Well readhead: the illusion hard work alone triumphs
Our society puts great stock in the merits of hard work. You know how it goes. If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything.
Fail to achieve a goal? If only you’d worked harder. For an upcoming Lateline interview, I’ve read a book called Bounce by Mathew Syed.
His theory is that God-given talent is a myth and that the key to achieving greatness lies in how hard you’re prepared to work. I’m not sure I buy all of that.
Certainly the failure to work hard virtually guarantees mediocrity. But the reality is that hard work doesn’t always pay off.
There’s no better illustration of that than Kevin Rudd’s ousting as Prime Minister last week.
In politics, some people win and some people lose. The difference between winning and losing isn’t necessarily hard work. In politics, almost everybody works arduously. But you can be working arduously towards losing.
Defeat can be particularly stinging when you’ve given everything you have in the contest.
In 1999, I covered the NSW state election for ABC-TV News. The Labor Premier Bob Carr took on the newly installed Liberal leader Kerry Chikarovski. A little like Kevin Rudd and Alastair Jordan, Chika (as she was known) had a very close staffer named Nicola Feltis, who had been with her from the start.
Nicola was a terrific woman and I’ve rarely seen anyone work harder, along with the rest of that team.
But over in Bob Carr’s office, he also had a group of professionals who worked tirelessly. His media staffers at the time - Walt Secord, Wendy George and Amanda Lampe – were savvy and energetic.
Carr’s team won for lots of reasons. But you couldn’t say one of those reasons was that they worked harder. Both sides worked equally hard. The differences between victory and defeat lay elsewhere: the electoral mood, the campaign messages, Carr’s communication and political skills.
Eight years later, on election night in 2007, I was assigned to John Howard’s headquarters at the Wentworth Hotel. I watched him deliver his concession speech. It is a fallacy to imagine that if Howard had only worked harder, he could have won the election. The factors in his loss had little to do with effort or will.
Last week, watching Kevin Rudd at his painful farewell press conference, I believed him when he said he gave the job his all. I am also certain that’s true of his staff. But in politics, you can sometimes be giving your all without realising you’re in a losing battle.
People deal with failure in all sorts of ways. Sometimes they say ‘If only I’d worked harder and gone that extra mile, things would have turned out differently.’
That way of thinking allows them to believe that the failure isn’t due to some intrinsic quality of their own. Nobody likes to admit ‘Well I’m just inherently not good enough.’
Sometimes people deal with failure in the opposite way by saying ‘Well I tried my best and that’s what counts.’ They take comfort in the knowledge that they did everything they could.
I think that for particularly driven people (and I suspect Kevin Rudd is one) the knowledge that you could not have worked harder is of little comfort when you don’t succeed.
If you’ve given your all and you still fail, it can be a stunning blow to your sense of self-worth.
Sometimes people search for external agents to blame rather than looking inwards – Mark Latham is an example. I once said to a very driven politician that even if he lost a certain election, he would be respected for unexpectedly making it a real contest.
He replied that he wouldn’t derive any comfort from that because he wasn’t interested in being a well-regarded loser.
Here are this fortnight’s ten interesting things to read, watch or listen to:
1. It took fewer than 24 hours for some wag to do a ‘Downfall’ parody of Kevin Rudd’s demise and it’s obviously somebody who follows politics pretty closely. Very clever.
2. The novelist Shane Maloney unexpectedly found himself in Parliament House as the coup unfolded and wrote a unique take on events.
3. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Malcolm Turnbull – someone who well knows the sting of being dumped by his colleagues - quoted some poetry in his take on Kevin Rudd’s political downfall.
4. Kevin Rudd’s departure overshadowed another very significant story, Barack Obama’s decision to remove General Stanley McCrystal from his post as commander of US forces in Afghanistan. The Rolling Stone article that sparked the sacking is an absolute cracker and well worth your time.
5. Perhaps small things amuse small minds, but these photographs of upside down dogs sure amused me.
6. Pete Quaife, the original bassist of the great 1960s band, The Kinks, passed away last week. This song is one of the band’s very best.
7. A couple of years ago, Craig Sherborne wrote an amazing essay for The Monthly about his relationship with his ex-wife, from the day they met to her death. “She is from Melbourne. Her name is like a boy’s: Alexandra. The ‘x’ crackles and fizzles on my tongue.”
8. Six academics offer their opinions about their e-readers. It’s a useful article if you’re thinking about a kindle or an ipad or weighing up the differences between them.
9. If electronic readers do bring about the demise of books, one of the things we’ll miss is writing an inscription in the front.
10. Tony Martin writes on The Scrivener’s Fancy about corporations who threaten to pull advertisements: Australia’s “most effective form of censorship”.
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