be. There was an established recipe, an algorithm that I had chanced upon, and all I had to do was try.

By the end of high school, I had made good achievements, with grades that went on to secure scholarship funding for further university studies. But as I grew up and saw more of the world beyond the strict confines of academic environments, it was starting to look like the original algorithm for success was.. shifting.

Hard work + suitable environment = success

As the environment changed, so did the pre-requisites for having a reasonable shot at attaining desirable outcomes. In high school, all I needed to do was pour in a quantity of hard work into the mix in order to achieve the desirable outcomes of good academic standing and self-esteem. But now, there were more elements that played a role in establishing the final outcome, most of which were beyond my control.

Hard work + suitable environment + social network + financial resources = a higher likelihood of getting what you want

As I noticed such things, my pride in being the hardest worker in the room started to wane. It was no longer a reasonable edge to lean on, no longer an automatic ticket to the things I had desired. I also realised that much of the world is full of people who are giving it everything they possible can, being the hardest workers in the rooms they were in, and yet never really moving the needle of progress over time.

This made me afraid, afraid of what such a crucible for frustration and angst might turn me into. If I gave something my all, and the outcome comes up blank, what might I feel about the world then?

Treating and working oneself like a mule in pursuit of desires is only sustainable if there is a reasonable return of positive outcomes, whether in the immediate short term or in the future that lay ahead.

Success outside of academics, then, demands forethought, positioning, some baseline level of finesse during the pursuit towards your desires. Humans are not animals, we do not get rewarded just by adhering to primitive instincts of moving our feet or winding cogs with our arms — we get rewarded by using our minds to think about what we do. Success seems to be way more than just showing up, putting in a good day’s work and then leaving — it demands all of that AND all of the other pre-requisite elements stacking up in the right order too. Hard work is the very minimum, Level 0, of what it takes to sustain any sort of reasonable livelihood.

At the end of it all, grinding oneself to the bone whilst seeped in the mud of frustration and negligible progress, is an unsustainable way to live. It then falls onto the individual to then explore the questions of, ‘If I know that this is bad for me, what might things have to look like if it were slightly better tomorrow than it is today?’

‘What are some things, within my control, that I can alter in the next day, week or year so that I could be just a little happier about the way that I am currently living my life?’

These questions forces oneself to abstract away from the ‘hard work’ element, of putting one’s nose on the grinding wheel, in order to focus more on all the other elements that have to do with positioning.

  • What do I like doing?
  • Who are the types of people I could enjoying spending the majority of my time with?
  • What do I do, for free and with no angst, in my spare time?
  • What were the things that came easily to me when I was a young child?
  • Where would I like to live?
  • What could ‘work’ look like for me, if I could choose freely?

Then maybe, just maybe, all of the hard work could simultaneously be both meaningful and productive — when you find yourself ‘in the zone’, doing the work out of choice and not coercion, when the time passes so quickly that you fail to notice neither the hours or your body’s cues of hunger, when explaining ‘what you do’ to a stranger feels like a story of ‘who you are’, when there is less friction, less frustration and more room to do what you like doing while delivering something into the world which others might find useful, important and valuable, when your time and attention gets honed into the things that only you can produce and no other soul can quite replicate (because your work is unique to you, as your fingerprint is unique to you)..

This is what life could be. Isn’t it worth fighting for?

I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

The Automattic Creed