Struggle to keep progressing

15 minute read

If there’s one thing that’s very universal across humans, it’s the desire to keep progressing. We want to keep getting better results. And I have the desire too, from as far back as I can remember. During childhood, I used to live in a locality where education wasn’t the common goal, but at the same time, my well-educated parents made sure I get a good education. And as far as hobbies go, I just had one obsession, and that was playing cricket.

PS: We used to go to play in barren fields like this.

My social circles were like two ends of a spectrum; On one hand, I’d go to school and study with upper-middle-class kids, and then on the other hand, I’d come back from school and play with the friends in my neighborhood, for most of whom, going school meant just passing the exams (which mostly involved cheating through various creative ways, and zero size photocopy).

I was good at studying, but it wasn’t something I highly enjoyed. Education felt like the tax I have to pay to live peacefully in the environment I lived in. Being good at studies was pretty straightforward for me at the time, put in more hours, and get better grades.

I was envious of kids who had it all (PlayStation, vehicles, good internet, mobile, luxury lifestyle, etc) and feared being left behind while everyone progressed. When I entered 11th grade, I realized that to get into a good University, I was supposed to be in the top 10k out of 1M students in an entrance exam. In other words, the top 1%. At least 100k out of those would take specialized coaching (aside from school).

The outside consensus was that a well-traveled education path is much safer that a long-shot path like cricket. So in the spirit of not being a rebel and just going with the flow, I chose this path. All of my time would go into studies, and that’d be my life for two years.

However, I realized something while in the coaching program, there’d be “cool” students who’d study fewer hours than me but outperform me by a big margin when it came down to grades. At first, I was perplexed, how the heck can that be true? We read the same books and solved the same questions. Maybe they just have put in the hours already in previous grades. I tried putting in more hours, but that won’t just cut it. Before this point, I was just enjoying the benefits of being the big fish in the small pond. I’d always be in the top 3-4 students in the class and just sail through easily, and now I’m around in a pool where most people are in the top 3-4 students in their respective school classes lol. It was a humbling feeling, we’d have our All-India-Tests and I’d realize let alone the top 1%, I’m not even in the top 10%.

After struggling for a while, I was able to realize two things;

  1. The relationship between hard work and results is not linear, but a plateauing one (or even a diminishing one). All work and no play make Jack a dull boy, indeed. I was fortunate that I had at least 1 skill outside of studies (Cricket) that I was good at.

  1. There’s this intangible thing that people would label with words like “intelligence”, “smartness”, and “cleverness” that seemed to be impacting the results.

But how do you become smart? Some people suggested that smartness is something you are born with, while others suggested you work hard to become smart. I can now say it’s a bit of both, but I kinda believed the latter idea more. I started collecting what I used to call “tips, tricks, and hacks” at that time. I’d try to fix all the meta-things like what time to study, what specific books to study and in what order, how to use shortcuts to solve questions, how to approach an exam (what to attend first, what to attend last), and so on. It took quite some time to incorporate these, and it did bring some sanity back to my life.

I gave the entrance exam, made it to the top 1% (top 0.4% to be precise), and got into a good university… only to be thrown amongst students of similar ranks! And the cycle repeated, the fish grew bigger but the pond grew even bigger. I tried to work hard in the University to be the bigger fish again, but I just gave up. I’d be in the top 20% of my class, but that’s about it. There’ll be people who were better than me at everything. Yes, everything, there were no hidden skills that I had where I could say I was better.

At that point, I realized, I was just hitting the limits of diminishing gains;

I felt kind of lost for a while. The last bit of smartness made me conclude that going out of the box is the only way to increase the odds now.

What going out of the box meant for me is to go beyond common professions and industries. There are two ways to do it, either we do something existing in a not-so-mainstream way, for example instead of working as a full-time developer, you set up a consultancy around software, OR you pick something very niche, like being a sports therapist, or being a blockchain developer (it was very niche at that time), or being a software developer ALSO good at finance.

When most of my class would study coursework or prepare for interviews or have fun, I would try building projects, applying to conferences (as a student speaker), trying to get freelance gigs, and participating in hackathons. By doing these not-so-common things, I intentionally shrunk my pool again. Meanwhile, I got rejected on 20-30 internship exams in a row, because I couldn’t be among the top performers on standardized tests these companies would take. Things did click, but it took a while for me to go from “average-joe-sucking-at-lots-of-things” to being a “jack-of-lot-of-trades”. Ultimately, I got three different opportunities in very unconventional ways.

