The Frustrating Paradox of Building a Work Ethic

Have you ever seen a job posting for an entry-level position requiring multiple years of experience to apply?

If your response is, “…you mean every single one?”, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

As ridiculous and ironic as these pleas for underpaid talent are, they’re a perfect analog for individuals who are trying to build a strong work ethic out of a weak or even non-existent one.

Believe me, I have a ton of experience with this.

I was the picture perfect “academically capable, but utterly lazy” suburban nerd growing up. And unfortunately, even getting beat on by the real world a bit didn’t quite teach me my lesson. I changed “just enough” to do “just enough” work to be “just above” satisfactory, whether in my school assignments or in the workplace. However, I still didn’t know how to work hard enough to be truly great, especially on goals and projects that I assigned to myself instead of having assigned to me.

I experienced a ton of angst over this. I wanted to be productive. I wanted to work towards my potential. But I had a well-established history of laziness, and what’s more — I didn’t know what hard work looked like.

Of course, I thought I did. I looked up to people like Stephen King and Bruce Lee, people so dedicated to their craft that almost every spare moment was dedicated to its pursuit. I looked up to my wife (and still do) for her ability to sit down with a large task at hand and not get up until the task is fully completed.

I foolishly thought that this was all that hard work was.

Just putting in the time. Just dragging the grindstone over to your desk, sitting at it, and sanding down your nose to the nub. That’s what hard work is, that’s what focus is, that’s what dedication is, I thought.

Well…technically, yes. From an outsider’s perspective, sure.

But until you actually do the hard work yourself, you have no idea what it takes, or what it means, or what it feels like. You have no idea how to actually work hard, even though you “know” what it looks like.

Only the people who work hard know what it’s like to work hard. And — just like those absurd entry-level job requirements — only the people who have worked hard in the past are able to work hard in the present and the future.

So what can you do? How do you navigate this paradox? If you need something you don’t have, but you’ll only get that thing if you already have it, aren’t you essentially screwed?

Well, it’s difficult, sure. But it’s not impossible. You can learn how to work hard.

I remember that during my last full semester at college, I was pretty burnt out. I wanted to graduate, and I wanted to do it with as little stress as possible. I realized that with my courseload, there was no way I could finish my schoolwork and keep the job that paid for my lifestyle and continue to date the girl I was going to marry and retain my sanity.

So, I decided to switch things up. Instead of waiting for the night before my essays were due to actually start working on them, I would:

  1. Start working on them the day they were assigned.
  2. Work on them a little bit each day until the due date.

WHOAH. REVOLUTIONARY STUFF.

In all seriousness, I always knew that this was what I was supposed to do — but it was only when I actually sat down to do it (out of a desire to avoid stress) that I actually started to learn what it meant to work hard.

A little bit each day was all it took to change my life.

A few years later, I found a scriptwriting contest I was interested in. In a week, I wrote a full-length television sitcom pilot, having never written a script or dipped my toe into comedy before.

I didn’t win — but it was another opportunity to practice working hard.

A few months after that, I read three small words that inspired me to sit down each night for a month and write out the novella that had been stuck in my head for years.

A year later, and I did the same thing with my first novel.

Each time that hard work was required of me — and this includes the year where I completed my masters degree while also writing three blog posts/sci-fi flash fiction pieces per week — I was able to lean on the feeling of my previous high-work-ethic experiences to show me how to put in the effort.

One of the greatest things about building a work ethic is that it is an ongoing process of cumulative effort. It’s not like muscle mass, where if you don’t use it, you lose it. Rather, it’s more like painting a mural. Even if you ignore it for a bit, it’s still there — you don’t lose all of your progress just because it’s been in a dark corner of the basement for a few months.

So how do start work on a mural when you’ve never put your brush to canvas?

Well, forgive me the tautology, but…put your brush to the canvas.

Start small. Find a small project that can be completed with a few days of effort. If that still requires too much dedication (no shame, I’ve been there), then pick a tiny thing that you can do in a single afternoon.

Then finish it. Then give yourself some time off. Then pick another project or task that’s around the same size/scope and finish that one.

After you have a few of these small wins under your belt, find a slightly larger project to tackle. And then another. And another.

Don’t worry if you slip up, and miss a few days/weeks/months of work. The mural will still be there. It’s patient. It’ll wait for you to come back to it, to remember the feel of the brushes, and to add more paint to it. A strong work ethic is cumulative, not depreciating.

Over time, you’ll naturally pursue things that are at the next level of difficulty and dedication. Pursue them. Complete them. Do this again and again and again, and you’ll find that you’re able to sustain your focus over first several hours, then several days, then weeks, then months, and then even longer, if that’s what you need.

Soon enough, you’ll have people asking you how you have such a great work ethic. And when they do, I hope you’ll ask them if they’ve ever looked at the application requirements for entry level jobs…

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