What is Actually Required for Success?

For over one year, I trained with the great folks at Columbus Weightlifting.

One of our lifters, Heather, joined the team and didn’t have a pair of weightlifting shoes. So, she borrowed a beat up pair that was riddled with cracked leather. They were easily over 10 years old. For months, I would come into the gym and there was Heather, working her butt off in those crappy, old shoes.

What happened?

She qualified to compete in the National Championships — with shoes that were barely holding themselves together.

Results like that serve as a reminder of what is actually required for success.

Think about all of the things you assume that you need to succeed — the “right” gear, the “right” credentials, the “right” experiences, the “right” degree — how much is that stuff really worth? How much of it is actually required for success?

Wasting Time on the Last 10%

We love to obsess over tactics and strategies that make the last 10% of difference.

For example: Didn’t have a good workout?

Well then, let’s debate all of the reasons why it could have been something other than you. Maybe you need to have your post–workout protein shake 30 minutes after working out instead of 60 minutes after working out. Maybe you need to get a better pair of shoes. Or a belt. Or a sweat–wicking shirt. Or knee sleeves.

What’s incredible is that these are things we actually waste time on! I’ve heard all of those crazy excuses mentioned in conversations. I’ve even said some of them myself.

Why? Because it’s easier to waste time debating the last 10% of improvement than it is to just do the thing that makes 90% of the difference. It’s easier to claim that you need a better diet plan or a new workout template or different gear than it is to admit that what you really need is to not miss a workout for the next six months.

This same idea holds true for diets and nutrition, business and entrepreneurship, writing and art, and virtually any other endeavor we attempt. We want strategies that scale. We want tactics that are optimized. But eventually, you realize that the biggest difference between success and failure comes from mastering the fundamentals.

  • Maybe a faster computer will make Stephen King a better writer … because he has already mastered the fundamentals of writing every day.
  • Maybe optimal meal timing will make an Olympic swimmer a better athlete … because she has already mastered the fundamentals of eating healthy and training hard.
  • Maybe a better guitar will make Eric Clapton a better musician … because he has already mastered the fundamentals of playing consistently.

But for most of us, the final 10% of optimization will rarely lead to the difference we’re looking to achieve.

The Greatest Skill

Here’s the single greatest skill in any endeavor: doing the work.

Not doing the work that is easy for you to do. Not doing the work that makes you look good. Not doing the work when you feel inspired. Just doing the work.

You might not be a brilliant writer, but if you actually write something each week, then you’ll be better than most because you are doing the work.

You might not be an incredible athlete, but if you never miss workouts, then you’ll be better than most because you are doing the work.

You might not be a savvy business person, but if you make a point to serve your customers every single day, then you’ll be better than most because you are doing the work.

And so it goes for any and every challenge we face. People love to soak in the details, search for new tactics, and debate the things that make a tiny difference. But at the end of the day, the greatest skill is always doing the work. That’s what makes the difference between professionals and amateurs.

What You Don’t Need

You don’t need a better computer to become a good writer. You don’t need a better guitar to learn how to play. You don’t need a better camera to become a good photographer. You don’t need more experience to become a public speaker. You don’t need more credentials to build a business. And you don’t need awesome weightlifting shoes to become a good weightlifter.

You don’t need any of it.

What you do need is to make a decision, set a schedule, and get started.

What you need is to do the work.


    • Hey there Jason – remember to also create time for yourself! I am sure you have optimized your time and energy management, but whenever I feel low on time I will reflect on a set of rules I developed for myself and I am always amazed at how much time I can create for myself by following them.

      Let me know if you’re interested in discussing this more, but in general I remember that energy is more important to manage than time and focus on: 1. Full Engagement, 2. A Low-Information Diet, 3. Redefining Laziness, and 4. Designating Spaces

      What do other people do to free up their time aside from just work smarter/more productively?

      Be well all!

      • Marshall, I think what helps me quite a bit is minimizing outside distractions. For example, I recently turned off the pop-up email notifications that used to come up whenever I got a new email, and it has helped so much. I don’t notice when new emails come in, so I don’t pressure myself to look at it, ponder it, maybe respond. It’s saved me a lot of time and energy lately.

        • Joel – that is a great one! Going distraction-free definitely helps in creating time for yourself to do the things that excite you. This is the reason I don’t own a smartphone!

          Two more steps I take to do this:
          1. I am not allowed to check email until the most important task for the day is done.

          2. Going along with the theme James has discussed, I write some of my best articles in an old-but-wonderful notebook from college rather than on a computer, as distractions are few when only blank pages are staring at you :)

          Thanks Joel!

          Any other tips from folks?

  1. Every week you surprise me with your well-formed and insightful posts, James! Thanks so much for writing this – it’s definitely something that I’ll need to remember in the coming academic year – no use talking the talk if you can’t walk the walk. Hope all is well with you!

    • Thanks Cathy! I really appreciate that. It’s great to have you reading.

      I’ll do my best to keep the good ideas flowing.

