Potential and Hard Work are Table Stakes. In the Game of Life, Habits and Routines are What Really Matter.


It’s comforting to assume that great things are accomplished by those innately blessed with natural talent, skill and good fortune. If I believe that certain people are predestined for greatness, then it makes my own mediocrity more palatable.

But it’s a false comfort. What happens when reality strikes, and I’m forced to confront that, with rare exceptions, we all have similar potential and capacity for achievement? That means I must take ownership over my successes and failures.

George Bernard Shaw poignantly reminded us that: “Youth is wasted on the young.” Is there anyone out there who doesn’t feel a twinge of angst about the untapped potential of their youth? With age comes wisdom, but also regret.

Nobody “Bod” Owens is the main protagonist in Neil Gaiman’s novel, The Graveyard Book. Bod lives in a graveyard (his parents were killed) and is raised by ghosts, a vampire, and a werewolf. There’s an exchange in the book where another character, a ghost named Silas, attempts to dissuade Bod when Bod decides he does not want to leave the graveyard and reintegrate into society.

“You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you can change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you’re dead, it’s gone. Over. You’ve made what you’ve made, dreamed your dream, written your name. You may be buried here, you may even walk. But that potential is finished.”

Among the many important points that Gaiman makes in his fanciful tale is that all of us are bestowed with the gift of potential and talent.

And this begs the question: What will we do with it? And perhaps more importantly: If you accept the premise that talent is not innate, then what accounts for the gap between high achievers and rest of the pack?


Time is Not On Our Side, So We Must Make the Most of It

Even if you disagree with the notion that we all, more or less, have the same capacity for achievement, it’s indisputable that there is one resource that we all have the same amount of and that’s completely non-renewable. For all of us, there are only 24 hours in the day.

I marvel at the prolific achievement of certain people who seem to defy the clock and churn out massive amounts of meaningful work while I struggle with the demons of distraction and procrastination.

Take Stephen King, for example. King is one of the most successful writers of our time. Since his debut novel, Carrie, in 1973, King has finished over 60 full-length works of fiction and almost 200 short stories. On top of that he’s created screenplays and written both comics and nonfiction. During this time he’s struggled with overcoming addiction, as well as a horrible biking accident that left him near death. Yet despite it all he’s managed to remain prolific.

King would be the first to tell you that he’s not the most talented writer. In fact, he tells us exactly that in his invaluable nonfiction book, On Writing. It’s part memoir and part how-to guide on writing well. In On Writing, King explains what separates successful writers from wannabes: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

In the War of Art, author Steven Pressfield echoes King: “The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.”

While King and Pressfield’s advice is given in the context of writing, it’s wisdom with universal application. The broader point is that there is a method to success. Since we all have potential, and all must work within the confines of the same 24-hour day, success boils down to the habits and practices that we employ to squeeze the most out of each day. To be successful, we must “get up and go to work.” {tweet that}

Tennis or Golf 

But, of course, it goes beyond hard work. We can work hard, but to what end? As Peter Drucker explains in his timeless book, The Effective Executive, it’s one thing to be efficient, but wholly another to be effective. Drucker explains: “Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.”

Let’s attempt to conflate the advice of King, Pressfield, Drucker and countless other high achievers into a more concrete principle. What’s the secret sauce to success? How can you best tap into your potential and share it with the world?

I think it all comes down to habits and routines.

When you look at the top performers in any field, you see something that goes much deeper than intelligence or skill. They possess an incredible willingness to do the work – the hard, important work – that needs to be done. They’ve mastered their daily routines.

High performers understand that we are all participating on the same playing field, but they’re playing a different game. While most of us are playing tennis, they’re playing golf.

Tennis involves hitting a ball over a net in the hopes of getting it past your opponent. Sometimes you score a point, other times you hit it out of bounds, and oftentimes your opponent hits it right back at you. In the latter case, it often requires a mad dash to get to the ball and return it, once again, to your opponent. This process repeats until someone wins the point. Then it starts all over again. Tennis is a game of split-second reactions and high and low emotions. The players are physically and mentally exhausted after a match. It requires the use of the same tool – a racket – over and over.

Golf involves hitting a ball over long distances toward an objective – a green. It’s a slower paced game than tennis. It’s contemplative – there’s plenty of time after a shot to consider your next one. There are obstacles in the way, such as long grass, trees and sand traps, but you have plenty of tools at your disposal to deal with the challenges. You have opponents, but not one who is hitting the ball back at you. Your biggest opponent resides in your own head. In golf everyone is playing the same game, under the same conditions, with the same objective. There’s no impeding, it’s just a matter of who gets there first. It’s collaborative – sometimes you have access to a caddy who can advise you on how putts break, and even your opponents will help you look for a lost ball and congratulate you on a nice shot.

Tennis requires quick, lateral movement, while golf involves slow, forward movement. In tennis you often take one step in 25 directions, whereas in golf you take 25 steps in one direction.

I think you get the point: You can either spend your day acting in accordance with your own priorities, or let someone else set an agenda for you. If your day is spent reading and responding to email, texts and social media inputs, then you’re playing tennis. You’re hitting the ball over the net, getting a momentary jolt of pleasure as a result, only to realize that the ball is buzzing right back at you. You’re reactive. Days go by and you look back and realize that you’ve accomplished very little of significance.

On the other hand, if your days are structured in such a way to create space for deep, thoughtful, meaningful work that takes you toward your goals, then you’re playing golf.

Successful people play golf (in the metaphorical sense). They tee it up every day. They shut out distractions and make their time spent doing deep inviolate.

As Pressfield explains, they don’t wait for inspiration, they stick to a routine and their Muse visits them as a result: “Someone once asked Somerset Maughham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. ’I write only when inspiration strikes,’ he replied. ’Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.’”

The biggest difference between mediocrity and high achievement, therefore, is not innate talent or even hard work. It’s the ability to be effective at doing the right things. And in order to be effective, one’s daily activities must be carefully curated to include work on what’s most important and exclude all else.

If your day is spent chasing balls all over the court, you’ll be exhausted and find yourself stuck in the same place. But if you spend your time walking down the fairway – slowly, steadily, contemplatively and purposefully – you’ll reach your destination, refreshed and ready for the next challenge.

LifeJay Harrington