Richard St. John: Why It Pays to Work Hard at TED (Full Transcript)

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Richard St. John – Marketer, success analyst

8 to be great: The eight traits successful people have in common.

Number two: Work.

When I was interviewing all these successful people, they kept telling me how hard they worked. And I remember standing there thinking, “Ah, jeez, another comment about work? Why don’t they tell me the real secret to their success?”

Then finally I realized, hard work is a real secret to their success. All successful people work very hard. Martha Stewart said to me, “I’m a real hard worker. I work and work and work all the time.”

Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch said, “It’s all hard work. Nothing comes easily. But I have a lot of fun.”

Did he say fun? Yes. Successful people have fun working. That’s why I say they’re not really workaholics. They’re workafrolics.

Jim Pattison, chairman of the Jim Pattison Group, is a workafrolic. He says, “Business is my recreation. I’d rather go to our factories and meet with our people than go to the beach, I can tell you that.”

Dave Lavery, the NASA whiz who builds those robots for Mars, said to me, “We work our fingers to the bone. But it doesn’t seem like work. It’s fun. It’s what we want to do. We don’t want to put things down and go home.”

Bill Gates is a workafrolic. Even after he was a multimillionaire, he worked most nights until 10 p.m., and only took two weeks off in seven years. And he probably spent them on his computer.

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Oprah is a workafrolic. She says, “I never see daylight. I’d come into work at 5:30 in the morning when it was dark, and leave at 7 or 8 when it was dark.”

I’m a workafrolic. And over the years, I’ve gone through many days and even weeks without much sleep, just because I was having so much fun. And I got to admit, at times like that you say to yourself, “Am I the only one working this hard?” Because there’s a myth it comes easy to some people. You turn on the TV, nobody’s working that hard. A guy like Chris Rock stands up on stage, tells a few jokes. What’s hard about that? But even Chris says, “I wasn’t the funniest guy growing up, but I was the guy who worked on being funny the hardest.”

Trust me. I’ve interviewed over 500 successful people, not one of them said it came easy, even though they were doing what they loved. And we tend to underestimate work and overestimate talent. But in the end, work tops talent.

Arthur Benjamin, America’s best math whiz, said to me, “I think numbers and I have always gotten along. But I’m sure my ‘talent’ is just due to the time and hours and work that I’ve put into it.”

Many talented people don’t achieve as much success as they could, unfortunately, because they sit back on their talent and never learn to work hard. That’s what happened to Michael Jordan when he first started playing basketball. He had the talent, but he wasn’t putting in the work, and the coach actually cut him from the high school basketball team. Boy, that was a wake-up call. He says, “I was very disappointed. I started working on my game the day after I was cut.” And he soon became the hardest working player in basketball, who made fun of the other players who weren’t working hard. And that hard work is what made him the greatest basketball player of all time.

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So I’d say the real gift isn’t talent, it’s the ability to work hard. And we tend to underestimate work and overestimate smarts. But in the end, work wins over smarts.

In fact, many successful people aren’t the smartest, they just work the hardest. Francois Parenteau, who Business Week called the top independent analyst on Wall Street, said to me, “I’m certainly not that smart. I can’t even remember my own zip code.” But he also says, “Work is a big part of my life. I think about investments pretty much 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Nez Hallett III is CEO of Smart Wireless, and I thought, that’s ironic because he told me he’s not that smart. He says, “I graduated from high school with a C average, and college with a C-minus average.” But now the smart PhD’s are reporting to him. How did he do it? He said, “If you’re going to be successful at anything, the key thing is to work hard.”

I’m not smart. As proof, here’s my actual 12th grade report card. It was the only one my parents ever kept. Don’t ask me why they kept it; it’s nothing to brag about. As you can see, I was a C student, not an A student. I don’t think I’d even make it into college these days.

So how did I achieve some success and wealth? I just worked hard, many 60- to 80-hour weeks. And now I know I’m not alone. Thomas Stanley studied hundreds of millionaires, and he discovered most millionaires weren’t A students, didn’t score high on tests and teachers didn’t think they’d ever succeed. But they did succeed, because they worked hard.

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So the good news is if you’re not the smartest, if you’re a C student, not an A student, the really good news is you can still succeed. Because the word “success” has two C’s and no A’s. You can still succeed as long as you work hard.

And what if you are smart? Well, I’m sorry, there’s absolutely no hope for you. Because many smart people don’t achieve as much success as they could, unfortunately, because they rest on their smarts and never learn to work hard.

Jeong Kim, president of Lucent Technologies, says, “People who are the smartest sometimes don’t realize their full potential, because things get too easy, so they don’t push themselves hard.”

After a talk I gave at one of the world’s top 10 business schools, a man came up to me and said, “You know, when I got my MBA here a few years ago, I was one of the smartest people in the class. I thought I had it made. So after I graduated, I sat back and I didn’t work hard. And I went downhill. And now, at this point in my life, I’ve gone nowhere. I haven’t achieved any success at all.” He said, “Thanks for the wake-up call. Now I know what I need to do. I need to work.”

So the bottom line is, whether you’re smart or not, whether you’re talented or not, just keep working.