Harder, Faster, Dumber

A trip I took down the Mangoky river in Madagascar. Harder for this guy than it was for me...
A trip I took down the Mangoky river in Madagascar. Harder for this guy than it was for me…

A friend just asked me if I wanted to do an ironman or an ultra marathon with him.

Erm. No thanks.

I remember doing just the ‘normal’ (i.e. little) marathon a few years back. It was hard and not much fun and I don’t think my knees have ever been the same since.

Yet, I’ve described doing a vipassana as the hardest but most rewarding thing I’ve ever done and something I’d like to do again.

So I’m a little confused. Are the hardest things worth doing? Where should one draw the line? Does hard = good/rewarding?

There’s a prevailing mentality today that in order to succeed we must overcome really tough obstacles. We should work harder, get up earlier, run a bit faster.

I’m all for pushing the limits, but I’m not convinced that things being really hard necessarily makes them worth doing.

I’m still astounded by the number of people who want to climb Everest. Really? Why? Lots of people have done it. An 80-year-old man has done it. The mountain is covered with bodies and trash. They’re thinking about putting a staircase at the top. Seriously. A staircase.

So why bother? What does it achieve? Is it ego? Do people want to climb the biggest thing out there because, well, otherwise their lives are small and insignificant? I’d posit they’ll remain so, even if they do a half-hour headstand on the top, or climb the whole thing backwards.

If you’re a taxidermist, is the Holy Grail a blue whale? Or the flea?

At university, the course I found the easiest was the one I came top of the year in. It felt easy, yet if it wasn’t for external validation the fact that it wasn’t difficult may have left me to assume that it was the subject that was least valuable or I wasn’t good at it.

Over the last year I’ve worked really, really hard. Probably the hardest I’ve ever worked. I felt that the harder I worked, the more likely it was I’d overcome the obstacles we faced. As a tech business, the odds are bad, even for the bestest of teams. To beat those odds, many commentators suggest working ungodly hours… after all, god rested on the seventh day, or seemingly ever since.

Yet looking back over the last year, I’m not sure the 70-hour weeks have been much productive than the 40-hour weeks. In fact, surfacing the far side of this year of work, I wonder if in fact they have been less productive. A scary thought.

In the last month or so, we’ve hit upon something new and suddenly our business feels like the market is pulling it, rather than we’re pushing it. I have no idea whether or not we would have made this discovery if we hadn’t worked so hard. It’s early days – I don’t want to jinx what I think is a good momentum before it’s proven, but the early indicators are good. The important thing to note is that it doesn’t feel so tough. Is that a sign that it’s not worth doing, or in fact, as I think it might be, that we’re just on to something better?

At what point does pushing something difficult move from productivity to insanity?

It’s wonderful to fully throw yourself into something. To give it 100%. But it’s really important to recognize, that working at 100% capacity means you have to take breaks. I think I lost sight of that last year. In order for me to work at my optimum capacity, I need to only work some of the time, or the additional time spent working can be counter-productive.

As a business, we kept pushing and pushing what we wanted to achieve, and worked harder and harder to achieve it. I wonder if we should’ve stepped back and asked whether or not the fact that it was really hard meant that maybe we weren’t quite doing the right thing. All the blogs and books I’ve read about tech businesses dictate that the founding team must work round-the-clock to make something work. So I felt that by pushing as hard as I could that we’d overcome the biggest issues through sheer tenacity. Yet I wonder whether the ‘work hard’ mentality blinds us to the reality, that if there’s too much resistance, we’re probably doing something wrong. Where’s the balance?

An ultra marathon will never be easy… and I imagine that it’s very rewarding, in some ways. Yet like water in a river, do we achieve more if we follow the path of least resistance, or should we create obstacles in our path to show our strength?

4 thoughts on “Harder, Faster, Dumber

  1. This is a great post Tom…I have to drive a long journey today. If I leave just enough time to get there I shall be stressed. If I leave an extra hour I can enjoy the countryside and arrive in good form.

  2. Proper food for thought Tom- thank you. I am convinced that we often have inexplicable resistance to doing the things that make us happy. But I wholly agree that we need to question our society’s ( and by default, our own) seeming obsession with working more and more and harder and harder and faster and faster- where will it stop, and – as you rightly ask- at what point does it become unproductive and pointless.

  3. Real food for thought Tom- thank you. I am convinced that we tend to have an inexplicable resistance to doing the things that make us happy. But I also think you are absolutely right to question our society’s ( and by default our own) obsession with always pushing harder and faster and more and more. At what point will it stop, and more importantly when does it simply become unproductive and instead of seeking the ‘success’ we are after, we risk getting to breaking point? All good questions……

  4. Wonderful read, thank you Tom. Surely you should have your own column somewhere on the ‘art of living’ or the ‘search for simplicity’?
    Eva x

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