When I was in school, I had a friend, let’s call him Ralph because that is a hilarious name. Ralph got very poor grades. We’d all sit around in the cafeteria and talk about classes and he was always very distressed, very worried about his grades.

He was trying so hard, he always insisted, and was still getting bad grades. He said this so often that mutual friends would echo it, “Poor Ralph, I don’t understand how he’s doing so poorly. He tries so hard!” His professor must hate him! There must have been a mix-up with his paper! Ralph was a really great guy, we all felt really bad for him and were looking for any excuse.

He was one of those people that really sweated and worried about every grade. He wasn’t getting bad grades because he didn’t care, he did care, very much.

Some of us pitched in to try to help Ralph “helping with papers” (which usually meant mostly writing them for him) and double checking his homework like we were his parents (who we learned had helped him with school work heavily in high school which is why his grades had been better there). You may call us suckers for helping but if you knew Ralph, he really cared about his grades and we cared about him and didn’t want him to fail out of school. He was always so embarrassed to ask for help, we felt we owed it to him no matter how much work we had ourselves.

One time, he was taking a class that I had taken the year before. Same class, same professor. But while they were the same on paper, you’d never know it to hear him talk about it. The professor was sadistic, the class impossible. I’d found the class an easy A and the professor a total push-over the year before so I couldn’t understand why he was having so much trouble. After all, he assured us that he was working so hard. But I hadn’t even found that class to require hard work. I’m not bragging or saying I am smarter, it was a joke of a class that didn’t require a lot of work.

One year, this friend and I were on the same hall and we would all get
together and do homework together. He and I were in two different sections of the same class (same professor taught both) so we would often study and do homework together. We had a big test and were studying together for it. He studied for 30 to 45 minutes with me and then said he couldn’t take anymore and left. I assumed he was taking a break but he never came back. I studied for several hours more and finally went to bed.

Weeks later, we got our grades back and I did well and he did very poorly. Ralph was really upset. “But I studied so hard!” he protested. He turned to me. “You saw how hard I studied.”

Then something became immediately clear as he kept talking. That 30 to 45 minutes that he had studied with me was the only time he’d spent studying for the test. As he complained how unfair it was that my grade had been higher when we’d studied together “for hours”, I realized that he didn’t realize how many more hours I had kept studying after he took off or how short a time he’d actually been there studying with me. If he cared so much about his grades, I wondered, why hadn’t he done more studying later like I did?

A few weeks later, we had a project due in the same class. Again, I spent many hours on it and get a good grade and he spent most of the week playing video games and the work he did do on the project the night before he got help from our friends with. I loved Ralph but I was getting ticked. For all his repeated claims, he wasn’t working hard at all! This went on all through school. He’s spent much less time on any given project or test than the rest of us and then by mystified when he didn’t get the same grades.

So now we are all in the real world now. Ralph hates his job. He doesn’t understand why he doesn’t get promoted when he works so hard, he doesn’t understand why he can’t find a new job when he looks so hard and he doesn’t understand why he can’t profit of his hobbies when he works so hard at them.

Now you may think that Ralph is lazy or that he expects everything to be done for him. And while I think that is a small factor, I don’t think it’s the whole story. Understand that I have known this guy for many years. He isn’t a jerk, he isn’t the sort of guy who wants something for nothing.

Instead, I think the issue is that he simply has no concept of what hard work actually is. After all, he never had to work very hard before, his parents did the work for him in high school. If you’d only heard about the concept of hard work without having actually done it, maybe you’d assume as soon as things got hard, that must be the stopping point. He got bored after half an hour of studying and assumed that meant he’d studied really hard and stopped. He genuinely did think he’d worked hard on his projects that he did in a single night with help from friends. I think he heard the rest of us talk about all-nighters and assumed we, like him, we playing video games for half that night instead of realizing we genuinely worked all night.

He heard us talking about working hard and instead of thinking, I should work harder, he was getting upset. He saw himself as working just as us and us doing better for no reason. He simply could not conceptualize the concept of what hard work was or how much longer or harder the rest of us were working, it was like a mental block. In his mind, we were just lucky.

I think some people are Ralphs when it comes to running a business, doing marketing, writing or promoting their book or other work. They do a few little things and figure they worked really hard because they simply have no idea just how hard you really need to work to be successful. As soon as they start to sweat or feel overwhelmed, they quit or take a break. They don’t understand why other people are succeeding when they are working just as hard.

Probably because I have a friend like this, I’ve always been especially aware of this. Every time I think I’m working as hard as I possibly can, I stop, step back and try to look at it objectively. Am I really working as hard as I could be or am I slacking off in little ways? How can I work harder and smarter? Where could I fit in a little more work to push myself towards success?

It’s amazing how many times I’ve done this and come away realizing that I could get more work done if I just did things this way instead of that or realized that this one activity was a waste of time. There are lots of times I’ve felt like I was working hard only to realize I wasn’t working as hard as I could be. Successful people work hard and, if you aren’t finding success, maybe its time to step back and ask yourself, am I really working as hard as I could be? Is this person over here really just luckier than I am or are they simply working harder than I am?