Why Success Is Hard

I’m sitting in a local coffee shop. I’m walking downtown. I’m browsing social media. I’m waiting for hot yoga to start. It’s late 2017, and I’m concerned.

“Nothing is given, everything is earned” — LeBron James, 2014.

What does this quote mean to you? Does it take a different meaning coming from one of the richest athletes on the planet? One billion dollars via contractual agreement is nothing to laugh at, and of course it was earned. Of course it was. Winning history’s genetic lottery is one thing, but applying talent consistently over a 20+ year basketball career creates the opportunity to earn more money than most people can imagine.

To succeed in athletics, it takes hard work. Dedication. Focus. Waking up every day with a specific goal in mind, and the means to achieve that goal. Doing the right things, consistently, over a long period of time. 2003 LeBron, widely regarded as a generational prodigy coming out of high school, didn’t stop working, and hasn’t stopped working 14 years later. Can’t stop won’t stop, right?

It’s easy to talk about ‘Bron as a hardworking figure, willing to do anything it takes to succeed. A journey from perhaps the luckiest genetic beginnings imaginable, to a consensus top three player in history, has happened before our eyes. As sports-loving millennials, the overriding feeling is not to be inspired, but to admire.

“Wow, LeBron is such a great basketball player. We’re lucky to be watching him play,” admits an adoring friend in hushed tones. Legions of jersey-wearing, YMCA-playing fanatics have such admiration for the central figures of our world. “They’re so lucky. I wish I could make millions of dollars doing what I love.”

Let’s look at this. Money is one piece, and enjoyment is another. Our comrade is wishing for another life, where money and happiness are easily accessed and maintained. They are independent, and yet an inherent assumption is that one leads to another. By nature and nurture, we strive to reach our personal and professional goals, earn more, and achieve mental clarity and enjoyment. At least, that’s what one would assume. Access to information, the proliferation of social media and changing generational conditions have resulted in both more opportunity and more risk.

In 2017, we lack depth and understanding. We’re told what to do, not how to do it. Consider LeBron. To surpass MJ and become the greatest basketball player in history, he understands commitment and hard work. The path is clear, and simply needs to be followed. Stop being the hardest worker, and his chance of becoming the greatest player in history diminishes. It’s this clarity — and corresponding application — that has been eroding in the face of more access and more potential. More of everything hasn’t necessarily been a good thing.

Listening to others in a variety of settings has me uneasy. In the age of information, with the ability to dig deeper and understand better than ever, more and more younger millennials are recoiling from the challenges of achievement. Professor grades too harsh? They are unfair. Can’t find the ideal job? I’ll take what’s easy. Don’t like your job? It pays well. Gaining weight? Healthy eating and exercise takes too much time or is too expensive.

We’re extremely good at spending time on a variety of shared activities: alcohol and nightlife, Netflix, football Sunday, social media, endless news consumption, cable television, and so much more. These activities grab our whole attention in such a generationally different way that we’ve been re-wired. The simplicity of a professional athlete’s mindset and my friend’s awe is nothing more than the correct blueprint for success and fulfillment: pick what you like to do, truly apply yourself, and work hard.

This isn’t a case of returning to simpler times. Our access to information, knowledge, and sense of connection is intrinsically linked to a more positive life. With this massive starting advantage, we continue to be held back by activities without a goal. Our prime achieving years are whittled away in a variety of ways, leaving us to pick up the pieces much too late, if at all.

The good news: we know how to fix it, and change can be realized immediately. Instead of watching that Netflix show, spend some time learning about success in your area of passion. Instead of spending the night on social media, go to a yoga class. Instead of reading the news after work, ask someone you admire to grab a coffee. There are countless ways to break above the cloud of goal-less time and to find value in a new pursuit. Rely on application and hard work, and you’re onto something.

So, I’m also hopeful. Hopeful that net positive will emerge greater than net negative, that LeBron and you and me continue to be inspired and inspire others for generations to come. Success in 2017 is hard, but also the most attainable it’s ever been.