Assiduity: Work Hard and Don’t Quit Too Early
Stories of Mozart, Elvis, and a billionaire aged 95
In 2010, I dropped myself into a 60-hour workweek by accident: I started college with no idea what would hit me.
I remember adding all my lectures, tutorials, and seminars to my schedule and realizing: If I attend all of these, I’ll spend 40 hours a week just getting input — and I won’t have done any studying or assignments yet.
In our first semester, we had seven subjects, ranging from math to economics to programming to materials science and business, each with a big final exam that determined 100% of our grade. The pressure was on. While my friends and I didn’t know the first thing about these topics, we also had to code a new mini program each week, hand it in, and present it to a tutor. It was a lot.
None of us knew what to expect, and, facing such a crazy workload, we were, quite frankly, scared shitless. In order to cope, we did what most cornered animals do: we fought. Luckily, in Germany, attendance isn’t mandatory for most classes, so we skipped what we could and, instead, focused on getting things done.
Every day, we went to the library, sometimes as early as 6 or 7 AM, and worked like hell. We studied 13, 14, 15 hours a day. Alone. Together. Working on the same problems or completely different ones. We compared our notes, shared solutions, and stared at the programming console until the code finally worked. It was a nightmare, but in the end, we passed all of our exams.
That first semester was a real wake-up call. In the words of German singer Farin Urlaub: “Life is not Home Depot, and there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Having cruised through high school on little to no studying and with good grades, I had finally arrived in the real world — and it was tough.
If you had listed everything I would do and accomplish that year in advance, I would have said, “Impossible!” Looking back, however, as hard as it was, I feel incredibly proud of overcoming all these obstacles. With each long work day came a sense of accomplishment, and the more days I racked up, the more I started seeing myself as a gritty person.
Ultimately, I gained a lot of confidence from all this hard work, confidence that then helped me achieve bigger goals and exceed my own expectations — and that I rely on to this day.
What is assiduity?
The word ‘assiduity’ made its first appearance in the 16th century. It describes an attitude of great attention, care, and effort to what one is doing.
Unlike words such as ‘diligence,’ ‘concentration,’ or ‘ambition,’ it includes a sense of stubbornness. Imagine a dog fighting to keep his bone — he’s unrelenting. He just won’t give up.
Merriam-Webster defines assiduity well with a three-word catchphrase: persistent personal attention.
The late talent agent and movie producer Jerry Weintraub provides a good example: For 365 days in a row, he called Elvis’ manager, asking to take the King of Rock ’n’ roll on tour. Eventually, he did, and the shows in large arenas he subsequently organized became the innovation that made his career.
Jerry mostly prided himself in his persistence, saying that, “The person who makes it is the person who keeps on going after everyone else has quit.” That’s true, but I think Jerry did more than that: He also showed great care and attention to what his target’s needs were. When you call someone for 365 days in a row, part of the magic is getting them to keep picking up — and that takes more than brute force.
Assiduity is deciding to do the right job the right way and then committing to stick with it until it’s done. Assiduity comes in two flavors: There’s the kind that makes you see through the first semester when you want to quit after the first week and the kind that lets you finish each slide deck, exercise, and class in order to do so.
Charlie Munger is the vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s company. He’s 96 years old, a billionaire, and the person Buffett credits most for his success.
A young man goes to see Mozart, and he says, “Mozart, I want to start composing symphonies.” Mozart asks, “How old are you?” and the guy says, “22.”
Mozart tells him, “You’re too young to do symphonies,” but the guy retorts: “Yes, but you were 10 years old when you were composing symphonies.”
“Yes, but I wasn’t running around asking other people how to do it.”
What Charlie is trying to tell us with this snippy comment is: Don’t quit too early. If you don’t invest serious effort into mastering your craft, no advice from even the greatest in your field can make up for it. Until you’ve done so, don’t give up!
It’s the cliché millennial dilemma Simon Sinek frequently bumps into:
I keep meeting these wonderful, fantastic, idealistic, hard-working, smart kids. They’ve just graduated school. They’re in their entry-level job. I sit down with them, and I go: “How’s it goin’?” They go, “I think I’m gonna quit.” I ask why. They’re like, “I’m not making an impact.” I’m like, “You’ve been here eight months.”
Charlie began his career as a lawyer. Thinking he didn’t like it, he started working on investment deals in his spare time. Once he’d settled into a career as an investor, however, he realized he could’ve just stuck with being a lawyer:
I think this flitting-around business is something not everybody should try. I think if I tried it again, it might not have worked as well.
Passion for your work isn’t a one-way street. Any job will become more fun as you get better at it. Yes, you might have to make a big change later, but be honest with yourself: So far, have you even tried? Like, really tried?
Humans are bad at understanding the concept of time, but we’re even worse at estimating and managing it, especially as the numbers get larger. If you count back one million seconds, you’ll land 12 days ago. A billion is 1,000 times larger. You know the difference, right?
Well, if you turn the clock back one billion seconds, you’ll arrive…30 years ago. In the same way, we tend to overestimate how much we can do in a year but underestimate how much we can pull off in ten. “As a result of our short-sightedness, we are overfeeding the present by stealing from the future,” Jim Brumm writes in Long-Term Thinking for a Short-Sighted World.
Don’t quit too early. Have some macro-assiduity.
“Have a lot of assiduity. I like that word because it means: Sit down on your ass until you do it.”
Sounds real simple, doesn’t it? You have the work. You know what to do. You get on your ass. You sit down. And you do it. Ass. Sit. Do it. As in Jerry Weintraub’s story, however, I think there is a second part to this: You don’t just sit until you start. You also sit until you finish.
In college, we didn’t know how long we’d need to get our algorithm to draw a Pythagoras tree. We just sat there until we figured it out. We even have a word for this in German: “Sitzfleisch.” Taken literally, it translates to “seat-meat,” the metaphor being that you have a strong butt — a butt that can stay in a chair for a long time. Ass-sit-do-it-y.
Finding the ability to embrace your work, no matter how difficult, as a challenge instead of a threat can be one way to overcome the emotional challenge of finishing what we start.
Next to sound, music, and managing your internal and external triggers, reframing problems as projects can help you convert at least some of your stress into inspiration. Furthermore, the same long-term thinking that’ll allow you to stick with a one-year project can also make the short-term decision to keep working on a strenuous task easier.
For the most part, our day-to-day tasks are well-defined. If you have a job, are getting a degree, or have been freelancing for a while, chances are, your list of objectives is long enough.
For more nebulous, self-driven career paths, a good rule of thumb is to follow the verb that goes with the noun of what you’d like to call yourself. That’s the part that can’t be compromised. A writer must write. A speaker must speak. A runner must run. And so on.
Find the tasks essential to your long-term goal, sit on your ass, and do them.
Life is not a straight line. Sometimes, you have to work late to deliver on a promise you made to a customer. This isn’t to say you should sacrifice your health for your job, but if you’re unwilling to show up when you’re needed the most, especially if it’s uncomfortable, you’ll never be able to take on the amount of responsibility required to also gain the benefits that come with it: self-determination, unlimited financial upside, and freedom of time.
While your attitude to work directly impacts these tangible results, it also builds a set of strong, indirect benefits over time. Sitting with tasks until they’re done comes with a sense of accomplishment and trust in your ability to overcome obstacles. You’re proving yourself to be gritty, one day at a time. Eventually, you’ll form genuine confidence and achieve more than you ever thought possible.
Life may not be Home Depot, but it’s a great feeling to take pride in your work — even without a free lunch.