I felt vindicated, now it was time to get a job, but I was still afraid because I still had to go through standardized exams before I can even get an interview. I didn’t want to go through that internship grind again, so I thought I’ll just do what everyone does to prepare.

One day, I showed up for a placement exam half-prepared expecting nothing but rejection in the standardized test round, but because of technical glitches, the exam got canceled. They shortlisted people with 80% or more grades. I barely made it with 80.1%. I answered one of my interview rounds in a very out-of-the-box way, only because I wasn’t prepared enough to know what an in-the-box answer is lol. In one round, the interviewer had to deal with an urgent company issue, so I wasn’t scrutinized as much as the other candidates. And I was given a bye in one of the rounds. Long story short, I got selected! I had mixed feelings because I hacked through a seemingly robust interview process. That day onwards, I introduced another variable to my equation,

L U C K!

Luck was the final missing piece in the puzzle of progress for me. And this is the point where things get interesting. By the way, before I present my take on luck, let’s see what the consensus is since the world is no short of opinions on luck; They mostly come in two flavors.

The optimist camp!

These ideas give you hope and a reason to keep going.

You create your own luck.

Luck only favors the brave.

Luck is being at too many places and too many times.

The nihilist camp

These ideas incite a feeling that not everything is under our control, so it’s okay to “blame it on luck” and release some pressure off ourselves.

If the timing is not right, nothing matters.

No one gets greater than what is written in their destiny, and before their time.

You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from. And you never know what greater your good luck has deprived you of.

Once you’re working as hard as possible, as smartly as possible, and doing things out of the box, there’s still a possibility that you are (or you feel like) not progressing. Luck by definition seems something that’s not under our control. So if it’s not in our favor, it’s kind of a blocker in progress. It feels like there’s no way around it.

And at that point, we only wish for more luck.

Bringing back the visual about choosing an out-of-the-box strategy;

Picking the right industry and profession reduces the number of people for sure, but you still want to be at the top of your vertical. Why? Because the light of recognition shines only on people at the top of each vertical, and recognition is a good indicator of progress.

Luck is the force needed to push you from the unknown valley of workers to the mountain of greats (the green zone, where the light of recognition shines). In most professions the difference between these two zones is stark. We all know the entrepreneur who made it big, but we don’t know hundreds of entrepreneurs who worked equally hard and smartly (or maybe even more) but didn’t make it (yet)!

Making sense of luck

Technically, it’s difficult to internalize luck since we don’t usually think probabilistically, we love fixed absolutes (we believe either we will make it or we will not). And emotionally, when you worked hard for something, it is really difficult to feel “lucky” instead of “deserved”.

I think the absence of luck feels like below,

It’s the transition from “I am making progress” to “Am I making progress?”. There’s a veil of doubt, underneath which we can’t figure out what’s happening. And here, either of two things can be happening

The first scenario is that the progress is actually happening (but invisible). Kind of like the times when you have been giving several interviews but nothing seems to happen, and all of a sudden you have multiple jobs lined up, and there’s no going back. There was progress being made (the green curve above), we just couldn’t realize it. That’s what the optimistic camp of opinions on luck is about. I find it a bit egoistic to say that we can make our luck. Hard work can compensate for the lack of good luck. Being at too many places at too many times gives you more chances.

But what happens when good-luck ghosts you? (the black curve above). This is the second scenario. There’s no shortage of stories of people who had to wait until the late 40s to make it. This includes sportspersons, celebrities, and entrepreneurs. And there’s no shortage of stories of people in their late teens or early 20s who end up being on top of the world.

Maybe being ghosted by Good Luck is still bearable (it’s part of the deal). But what about the shitty bad luck? This is the scenario where there’s no doubt that things are bad. When the market shuts down right before your business was taking off, or you lose someone very close when you wanted to be around them the most, or when you are fired from your job just when you were starting to think about settling in, or when your investments crash just before the time you were planning to sell and advance your life.

The thing is the universe has no concept of fairness. It doesn’t care whether you worked the whole night, or have been doing two jobs, your loan is due, or you have been working on your thing for a decade. Things continue happening regardless of what you’re going through.

Going beyond the obstacle of luck

There’s a silver lining that I see in all this. The universe doesn’t care, but humans do! Most of us understand what it means to be doing two jobs and still failing to meet ends, what it means to lose a job when you need to pay loans, and what it means to lose your hard-earned money. Most of us know what it takes to be kind and giving when we feel the world isn’t helping us. What it takes to maintain integrity (or to stay loyal) even at a cost of foregoing a big opportunity.

