Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord

Our general is the one on the left with his foot forward.

I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent — their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy — they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent — he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.

– Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, German Commanding General

I came across this quote when I was in the Marines. The point about avoiding people who are stupid and diligent is funny, but the reason this always stuck with me is because of the observation that clever and lazy people make good leaders. It runs counter to the Puritan work ethic that permeates American culture and much advice on success.

In the self-funded and consulting entrepreneurial circles I participate in there is a lot of advice that emphasizes doing and not thinking:

  • Brilliance is in the execution.
  • You gotta hustle.
  • #JFDI Just fucking do it.
  • Ship, ship, ship.

I call this the grind mentality. Underneath it all, is this idea that hard work = success.

There are plenty examples of hard-working people who made it. We sing their praises all the time. What about all the people that worked hard and didn’t make it though? They just weren’t working hard enough?

The Stories We Don’t Tell

I suspect there’s a significant survivor bias in the stories we celebrate about work ethic. For every story about Rudy the scrappy football player who made the team there are twenty other stories no one knows about the scrappy football player who got stress fractures in his shins so bad he couldn’t walk to practice and ended up washing out.

I’ve some experience with this.

When I was in the Marines, I worked really hard and was able to get promoted from the E1 to E5 in 2.5 years. That’s over halfway through the Marine Corps enlisted rank structure from Private to Sergeant. It’s a real hard work success story.

In my first two years in business as a freelancer, I worked really hard and was able to live beneath the poverty line. I was actually getting kickbacks from the government because they told me I was essentially one of the working poor.  It’s a real hard work failure story.

Laziness, Luck, and Hope

It’s a bit paradoxical, but there is a laziness in doing. It’s easier to just do something and hope that it will work rather than think it through and make a calculated choice.

There’s a quote, “The harder I work the luckier I am.” A later adaptation of it is the “luck surface area”.  The more work you do, the more “things” you have out in the environment, the better your chances of getting lucky.

I think that there’s some truth to it in that most of the time hard work will create options.

The problem is that the grind mentality relies upon luck to carry the day. You count on your luck surface area and its spread to generate a hit- hoping for success as a strategy. Unfortunately, it’s a big world we live in with billions of options out there and without critical thinking guiding execution it’s much more likely that outcomes won’t line up with what you are striving for than you getting what you want.

Thinking: Fast, Cheap, Powerful

Getting things done feels good and is easy in its own way. Doing meaningful work is a lot more difficult to achieve and thinking, not doing, is what makes the difference.

Thinking is a point of leverage. It’s the fulcrum upon which action rests.

  • You can invalidate entire courses of action by taking the time to do the napkin math.
  • You can determine likely outcomes based on what you already know.
  • You can discover shortcuts and workarounds that save you weeks through analysis.
  • You can brainstorm better options with a higher probability of success than the ones that immediately come to mind.
  • You can use working models to forecast the future for a matching strategy.
  • You can talk to an expert to focus on effective strategies or tactics and find out what matters and what doesn’t.

And all this is a thousand times faster than having to learn the same information through effort and failure.

Am I Against Hard Work?

Is there anything wrong with hard work? Of course not. But that’s not the magic sauce. Anybody can work hard and get lucky – just keep expending your time and energy. Grind. And hope that you’re one of the chosen that fortune smiles upon.

Predictably impacting your environment, making progress, and achieving goals requires more than effort- it requires critical thinking.  And, if you believe our German general, the hard work part is the optional part of the equation, not the thinking.