Is giving 110% really the key to success?

Is giving 110% really the key to success?

I recently read this  article regarding level of effort being the difference between going from Good to Great.  The author, Sean Ogle, wrote a very compelling argument about why his success has been good, but not meteoric, is that he gives about 85% versus 100% to his blog.  This, along with reading a book about John Wooden for a leadership class I’m in, prompted me to really think about effort and success.

Contrary to both Ogle’s article and Wooden, I question:

Are effort and success really as tied together as we’ve been led to believe?

I’m sure the give it your all lecture is old news to you.   It’s been pounded into teenage heads by coaches on the sidelines and in the locker room for years.   Soft spoken coaches and screaming, red in the face coaches alike have said some variation of:

The other team gave 110%, that’s why they won and you lost.  You need to give 110% to everything you do, every day, to win this game and in life.

Parents across the country have said:

I’m disappointed because I know you can do better.  This isn’t your best effort.


As long as you are trying your hardest, I’ll be proud of you.

What about this one?

You can be anything you want to be if you work hard and give 110%.

What do you think about that?

When you stop and think, do you really believe it?  Can you be ANYTHING you want to be if you just try hard enough?

Is hard work going to turn a 5ft 2in woman into an NBA basketball player? No.

Is hard work going to allow a man with an IQ of 85 to be the next CEO of General Motors? No.

Hard work is NOT the key.

There are physical, cultural, educational, gender, race and age biases affecting your success or failure.

For example:  You are statistically likely to be paid $1,000 more per year for every inch that you are taller than the average person.   This has absolutely nothing to do with giving 110%, but rather with what DNA you were blessed or cursed with having.

If you are an ugly woman you will likely average 5% less than an attractive counterpart.

If you’re an ugly man, you are even  harder hit and will likely average 10% less than an equally qualified attractive man.

I’ve written previously that if you weigh more than you should, you’ll make $13,000 less than your average weight counterpart and if you are 25lbs underweight you will earn $15,000 more than your average weight equivalent.   I suppose this potentially does have something to do with hard work, but it isn’t a measure of the effort you are putting in at the office, that’s for sure.

Physical attributes aren’t the only characteristics undermining the concept that giving 110% is what it takes to succeed.  There are the concepts of being in the right place at the right time, luck, circumstance and timing that affect your likelihood of success also.

For example:  You and your identical twin work in the same company in different departments.  You look the same, have the same education, same soft and technical skills, etc.  For all practical purposes, you are the same person.

However, one day your twin’s direct supervisor quits and so your twin is offered the opportunity to move up into that position.  Your supervisor, on the other hand, is incredibly loyal and isn’t going anywhere.   Through no fault of your own or difference in hard work, your twin has just jumped up a level.  Does giving 110% make any difference here?  Not really.  It’s just luck.

Another example:  You are on the track team and are training for 4 hours every day.  Your teammate, who happens to be blessed with longer legs and greater lung capacity, is also training 4 hours a day just as hard as you are.   If you haven’t figured it out already, let me burst your bubble…your teammate is going to win the race.

Not because you haven’t worked just as hard, but because she was gifted with DNA more suited for running track.

What does hard work get you?

A caveat to the above example, is that you may win if you are training 4 hours a day and the other, more naturally gifted athlete, is only training 2 hours a day.  In this case, effort may make the difference.  It is not guaranteed, though.  We don’t know what amount of training will be necessary to overcome the physical advantage that other person has over you.

Ultimately, hard work will only set you apart IF all other things are equal.  In that case, hard work and persistence will set you apart from your peers.

Eventually, most of us learn that message.   In fact, it’s probably right around the time we start thinking life is “unfair” and no one understands us.  When is that?  14 ish?

Hmm, I haven’t thought this through all the way, but maybe this revelation is tied to when we forget how to play and to enjoy life?   What does having our optimism squashed when we learn we actually can’t do anything and be anything we want do to us?  Do we really want to set our children up like this?

What should we tell our children?

I’ve pretty much decided (after this reflection) that telling my kids they can be anything they want to be if they just give it their all, is a bunch of hogwash.   I am perpetuating a fallacy and setting them up for disappointment.  Is that what I want to do?  No.