      Hope your summer is going well!

  2. Hi,

    When we focus on it, we are making the differences in our lives and the lives around us. Yet, we can get hung up on the details and stagnate in the statistics of efficiency instead of revealing in the actual doing. Thanks James for the reminder that tools to do are just that, tools.

    We are still the initiation, intention, innovation and energy that uses them.


  3. Hey James, I fully support this. More: once we miss something, our mind starts to think and to search for workarounds and in most of cases we are winner of every situation – without all the super equipment … (I spent last weekend on a music festival like Woodstock and I do have some personal examples :-))

  4. “Your photos are truly, works of art, and, your message was, spot on. Thank you.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you.

    • You bet! I’m happy to share and I’m glad you’re enjoying the photos and articles.

      Thanks for reading, Sam!

  5. Absolutely right…Perfection is not real..there will never be a perfect moment in time except to be “doing” it, (what you want to achieve, squire, be) IN that perfect moment in time, which is now!


  6. Forget the perfect plan.
    Forget the beautiful expectation.
    Forget the good timing.

    “What you do need is to make a decision, set a schedule, and get started.

    What you need is to do the work.”

    I started doing it since Sunday after reading the How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the “Seinfeld Strategy”. Begin writing, translating, meditation, exercise.

    Now…I am pressing on and keep on reading your power messages.

    Thank you!

  7. Perfect timing for me. I was literally yesterday debating in my head whether or not I could honestly work on my novel again without getting Scrivener! lol!

    • Ha — that’s funny because I was considering using Scrivener as an example in this post. I’ve heard a lot of authors and writers waste time debating between Scrivener, Evernote, Google Docs, etc.

      At the end of the day, you just need to write.

      Thanks for reading!

  8. You see this all the time on the golf course. People who still have a lot of work to do on fundamentals nonetheless rush out and buy an expensive set of clubs, as if subtle weighting options etc. might matter under those conditions. It’s a waste of money. A set that is designed to get an extra % of performance that can mean the difference between winning and placing in professional tournament play won’t make a noticeable ripple of difference at the undisciplined rank amateur level. Like some in the government, some people just want to throw money at their problems rather than expend effort on them.

    • Ally — my dad calls this “trying to buy a game.” Ultimately, you have to play the game.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  9. A very timely piece, thank you! Today I was thinking ‘I really need to be more co ordinated to get more results from my step class’! And then I went out and bought more gym clothes.

    • It’s something we all battle with. As long as you recognize it and take small steps in the right direction, you’ll get to where you want to go eventually — but clothes can be an easy way to get sidetracked. :)

      Thanks for reading, Katie!

  10. A great read. It got me thinking though, I remember back in primary school when I got a new pencil case or when mum put new covers on my exercise books it invigorated me to be a better student. It didn’t last long but when routine begins to look and feel mundane and boring, a little sugar and all things nice is kinda helpful, if only temperal.

    As a grown up we get the same sensations with fitness gear, new writing tools and the latest gadgets. Who hasn’t convinced themselves the new iPad is gonna make life work better for them haha.

    Anyway, just a thought.

    • Jad — thanks for reading! I agree that spicing things up with something new can get you re-invigorated, which is great.

      That said, I think the real skill is learning to embrace the “mundane” and continue to work towards what is important to you.

      One weightlifting coach told me that “At the end of day, it just comes down to who is willing to deal with the monotony of lifting over and over and over again.”

      As with most things, I think a balance of consistency and invigoration is probably the right formula, but both are important.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! It’s great to have you in our little community.

      • I totally agree. Stacking shelves in a grocery store every night for the last 13yrs I have learnt the art of ebracing the mundane. The novelty of a new pair of knee pads every now and then wears off rather quickly.

        In all areas of life embrace the tension and bloom where you are planted.


  11. Thanks James. In fact in the past I often felt that I couldn’t do whatever it was “seriously” because I did not yet have any or all of those things. Which kept me from even starting because it might not be the “right” way – what a convenient excuse to not even start whatever it was…

    • Sophie — This is where I think many of us find ourselves from time to time. We convince ourselves that we need more experience or more credentials or better things before we can take the first step.

      The truth is, you need to start taking steps before the details will make a difference.

      As always, thanks for reading!

      • Hey James,

        yep, that’s right! People undererstimate that and think too much ahead. Thus the obstacles become too high.

        I like your take on it here. I hope it changed some people’s minds :)



  12. James, so right! And as always, perfectly timed :) To decide something creates such a powerful alignment. Creating determination, direction, and focus of purpose. It creates energy to propel us forward. I liken to a theory you wrote about awhile ago, to simply “become the habit” I am the girl who gets up when the alarm goes off (didn’t want to miss workouts as it was getting colder) I am the one who will always carry a water bottle (wanted to increase the h2o) once you simply DECIDE something, your energy moves, it summons great power. Aren’t we clever wee things :) much love xx

  13. James — THANK YOU for the poke. I am also going to use this in my classroom as a reminder to my students about what REALLY matters with their education! I can see an entire lesson coming out of this!