This is how I believe how we create receive luck. We create individual luck by working hard, and we ALSO receive collective luck by being ethical, moral, kind, and loyal to others. Humans are more than willing to share their individual luck with the ones in justified need of it. It’s not a new concept, we’ve done this many times. In the events of wars, famines, earthquakes, economic crises, and terrorism, we have come together and rebuilt cities and even nations. A lot of soldiers stake their lives for their people. These are the situations where we truly realize that our progress is meaningless without others prospering in our story. We also do it at a smaller unglamorous level; helping someone with their next payment, taking care of someone alone being sick, guiding someone to get their next job, preventing someone from taking wrong decisions, and so on. It’s unfortunate that very little is celebrated about people doing these unglamorous acts. Like the teacher improvising his methodologies before every class, or those rare honest workers in the professions that are known to be corrupt, or the cab drivers working extra hours to provide for their families. With all these acts, we keep moving the collective forward.

The order

If the universe has several 100s of alternative realities going on, our goal should be to be at least moderately successful in most of them. Wanting to be extremely successful and blaming it on luck when you don’t get it is kind of naive. So it’s also worth considering the order of things to focus on. A plausible order seems to be Effort -> Smartness -> Luck, why? because one feeds into another, and the amount of influence you have in the initial factors of the order is more.

The effort is something that’s mostly in our control. So there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be fully exploited to our advantage. Getting smarter is a somewhat intentional effort, millions of people work 12 or more hours a day, and some put conscious effort into getting better outcomes through means of being creative, efficient, better skilled, whatever it takes to progress. It’s true though despite doing this, there will always be people smarter than you doing less work and getting better results, but that’s just something outside our control. Lastly, being conscious of directing your efforts and smartness beyond just yourselves, increases the chances of more doors being opened for you in the future, by other fellow humans.

We all know people who attribute their bad outcomes to luck when we know that they didn’t put in the efforts that were needed or were naive in their approach. So a decent shot to keep continuing personal progress should ideally have all these factors addressed.

When really stuck

When you feel that you’re stuck or going through a phase of bad luck, and nothing really is ticking it, do consider directing your efforts beyond yourselves. This conflates with the idea of karma i.e. “what goes around comes around”, however, I feel it should be more intentional and directed. Being a nice person by nature feels internally satisfying (and there’s nothing wrong about that), but you also risk getting sucked up in a sink of efforts that produce no meaningful results. At this point, it’s natural to believe nothing can unblock you.

It sounds a bit insensitive, but there should be some contagiousness to helping others for it to work well. If you put the individual aside for a minute, and see the collective, it’s better to help people who genuinely need it, and it’s a hard thing to evaluate. There’ll be self-capable going around seeking help, and there’ll be people who by the means of being helped could become self-capable. There’ll be people who you think would stop at feeling grateful about the help they get, and there’ll be people who’ll go a step beyond to pay it forward to others. There’ll be people who’ll be struggling to actualize their dreams but have a stable life otherwise, and there’ll be people whose existing dreams would be to have some stability before they can dream about anything else. It’s good to help the former groups, but I feel it’s even better to help the latter. It is also important to realize that resources (time, money, status) to help are finite. So there’s an opportunity cost to all this. It is a commendable quality to prioritize others before yourselves. It feels wonderful and heroic to do that. But it also is very useful to be aware that’s coming at the cost of your own resources getting depleted, and if they’re being depleted faster than you can replenish, it’s not a great idea.

In summary, I find the idea of converting your resources to someone else’s luck very interesting. If executed mindfully and patiently, it can unlock a lot of good things. So yeah, when nothing seems to be going for you despite all the efforts and knowledge, consider spending some time contributing to the collective luck of humanity. It may not affect you right away, but it can unblock someone else. Because, here’s the thing about luck, we don’t really need a lot of it, we just need a little bit of it at the right time. And remember, ultimate progress is actually a shared one!

“If you want to walk fast, walk alone. But if you want to walk far, walk together.” - Ratan Tata

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” - Henry Ford

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.” - John Donne

PS: Goes without saying, the post is somewhat opinionated take on the topic. It’s a current snapshot of my thoughts on the topic, and I’m sure it’ll evolve over time. My intention with writing it down is to put it out there and get feedback. So yeah, if you feel anything can be added, updated or removed to make it better, let me know :)