The father of a friend of mine was born in the town of Armero, Colombia; the site of the most fatal volcanic disaster of the last 100 years. On the night of November 13th, 1985, the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted, sending pyroclasts more than 30km into the atmosphere, and causing enormous volcanically induced mudslides which plummeted down the volcano at over 60km/h directly towards the town of Armero.
Because the eruption happened so late at night, as well as during a major thunderstorm, the residents of the town were caught largely unawares. My friend’s father – David – awoke to a knock at his door in the middle of the night: “run!” they said, “don’t change your clothes, don’t pack, just run now!”. David did as he was told and ran out on to the street with the rest of his neighbours who had decided to heed the warning. Their particular neighbourhood was only one block away from a major street that ran through the city and into the center of the valley – a major artery that connected Armero with the nearby towns. “We just need to run as fast as we can!”, people yelled out, “if we can outrun everyone we’ll be safe!”.
Ultimately more than 20,000 of the town’s 28,700 residents perished – including every single person running down that street. My friend’s father however, survived the disaster. Not because he ran faster or farther than anyone else, but rather because he stopped dead in his tracks while everyone else was running and thought about his situation for a moment. The major street out of the town was on a slight downhill slope into the valley. He looked back in the direction of the volcano – where the mudslides were coming from – and realized there was a small hill only a few hundred meters away. Instead of running after everyone else he decided to run in the opposite direction, back towards the hill. He scampered up along with a few other people and watched as the mudslides ultimately enveloped everyone running down that same road he had been on himself just moments before.
As macabre as this analogy is, I’ve often found this incident very apt at demonstrating the mindset of most people. Between lifelong lectures from our teachers and managers, incessant Nike advertisements, and trite motivational posters, we’ve been conditioned to believe that that simply working harder is the key to success. There is this pervasive mentality that at the end of all that hard work there is some sort of salvation, or that the universe owes you some sort of prize for your hard work. The sad reality is that this is almost entirely untrue, and in most cases the result is the complete opposite.
Early last year my web hosting company made its first seven figures. In another few weeks we’ll hit the second. These are traditionally times when most business owners look back and reflect on what it took them to get to this point – a time to pause and appreciate the result of years of sacrifice and endurance. Reminiscing over the past few years however, all I was able to think of were the travels, the new friendships, the (more than) occasional hangover, and ultimately came to the realization that I’ve never really worked a hard day in my life. Mind you this is hardly a shocking revelation – virtually every single person who knows me knows this; but I began to realize that perhaps it was this very characteristic that got me here in the first place.
What I did remember was eschewing the traditional approach of working hard at my 9-5 job and slowly climbing the corporate ladder, and instead just quit – which is what led me to grow my company in the first place. I remember ignoring the hordes of entrepreneurs around me working long days and late nights on the day-to-day operations of their businesses, and instead followed the advice of a friend and hired people to take care of those things for me. And most recently, I remember setting aside the traditional business mentality of improving my existing services and increasing revenue from existing clients, and instead thought of ways to launch entirely new services – which allowed me to greatly expand my revenue streams. In many ways, a lot of my own recent success was the result of inaction as opposed to action – the result of simply pausing and rethinking what I was doing.
We’re often painted the picture of the hard working entrepreneur; motivational stories of people working late into the night, eating ramen, sacrificing friends and relationships to meet their goals; all creating the expectation that working hard enough on your idea is all that is required for it to be a success. If working hard were all that was necessary to succeed in business, every meat-head in your local gym would be a millionaire – they clearly have the work ethic down – but unfortunately this is just not the case. Ideas and innovation are what lead to success; the hard work to realize them is just consequential.
Everyone has their share of bad ideas (heck this article could be one of them), but bad ideas don’t become failures until we work endlessly at them without seeing results. Every entrepreneur – or everyone who aspires to be one – quite simply needs to learn to give up. Steve Jobs will be forever remembered as the person who changed the face of mobile computing, but he would never have been able to accomplish that if he hadn’t given up on NeXT, or abandoned his Apple Lisa project. Facebook is one of the most visited websites in the world and has largely changed the very nature of the way we use the Internet, but Mark Zuckerberg may have never gotten it to this point if he hadn’t given up on college. In both of these cases these people had the foresight to stop working on what they were doing at that moment and move on to the next idea.
Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations. -Steve Jobs
On a recent tour of my current city of Budapest, I learned that Nikola Tesla had an insight about rotating magnetic fields while himself on a leisurely walk in Budapest – which ultimately went on to become one of the most fundamental principles of physics. Albert Einstein famously traveled everywhere with his beloved violin – spending as much time playing it (albeit poorly) as he did on studying mathematics; “when I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge,” he said. Not that we all have the imaginative genius of two of history’s greatest minds – but the point is that some leisure time is exactly what it may take to realize how to make better use of your own knowledge, and that is impossible when every waking moment is spent at work or “grinding” on your current project. Your brain becomes addicted to routine and monotony, and you grow confused and irritable when you don’t have work to do – you essentially become addicted to being busy.
Research has consistently shown that creativity is not the result of stability and hard work, and that these things are in fact counterproductive to an inventive mind. In researching her book The Happiness Track, Dr. Emma Seppala found that in general, the biggest breakthroughs or “aha” moments often came from simply relaxing or doing something fun. Contrary to popular belief, our minds are actually at their creative peak when they are unfocused, daydreaming, or even completely idle. For this reason, psychologists suggest we find ways on a daily basis to stop working, and give our brains a break. If your mind is constantly processing information, you never have an opportunity let your mind roam and your imagination function freely.
Not only does hard work hold back your creativity, we also know almost unequivocally that people will eventually regret doing it. Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care; essentially caring for the terminally ill, and counseling patients during the last 12 weeks of their lives. She published a book of her observations during this time entitled The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, in which she noted that one of the most consistent regrets was “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard”. Stories from people who had regretted spending so much of their lives on the “treadmill of a work existence”, all the while missing their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. If we’ve established that hard work leads to lowered creativity, and ultimately a life full of regrets – why does everyone still aspire to it?
Nobody on his deathbed ever said, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” -U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas
There was some obvious hyperbole scattered throughout this article; good ideas do in fact need to be executed well, and to do that there is undoubtedly work involved. But you may never come up with those ideas in the first place unless you stop what you are doing and go on a 6 month tour of the world, take a train ride to the nearest vacation destination, or even just a 10 minute walk around your neighborhood. You can be like David and stop running alongside people for a moment, and look around you for opportunities that may be far closer than you realize. Or you can just close this article and get back to work – for the rest of your life. The choice is yours.