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If there’s a formula for success, computer scientist Paul Graham says it would feature three ingredients – natural ability, practice and effort.

“You can do pretty well with just two, but to do the best work you need all three: you need great natural ability and to have practised a lot and to be trying very hard,” he writes in an essay on his blog.

He notes that Bill Gates – who had plenty of smarts – has said, “I never took a day off in my 20s. Not one.”

If great talent and great drive are both rare, then people with both are extremely rare – in mathematical terms, Mr. Graham says, rare squared.

“Most people you meet who have a lot of one will have less of the other. But you’ll need both if you want to be an outlier yourself. And since you can’t really change how much natural talent you have, in practice doing great work, insofar as you can, reduces to working very hard,” he writes.

But working hard is not that simple if you don’t have clearly defined, externally imposed goals, as at school. In that situation you had to learn not to lie to yourself, not to procrastinate and not to give up when things went wrong. But you also need to handle times when goals aren’t clearly defined or externally imposed. One warning: Don’t get seduced by busywork.

“There’s a kind of solidity to real work,” he says. “It all feels necessary.”

Once you define what’s necessary, you need to clarify how many hours hard work will involve. It’s not every available hour because at some point the quality of your work declines.

“That limit varies depending on the type of work and the person. I’ve done several different kinds of work, and the limits were different for each. My limit for the harder types of writing or programming is about five hours a day. Whereas when I was running a startup, I could work all the time. At least for the three years I did it; if I’d kept going much longer, I’d probably have needed to take occasional vacations,” he says.

You’ll know how much work is too much when you notice a decline in quality. Be sensitive to when that occurs. It’s not something you need to notice once, either; it’s a continual battle to find that tipping point.

“And if you think there’s something admirable about working too hard, get that idea out of your head. You’re not merely getting worse results, but getting them because you’re showing off – if not to other people, then to yourself,” he warns.

He says many problems have a hard core at the centre, surrounded by easier stuff at the edges. Working hard involves aiming at the tough stuff at the centre, not just the peripheral issues, although on some days the easy stuff will be all you can tackle.

As well as learning the shape of real work he says you need to figure out which kind you’re suited for. That extends beyond natural ability to what you are deeply interested in, since that will help your motivation to work hard. And he warns it can be harder to discover your interests than your talents.

“Working hard is not just a dial you turn up to 11. It’s a complicated, dynamic system that has to be tuned just right at each point. You have to understand the shape of real work, see clearly what kind you’re best suited for, aim as close to the true core of it as you can, accurately judge at each moment both what you’re capable of and how you’re doing, and put in as many hours each day as you can without harming the quality of the result,” he concludes.

It can be hard work to work hard.

Quick hits

  • When faced with tasks you hate doing, productivity consultant Mike Vardy recommends applying the Pomodoro technique of consecutive 25-minute, flat-out sessions, separated by short breaks. Knowing you have a time limit will help you begin working on something for which you are unenthusiastic.
  • If you’re trying to pivot to a new career path, career advisers stress you are competing with “smack-in-the-forehead obvious” candidates, probably already doing similar jobs. You need to spell out how the aggregate of your education, skills and experience make you an even better contender than someone who has taken a linear career path in the same field. A good place for that is your resume summary.
  • You gain the power of persuasion when you learn to see through the eyes of others, advises marketing consultant Roy H. Williams. That allows you to talk to them about what they already care about instead of lecturing them on what they ought to care about.
  • Whenever you feel stressed, stop what you are doing and for two minutes write out everything running through your head onto paper. The stress melts away after the two-minute brain dump, insists time management coach Alexis Haselberger.
  • Train your brain to remember what you heard or read with the technique of German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. Spend 10 minutes reviewing the material within 24 hours of having received it; add five minutes to refresh it seven days later; and then on day 30, spend two to four minutes to completely reactivate the same material, explains trainer Scott Mautz.

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