I recently watched the ITV documentary ‘Our Everest Challenge‘ narrated by adventurer Ben Fogle and it left me with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. I tried to ignore my initial groans and judgements – oh great another white rich boy climbing Everest – but the end scene just got too much for me. Fogle stood on the roof of the world dishing out his advice to viewers….
“this is for all those people who were told they couldn’t they shouldn’t, they wouldn’t. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it, with the right stamina and grit and determination. I really hope some of this will inspire other people.”
But I really have worked hard
Time and time again I’ve heard adventurers claiming that their victories have been down to grit, determination and good old-fashioned hard work. This is the same advice I feel inclined to give when people ask me about my own successes. How did you do it? ‘I worked very hard’.
But when I heard Fogle give this advice on the top of Everest it made me angry. I don’t doubt that Fogle worked hard to reach that point. He likely pushed himself in training, dedicated a lot of time and money to the project, making other sacrifices along the way. But claiming that grit and determination are the essences of success ignores all the other factors that had far more weighting in the outcome.
Are hard work and success really connected?
I’m sure you can all think of a time when you worked your butt off and still failed. Straight out of university I took a job working in operations for an African travel company. Young and eager to please, I pulled more hours and gave more energy to that job than any since. No matter how hard I worked though I just couldn’t reach my targets. It might have been my lack of experience and skills or maybe even the political situation in Africa at the time putting people off travelling there….whatever it was my level of effort did not equate to the results that came out.
In contrast, I also had a job at a consulting firm where I worked minimal hours, taking extended lunch breaks and spending many an afternoon zoning out while staring at my computer screen. Despite my laziness, I bagged a pay rise and was praised for my good work.
I’ve seen cleaners on minimum wage working so hard every hour of the day versus multi millionaires cocky with their blase attitude to work while the money and promotions come rolling in.
Hard work and success are not always connected.
It makes us feel worthy
We all want to say our successes are down to hard work because we want to be recognised for the effort we’ve put in. We want to believe that grit, determination and intelligence are what stood us out from others when we win. But it’s not true, or rather it’s not entirely true as a statement on its own.
What Fogle fails to recognise in his speech about his success in reaching the summit of Everest are all the other platforms that got him there. It’s not comfortable or glamorous admitting our own privileges and the platforms that are often out of our control that merely come down to luck of where you are born, but these need to be recognised.
In Fogles case he was born a white able bodied male in a developing country exposed to wealth, a good education (and the self-belief/confidence that brings), a loving upbringing and influential connections. These likely had far more of a say in his success in reaching the highest point on earth than his hard work.
A damaging message
Adventurers want to share their success and leave their audience feeling inspired. I’ve been guilty of honing in on this too in my talks…..but this repetitve messgae of ‘work hard and you can achieve anything’ is damaging and inconsiderate.
I’m not saying people shouldn’t work hard towards making dreams a reality, but the simple fact is that some are restricted by circumstances and no amount of hard work will change that. A single dad living below the poverty line might have a dream of climbing Everest. Sure she might reach that dream, but she also most likely will not if accounting for the barriers she faces. The logistics, time and money involved just might not make it feasible at that point in time. It’s a fact of life. The same way that Victoria Pendleton (who joined Fogle in an attempt to summit Everest) had no choice but to give up at Camp 2 because her body couldn’t acclimatise. It all came down to circumstances completely out of her control and no amount of hard work will change that.
So how would people feel when they are working hard but somehow the ‘hard work equating to everything you’ve ever wanted’ message isn’t working out for them? Probably inadequate and guilty.
Perhaps a more gracious and realistic message that Fogle (and the many other adventurers out there) could have left the world is…..
“this is for all those people who were told they couldn’t they shouldn’t, they wouldn’t. With some luck, support, good timing and a maybe a bit of grit thrown in, you might actually reach your dream. But don’t feel bad if you don’t….sometimes life is a bit shit no matter how hard we try!”