Consider any task that requires effort over a period of time. Examples would be studying a subject or marketing a product. Each such task demands various activities to be performed. For example, when studying a programming language, you will have to read different books and other material, understand various programming environments, and experiment with different examples and projects.
The question I want to discuss here is: How many activities provide an actual return in terms of the goal you want to achieve? For example, do you have to read all the prescribed books? How many programs do you need to write before you are proficient? How much does each activity contribute to your learning? Should you increase or reduce a particular activity?
A similar set of thoughts passed through my mind when I was looking at the graph below:
The graph shows the percentage of page views received by each individual page on this blog. Here are some interesting statistics:
- The most popular post received 20% of the page views.
- The most popular post received page views equal to the bottom 66% of other posts, i.e., 127 posts.
- The top 15 posts received over 50% of the page views. (Similar to the 80/20 Principle)
So what does that mean? Here is how I could misinterpret this information:
- Stupid deduction 1: I could have achieved almost the same results with considerably less effort.
- Stupid deduction 2: The non-popular posts were a waste of time.
- Stupid deduction 3: I should only try to post posts that have a chance of being popular.
The reasoning seem straightforward, so why are the deductions stupid?
- The successful blogs would not have happened if I hadn’t continued to write more and hit upon some that people found useful.
- Each additional post contributed to greater search engine visibility that helped people find the website. Without a lot of content, the successful posts would not have been discovered.
- Each post helped me understand how to write a little better each time. Every time you do something, you learn something new.
- Some of the success was incidental. For example, posts about technical problems were very successful although that is not my primary focus.
This brings me to the topic under discussion. How does this relate to effort and reward? Here are some of the lessons learned:
- Immediate success is a mirage. You must work extremely hard over a period of time to achieve a few successes.
- Much of the work you do will never be adequately rewarded. In fact, much of it will have zero direct reward.
- Every part of your work contributes in some way towards creating those elusive successes. The very least it can do is make you better at the task.
- A “masterpiece” worked on for days may turn out to be a dud, where as something that requires less effort may be a hit. The trick is to keep producing.
In many situations, I have seen people just give up because they don’t see the results that they are looking for. Too often, they blame themselves for not having the talent, instead of looking at the real problem: lack of sufficient effort. It is not that people are lazy, it is just that they underestimate the magnitude of hard work involved.
Achieving any sort of success in any field takes years of dedicated effort. You must first spend time learning the basics. Then you learn the achievements of people previously in the field. You compete with contemporaries. You experiment and come up with innovations. You spend more time perfecting some of the techniques you learnt. You also face disasters and flops, in spite of your best efforts.
Quite often, you go down dead ends or do something that yields poor results. For example, a photographer may visit certain places for good scenes or try different kinds of cameras and films, but only some of them succeed. But even when you have failures, you are still practicing techniques that may work better in a different setting. Even in the worst failures, there are things that you did right.
Success has a cumulative effect. In more elegant terms, it is called the Long Tail. The idea is that once you have created something, you have no more expenses, but you can continue to benefit from it. Consider a reasonably skilled singer. The more she sings, the more she is likely to have a huge hit. Any hit has a beneficial sales effect on older songs. The singer benefits from the previous work created while not having to spend any more effort in creation. However, if she aimed to create just one successful song, she would probably fail.
People focusing on only results make the following vital mistakes:
- They tend to work only on those activities that they “think” will yield results. They could be wrong. They could be selectively choosing the wrong things. For example, I have seen some students memorizing answers instead of learning them. They fail when the question doesn’t exactly match what they memorized.
- Immediate results may be different from long-term results. For example, although passing an exam may be your highest priority, not learning the subject puts you at a significant disadvantage later on in your career compared to someone who has learnt the subject really well.
The bottom line: Work harder. Produce more. Rewards will follow.