Spend enough time in certain famous institutions, universities, and workplaces, and you will realise that the prevailing culture is, in a word, workaholic. That is not to say that the students there are miserable. Most of them are competitive, eager to learn, and hurl themselves into their work and achievements. There’s a spirit of fearlessness in the air, a gung-ho approach to trials and tribulations.
I’m actually extraordinarily grateful to have been immersed in this type of an environment from an early age. As Gifted Education Programme students, we were what we now call “frenemies” – friends who strategically allied with each other in competition to outdo each other.
In junior college, we would congregate at Orchard Road on a Saturday evening (back when people actually went to Orchard Road) to swap meticulously compiled notes and study late into the night over cheese sticks and onion rings.
At Princeton and Oxford, it was commonplace to see people stumbling out bleary-eyed from study spaces across campus at the crack of dawn, having stayed up all night to finish their assignments – and then it was straight into lectures, tutorials or precepts. Quite the badge of honour, really.
It’s this spirit of hard work that I see these high-flying friends now pouring into their working lives, as tech revolutionaries, entrepreneurs, content magicians and inventors.
It’s also a spirit that I truly believe in sustaining, as an educator. Too often we hear platitudes about giving children a childhood, about how stressful their lives are, about the importance of play, as if the studious and hardworking nerds of yesteryear all turned out to be mindless robots. (Of course this type of thinking goes all the way back to an 18th century philosopher named Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who would be greatly heartened to discover his maxims are still alive and kicking three hundred years later!)
Those of us who worked relentlessly throughout our childhoods turned out just fine, thank you. Fantastic, actually. The false dichotomy of a work-life balance seems absurd to us because our life is our work, and it’s filled with passion and energy. Every. Single. Day.
Hard work, buoyed along by a competitive spirit, is not a curse but a virtue. It was extolled all across the world, manifested in historical work ethics from the Confucian to the Protestant. Yet it shouldn’t be miserable, otherwise you’re doing it wrong. Here’s how we learned to work hard:
1. Surround yourself with a competitive crowd. They’ll push you further than you thought possible.
Peer influence is one of the most defining features of one’s life. Being with the right set, around people who are motivated and driven, brings out the same competitive spirit in you. The right role models can also exert a significant influence. Do also consider the butterfly effect, where a tiny change in one’s initial state can drastically alter one’s future outcome.
2. Throw yourself into your work and over-extend yourself. You will fail miserably several times, but you’ll survive and flourish.
I can’t count the number of times in my childhood when I bit off more than I could chew and things fell apart. Self-doubt and self-chastisement would overwhelm me at times. In retrospect, I was learning how to manage my time, prioritise my tasks and cope with seemingly insurmountable stress. This is important. I made my mistakes as a child, which is surely what childhood is for. Remember the evergreen quote from Nietzsche: Whatever does not kill you only makes you stronger.
3. Find meaning and joy in work. Yes, go with the flow.
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi developed the concept of flow, an experience where someone becomes completely immersed in their activity, such that their awareness merges with their work. This feeling is pure and unadulterated joy. Working hard, consistently, and simply grinding away until you have achieved complete mastery over your work is the path to achieving this transcendental state. That, in essence, is when you truly understand your life’s work.