    Thank You.

  14. This is so true–I frequently find that when I’m getting the least done I’m spinning my wheels working on something random. Having a short list of the highest-impact things I can be doing made a huge difference in focusing on what’s most important.

  15. Hey James,

    I started reading your posts only a few weeks ago. Just wanted to let you know that I see a difference in myself the last few weeks — feel more focused and positive thanks to you. I repeat the things you have wrote about when I’m not using my time optimally, or not feeling motivated. Your blog is truly inspiring! Thanks so much.

    • Thanks Kyla! It’s great to hear that you have found my work useful. I’ll do my best to keep great ideas coming your way.

      And thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts! It’s great to have you in our little community.

  16. James — Right on, we often feel like we’re working but not really accomplishing much of anything. Work on what is truly important and stop making excuses. Love it.

    Have a great day.

  17. As usual James, you are perfectly spot on, I am a piano player, I have played everything from a concert grand, to the most basic keyboard that you can imagine. A good musician can make the crappiest keyboard sound good. You don’t need the best to get the best results.

    • I’m no musician, but I’ve seen this same principle in many areas of life as well. The work makes the tool sing, not the other way around.

      Thanks for reading Heather-mae!

  18. Great advice, James!

    Do the work. That’s so true! I see similar things happen when people try to reach goals, always trying to find the productivity/motivational tricks and tips, but what makes the most difference is simply committing to spend a little time (even just five minutes) working on our goal, day in and day out. All the other stuff is just the last 10% as you mentioned.

    Thanks for sharing this insight.

  19. Nugget: “People love to soak in the details, search for new tactics, and debate the things that make a tiny difference. But at the end of the day, the greatest skill is always doing the work.”

    In the past I thought I needed a gym in order to get effective workouts. But that kept me from the ground … where push ups and crunches and leg lifts and stretching could all be done for free. I thought I needed a nice guitar to play well. But that kept me from learning on the garage sale special that was stuck too far back in the closet.

    Convenient excuses.

    This reminds me of What 50 Pounds of Clay Will Teach You….

    Thank you James, for the reminder to just do the work. Now. With what you have. Get creative.

  20. Great post James. I find that I don’t necessarily spend time on the little tactics, the final 10%, but more on other distractions (checking email, social media, the news, etc.) than on what is most important. I’ve been working on minimizing distractions and focusing on the important tasks. First step is identifying the most important things :)

  21. Hey James,

    Thanks for the fantastic post. This is so true, I’ve spent so much wasted time on the ‘strategies’ and ‘tactics’ and learning them, rather than actually ‘taking action’ and ‘getting it done’.

    It’s a slow process identifying the tendency to not do the work required, and fixing it to actually see results.

    Love the work you’re doing on your blog. :)

  22. G’day James,

    All that I can say is thank you very much. You are helping me solve some major mistakes I’ve made in the past. By reading your articles, I get a sense of direction.


  23. Hi James,

    I am Sumit from India and I’ve been following your blog for a few weeks now think it is great. Your sense of clarity is impeccable.

    Anyway, thanks for the motivation through this post. I really needed it. I have to do a workshop in college two weeks from now and I’m petrified. I am really bad at public speaking (have blanked out twice before on stage). I guess the only way I could get better is by actually doing it many times.

    Sumit. :)

  24. This is just purely and simply…the truth. Do the work. Thank you James for reminding of the potent power of three simple words.

  25. Totally. Apply yourself and do the time. Commit and persevere. Reminds me of article that revealed how to become the next Eric Clapton, Jimmie page, or Jimi Hendrix. If you want to be the best guitar player in the world, then … get ready for it … here it is … practice, practice every chance you get. That’s it, that’s the secret. The rest is up to you. :)

  26. Success is doing the work.

    As I learn from people like Steven Pressfield to Ed Dale, this is excellent advice. I try to live this each day, but it’s never easy.

    I didn’t know any of this in my teens. I sort of knew of it in my twenties. I was a bit more aware of it in thirties and achieving some success by doing that. Now I’m just grasping it and moving ahead before I make excuses. If you’re young, learn this now. You’ll be much better in the years to come. Thanks for sharing James.

  27. Hi James! This post is exactly what I needed today. Many times, I am guilty of obsessing over things that I feel I need to be successful. This is a reminder, that I need to continue to keep working! All other things, will fall into place. Thank you once again.

  28. James, your writing is inspiring. EVERY post I read is exactly what I need to read.

    EVERY time.

    Thanks for making such a difference in my life.

  29. Hi All,

    James, u regard “doing the work” as an action to do always?

    Because sometimes, it may be a consistent behavior set, like the one of the mother to her child; or a consistent style of dressing up, like the one of a fashion icon.

    Do I confuse stuff?

  30. Thanks for laying all this out so clearly, James. Great advice and a great reminder and it gives me an excellent kick in the … to lay out my schedule in a solid concrete manner to DO the work consistently.

    Thanks again!!

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