So what do I say instead?  Sorry, darling.  You’re destined to be mediocre because you just really aren’t that smart.  Um, no, not saying that either.

What should we be saying?

I can’t say that I have the answer and I definitely haven’t tried this out and then raised successful people that I can use as evidence to prove my point.  However, my initial thoughts are:

  • I want to support my children.
  • I want to teach them to be proud of themselves if they tried hard and not compare themselves to others.
  • I want to encourage them to pursue careers and lives that take advantage of their natural strengths and abilities.  In that case they will be at an advantage and hard work will set them apart.
  • I want them to be the best they can be and not settle for 85% of what they can accomplish.

Mostly though, I want them to:

  • Value happiness and give 110% to attaining it.

If this resonates with you at all, if you think this would be a better lesson for our children than our current message.  Please tweet about it, put it on facebook, or write about it and link back to this article. And don’t forget to like us on Facebook and subscribe via email, too.

9 Responses to Is giving 110% really the key to success?

  1. Really good article here. I think the key to everything is what you mentioned at the end – happiness. It doesn’t matter if you put in 10% or 110% if you’re happy that’s whats most important. If you can find a way to do that with minimal effort then that’s fantastic, but for most people it’s going to be somewhere in between those two numbers.

    Also, thanks for the mention :)

    • Thanks Sean. I agree that happiness should be what we are all striving toward. I am perhaps in a mid-life crisis though because I keep thinking that striving toward something means I will never think “ah, now I’m done.” So, when do you say that this is enough? I am happy, NOW. I don’t expect you to have the answers, I’m just pondering that balance…

      By the way – any other readers that haven’t read Sean’s article, go read it! It’s great and linked in the first sentence.

  2. I still subscribe to Grandma’s wisdom of “working smarter than harder.” I too often wonder what is the best thing to say to our children. Often I resort to asking them a few questions?
    1. Are you happy with your effort? If the answer is yes, then we move on. If not the questioning continues..
    2. What would you do differently, and how can we accomplish this? Or
    3. What does really good look like for you?
    4. What do you want out of this project, homework, etc?

    But most of all, I just want them to know that I love them and that life sometimes just isn’t easy, but someone (mom,dad, teachers,etc) is there to help them figure it out.

  3. Isn’t giving 110% the equivalent of giving 10%. By no means a math wiz but it seems to me like giving 100% is good. If you give 110% you are still 90% short of a whole percent.

  4. This is a tough one. I certainly wouldn’t tell my child to not put every effort they could into something for them to succeed, I think that might send the wrong message, but I would overlay another message indicating something along the lines of sometimes you just can’t have everything you want, or sometimes even when you give it your all, there is always someone else that is fighting for the same thing. Something along those lines.

    I have a step son who was not encouraged in any way to go to college or advance himself because no one in his family has ever done so. So did he go to college….no.

    But I had a teacher tell me that I could do anything I wanted to do and that going to college would be my stepping stone to do that. I never got that from my family at all who by the way not a soul attended college. So what did I do with that little encouragement of giving it my all giving it 110 perecent, I went to college. 3 different ones in fact and still graduated with a degree in four years and worked in my career field of choice until marriage and life lead me to being a stay at home mom. But all I needed was someone literally pushing me and telling me I needed to do this for myself for me to get there. It certainly didn’t come from my family.

    Anyway, its not that I disagree, its just that if failure and when failure happens to my child, I would make them stand themselves up, I would kiss their owies and tell them to go give it another try.

    Those are just my thoughts. I would also emphasize that in the game of life there are loosers, there are winners and there are the people in between and that not everyone can be good at everything, you have to choose that one talent you were given and go for it.

    • Great comment Heather! I think we are saying the same thing actually. I fully believe in supporting and pushing our children to achieve and strive for more than is comfortable for them.

      I’d be overjoyed if our oldest came home with straight C’s, but would be seriously upset my daughter is she brought home a B because I know that isn’t HER personal best. You should always try hard on anything you attempt. No question there.

      I should probably have made it more clear that I fully believe in putting forth your best effort, just that it won’t necessarily win the day for you depending on other factors.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts!!

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