The Value of Effort

For many years, I’ve been feeling that the value and importance of well-directed personal efforts are significantly underappreciated.

This light bulb first came on when I encountered the ideas of John Wooden, famed coach of UCLA basketball teams. His teams compiled an 80% won-lost record without him ever mentioning the concept of winning.

His iconic “Pyramid of Success” includes sports-specific concepts like Skill, Competitiveness, and (physical) Condition, along with more broadly applicable values like Integrity, Resourcefulness, and Ambition. He praises a total of 25 characteristics in his Pyramid, all of which are well-recognized building-blocks of productive and successful lives.

I find it amazing and wonderful that he was able to win so many games by focusing on the ingredients of victory rather than the prize itself.

More recently, I came upon the Unitarian Universalist Church, which insists on having no real religious doctrine and instead encourages its members to pursue a set of seven general principles. These include:

  • Justice, equity, and compassion,
  • Search for truth and meaning,
  • Democratic processes,
  • Peace and liberty,
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence.

Again, these principles seem to encourage the people involved with the UU fellowship to do their best to make the world a better place – which I consider a pretty good process – without focusing on any of the usual black-and-white beliefs, requirements, or strictures that most religions emphasize.

One key element is this: They try for progress, not perfection.

Without realizing it explicitly, for many years I have focused on process more than product In my own work and life. My feeling is this: if I set high standards, work hard, and strive to improve my effectiveness, I will achieve what I want without any of the drama, angst, burnout, or ruthlessness that are too often the side-effects of a single-minded drive toward a specific goal.

One foundation of this point of view is valuing the effort more highly than the results. Rather than allow the ends to justify the means, this approach prioritizes the direction and strength of the effort itself.

John Wooden understood this when he defined success as: “The peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable.”

Not a word about winning.

And yet his teams won 80% of their games.

A skeptic might argue that Coach Wooden could afford to take this view of success because his teams were winning so often. But I believe it’s more accurate and helpful to recognize that his teams won so often because they were working primarily to maximize the strength and direction of their effort, on and off the court.

It turns out that, when you consistently direct your efforts toward the ingredients of personal and professional success, it’s relatively easy to perform at a high level and generate excellent results.

Aside from Coach Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success” and the UU fellowship’s seven principles, I believe the guidelines for consistently succeeding in your work and your life include:

  • Knowing what you want to achieve, at your deepest levels of thinking and feeling,
  • Identifying what you must do to achieve all that,
  • Developing the willingness to do all that’s needed,
  • Doing it all, and
  • Cultivating the readiness to accept the rewards that come from your effort.

This last point is critical, in my experience, because – no matter how loudly they may proclaim their desire to reach specific goals – people are too often unwilling or afraid to achieve the full success they talk about.

The reasons are deeply psychological and beyond the scope of this piece. But the point is intuitively clear: if you are unwilling or afraid to succeed, you will never get there. You will experience too much emotional complexity and encounter too many external factors to overcome. You will find all sorts of internal and external reasons, and identify all manner of obstacles, that allow you to explain why you haven’t reached your goals. Some of these may even be objectively true.

It’s only when you highly value and concentrate primarily on efforts toward accumulating the building blocks of success that you can make steady progress toward the work and the life you’ll find most satisfying, productive, and successful.

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