When hard work is lazy

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FearI once asked someone who had worked incredibly hard, and reached a measure of success, how he did it.  What motivated him day after day to work so hard?  It was an honest question.  I was a young adult, and he was a role model.

“Fear,” he said.

He was a man of few words—one of the reasons I respected him so much.

That was probably twenty-five years ago, but I’ve been wrestling with that response ever since.  If we’re going to talk about human potential, I think we have to also talk about fear.  It’s kind of a big deal.  It is a motivator, no doubt: fear of failure, embarrassment, unemployment, poverty, hunger, loss of status, whatever.

Fear works.  I’ve seen it.  Heck, I’ve used it–to motivate myself as well as others.  But is it really effective?  If we’re talking about bringing out our best, if we’re talking about reaching our ultimate potential—becoming the best we can be—is fear a healthy motivational tool?

After a quarter century of reflection, I think I’ve come to a solid conclusion.  While fear may get me out of bed and to work on time, it most certainly does not help me once I’m there.  In fact, I’ve found that fear actually hinders my performance.  I’m not alone in this.

Studies have shown that fear effectively shuts down the parts of our brains responsible for creativity and problem solving.  Fear increases cortisol, the stress hormone secreted by the adrenal glands, to prepare the body to fight or flee.  Cortisol raises blood sugar levels, blood pressure, lowers the immune response, and over time, reduces bone density and increases belly fat–which has been linked to higher incidences of heart disease.

So it’s clear that using fear is not a healthy long-term approach to motivation.  But what about in the short-term?  Can fear give us that kick we may need to get over the hump?

The answer to that depends entirely on the nature of the hump.  If said hump is a straight forward black and white problem with a known solution requiring only mindless activity for success—then yes, fear has been shown to be very effective.  Getting out of bed, dressed, in the car and to work or class—is a good example of this sort of problem.  So is running for your life.

If however, one needs access to his higher order thinking skills— analysis, creativity, problem solving—fear is actually a huge hindrance.  The issue isn’t so much that fear prevents us from thinking straight—it actually stimulates our brains to think too straight.  By increasing fight or flight hormones, fear actually severely limits our ability to work our way through problems for which there are no obvious solutions.  If we don’t see the answer right away, right in front of us, fear does not broaden our vision giving us the ability to find hidden pieces of the puzzle—instead, it narrows it and focuses in on the problem.  Which, again, is great if there’s a lion bearing down on you, but not so great if there is an angry customer in your face.

To use a tired cliché, fear does not help us to “think outside the box.”  Instead, it shrinks the box.

While fear may fuel survival, it does not fuel success.  At least not the kind of success that leads to a life well lived.  Without fear, we free our brains to be more positive, engaged, creative, energetic, resilient and productive.

To be clear, fear is an emotional response that absolutely serves a purpose.  The thing to remember and guard against however, is that fear is also habit forming.  Many today have fallen into a lazy trap in thinking that the adrenaline kick we get from fear is worth it if it gets us moving.  If it gets us moving, it will often keep us moving.  If it’s fear that keeps us moving, that often looks and feels like hard work.  Hard work is something we value as a key component of success.  So, in a sense, fear is also something that has come to be valued.

When my role model twenty-five years ago told me that fear motivated him, not once did I ever consider him weak for it.  Quite the opposite.

But I’d like to offer another perspective.  Hard work, if motivated by fear, is lazy.  While fear can stimulate hard work, it absolutely cannot stimulate smart work.  Today’s problems are complicated and complex, and we need more than simple hard work to succeed.  We need smart work.

And fear will not get us there.

Photo Credit: Logan Brumm Photography and Design via Compfight cc

One Comment

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