CFI Blog

You’re Not Going to Get Ahead if You’re Not Willing to Work

“You don’t win…on accident. You win…on purpose.”
–Lewis Howes

“Work smarter and work harder.”

There are no silver platter trees in the world.

Yet, it seems that a lot of people have this belief that successful people just magically became successful. Or that the government owes them something simply because they happened to be born in the United States rather than, oh, say, North Korea. Or that they should be able to have the magical four hour workweek because someone came out with a book by the same title.

Aside from a few people who inherited a fortune (Paris Hilton, anyone?), I cannot think of anyone who has achieved success and wealth without one common denominator:

Hard work.

Most all of them have one other factor going for them: luck.

Success = hard work + luck

Invariably, if I look at which factor was more important, it is almost always hard work. Hard work creates the opportunities for more luck. Luck usually doesn’t just arrive at your doorstep serendipitously unless you happened to get the right numbers buying a lottery ticket.

I readily admit that I was lucky in being able to sell the company I founded for somewhere between apocalypse fund money and FU money. 50% of companies die out in the first five years. Approximately 2% of companies get sold. The odds were stacked against me. So, the Fates had to smile upon me.

But, I didn’t get there without some seriously hard work. For 18 months, I didn’t get paid. I worked almost every single day. I was withdrawn socially. Heck, I was even withdrawn at home. My wife and I were chatting over a glass of wine the other night and I was musing about how tempted, or, rather, not tempted, I’d be at the opportunity to participate in another startup.

“I wouldn’t want you to do that,” she interjected.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because, while I know that those first couple of years at OSC [the startup I co-founded and later sold] were hard on you, they were also hard on me.”

The road to success has many toll booths, and not all of them require money.

If you want to succeed, you have to do something differential.

You can have an exceptionally great idea. Most of us simply aren’t that brilliant. There aren’t many Steve Jobs and Bill Gates running around in the world. I know I’m not one of the super-brilliant people who comes up with a truly innovative, life-changing idea.

You could have the loaded dice of life. Some people are simply lucky. There aren’t that many, though. For every person who wins a ton at the craps table, there are many, many more who are giving money to the house.

You also don’t control either of those two factors. Yes, you can work on your idea generating machine, but even then, your chances of breaking into the echelons of world-changers are small. You certainly can’t improve your luck at any given time.

The third differential activity is that you can work harder. Go to work and come up with 10 ideas every day. Think harder. Think more. Think orthogonally. Have more conversations. Talk to more people. Solve more problems.

The reality of the corporate world as I saw it was that the people who worked longer hours tended to get promoted more. Working longer hours wasn’t a guarantee of promotion, and occasionally, the 8-5 person did well too, but there was a discernible pattern. It probably happens where you work too. The superstars put in longer shifts than the rest.

If you don’t want to put in the extra work to get ahead, that’s fine. There’s no law that says that you cannot be competent, meet expectations, and be a contributor without being a superstar. There’s nothing wrong with it. Maybe you have other priorities that are more important than getting ahead. If you choose that path, then go for it. Be confident in your future.

However, if you expect to produce average output yet receive above average results, you are going to be disappointed. There are no shortcuts to getting ahead, no secrets to getting rich.

When I ask my clients who are financially successful how they got there, there’s almost always a universal answer.

They worked hard and made wise choices.

To have the fortitude to work harder, you need mental resilience. It’s not easy to continue to put in extraordinary effort time after time. There will be times when you fail. There will be times when you want to just mail it in and be average. Monkey Brain hates hard work. You have to be stronger than Monkey Brain.

Here are a few tips for building up mental fortitude and resilience:

  • Imagine your dream and think about it when times are hard. There has to be a motivation for you to put in differential effort from everyone else around you. Whatever that motivation is, keep it in the back of your mind. When times get tough, think of that goal and that mental image of what it will be like when you’ve reached it. (Hat tip:
  • Believe that mental toughness is a skill and that you can develop it. Never mind that having the ability to build mental toughness is a fact, if you don’t believe you can develop it, then you never will. Eliminate limiting beliefs like “I can’t” by simply stating the opposite: “I can.” You can get over hurdles. You will get over hurdles. (Hat tip: EliteFTS).
  • Don’t just do the easy things. If you simply go down the path of least resistance in life, you won’t know what to do when you face difficulties. Push yourself. Challenge yourself. Do things which you don’t like to do and which are hard for you to accomplish. Once you can start accomplishing the difficult tasks, you’ll build up confidence in yourself that you can overcome obstacles, no matter what you are. In this case, it’s better to be overconfident in life rather than underconfident, because you will develop and believe in the perseverance to bypass or surpass roadblocks.
  • Have a mantra. When I was a plebe at West Point, we had to do a lot of runs and rucksack marches. I remember that there was one officer who went with us who kept telling us “ain’t nothing but a thing” and “step on through it.” He was telling us that it wasn’t that difficult to do those tasks, and we started believing it. I could remember much later on in life, when I was on a run and starting to suck wind, telling myself “ain’t nothing but a thing.” His mantras stuck with me. Develop your own mantra.

If you have children, it’s important to prepare them for the years ahead and to imbue in them a sense of a work ethic. Studies have shown that praising children for working hard rather than telling them how smart they are improves their performance later in life.

Along those lines, praise yourself when you work hard. Pat yourself on the back. It’s OK to compliment yourself too!

Author Profile

John Davis
John Davis is a nationally recognized expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. He has written four books about his expertise in the field and has been featured extensively in numerous media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN, CBS News, CNBC, Fox Business, and many more. With over 20 years of experience helping consumers understand their credit and identity protection rights, John is passionate about empowering people to take control of their finances. He works with financial institutions to develop consumer-friendly policies that promote financial literacy and responsible borrowing habits.

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