Lessons on “Hard Work” by Michael Phelps, Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, and co. - NJlifehacks
working hard - work ethic

Lessons on “Hard Work” by Michael Phelps, Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, and co.

We all have dreams and aspirations of what we’d like to achieve and who we’d like to become.

Some of us want hotter bodies, faster cars, bigger houses, or longer vacations. Some want simpler things, such as a happy family or a fulfilling career. Some want to travel the world. Some want to become more confident, charismatic, peaceful, or at ease with themselves and the world.

Standing between us and our aspirations are a great many obstacles, one of which are the myriad of misguided beliefs about how this world functions and what it really takes to achieve whatever goal we have set for ourselves.

One such belief is that achieving what we want is a matter of luck, talent, or genetic predisposing. High achievers simply got lucky. They were born that way. They’re different from the rest of us. They have something we don’t have, that magical “it” that makes all the difference.

This flawed idea is drilled into us by the media day in and day out. The success stories we read about conveniently skip the parts where “genius” put in endless hours of hard work, made a ton of sacrifices, pushed through agony, pain, disappointment, and the like. All we see is the standout performance, the shiny end result, the top-of-the-mountain celebrations, and then we proclaim, “Oh, wonderful! What an incredible talent. She was always destined to make that happen. What a natural!”

The truth is, achievement in any domain is largely the result of hard work, dedication, perseverance, and sacrifice… not luck or talent. If you want to get the body you’ve always wanted, drive the car you put on that vision board, move up the career ladder, make boatloads of money, or become the confident, compassionate, and loving person you’re envisioning, the recipe to get there is good old-fashioned work ethic and discipline.

As long as you believe in the myth of natural talent, luck, “manifesting,” or of somehow meeting that special person who will take care of everything, you will never put in the necessary effort to actually get what you desire.

That’s why, in today’s article, I want to help you shatter that myth and help you embrace hard work as the path to reaching your dreams. You’ll learn about seven highly accomplished people who’ve created their success through hard work.

1. Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time. His achievements are often accredited to his anatomy – long arms, long torso, short legs. Yet, according to experts such as Richard Weiner, a doctor and All-American swimmer, Phelps’ anatomy isn’t that unique. “I’m sure if we could measure Phelps as much as we would like, we would find attributes better than average for swimming, but I don’t think we would find any glaring abnormalities,” he explains.

While Phelps’ physique undoubtedly played its part, his work ethic played a far more crucial role. He gives a taste of just how hard he worked in his book, No Limits: “For five years, from 1998 to 2003, we did not believe in days off. I had one because of a snowstorm, two more due to the removal of wisdom teeth. Christmas? See you at the pool. Thanksgiving? Pool. Birthdays? Pool. Sponsor obligations? Work them out around practice time.”

2. Elon Musk

Elon Musk is one of the most admired and influential entrepreneurs on the planet. He’s the co-founder of PayPal, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, and one hell of a hard worker.

In a 2010 interview, Musk advised young entrepreneurs to be “extremely tenacious and then just work like hell. You just have to put in 80 to 100 hour weeks every week. If other people are putting in 40 hour workweeks and you’re putting in 100 hour workweeks, then even if you’re doing the same thing … you will achieve in four months what it takes them a year to achieve.”

As explained in Ashlee Vance’s biography of Musk, his childhood was dominated by a compulsion of reading. Elon’s brother recalls, for example, "It was not unusual for him to read ten hours a day… If it was the weekend, he could go through two books in a day." Musk supposedly read the entirety of the Encyclopedia Britannica at age 9, and read science fiction books for more than 10 hours a day.

While other kids were playing in the backyard, Musk was, knowingly or unknowingly, investing in himself and his future. His success came years later, after he had already put in tremendous effort. His distinctive advantage isn’t luck or talent, it’s work ethic.

3. Oprah Winfrey

Oprah doesn’t need an introduction. She’s a self-made billionaire, who is included in almost every list of the most influential people on the planet.

In an article on Oprah.com, she explains that she knows for sure that “there is no big secret. Whatever your goal for this year is, you can get there—as long as you're willing to be honest with yourself about the preparation and work involved. There are no back doors, no free rides… if you decide to rise up and create a new experience for yourself, I know for sure that you can attain it the old-fashioned way—through hard work.”

4. Lindsey Vonn

Widely regarded as the most successful female skier of all time, Lindsey Vonn credits her success to doing what she loves and working incredibly hard.

When asked about the secret to success, she answered, “It’s definitely not luck! I never thought I’m the most talented person. I’m not the most athletic. I think I have a good feel for ski racing, I have a good technique but nothing has really come very easily to me. I think it’s the fact that I love what I do and I’m willing to work exceptionally hard to accomplish my goals that sets me apart and has allowed me to be so successful in ski racing.”

5. Madonna

Madonna is one of the most successful and iconic pop stars of all time. A former staff worker of hers claims that Madonna’s talent was “minimal at best.”

What made her succeed instead was “determination and charisma with a capital C. What her real talent was, I believe, was her ability to work harder than almost anyone I know.”

6. Will Smith

Called “the most powerful actor in Hollywood” by Newsweek in 2007, Will Smith is one of the most successful and well paid actors of all time.

In a now famous interview, Smith describes his insane work ethic: “The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I'm not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be out-worked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things you got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there's two things: You're getting off first, or I'm going to die. It's really that simple, right?”

“You're not going to out-work me. It's such a simple, basic concept. The guy who is willing to hustle the most is going to be the guy that just gets that loose ball. The majority of people who aren't getting the places they want or aren't achieving the things that they want in this business is strictly based on hustle. It's strictly based on being out-worked; it's strictly based on missing crucial opportunities. I say all the time if you stay ready, you ain't gotta get ready.”

7. Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant is one of the most successful basketball players of all time. From all the people on this list, he’s probably the one who is most famous for his work ethic. “I can’t relate to lazy people. We don’t speak the same language. I don’t understand you. I don’t want to understand you,“ he once said.

Thanks to Reddit user RobertAlert we have a great story that illustrates the kind of hard work the NBA star put in:

“I’ve been a professional athletic trainer for about 16 years and have been able to work with a range of athletes from the high school to professional level. Right now I run in a clinic in Cincinnati and have most recently been training with some players on the Bengals.

I activated my reddit account just a moment ago and because I’ve been seeing the videos of Kobe’s most recent dunks and the comments you guys have had to share I decided I might as well chime in what I know about the man. And let me just state by saying that this story doesn’t touch on anything we don’t know about Kobe but rather that he simply is not human when he is working on his craft.

I was invited to Las Vegas this past Summer to help Team USA with their conditioning before they head off to London, and as we know they would eventually bring home the Gold (USA). I’ve had the opportunity to work with Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade in the past but this would be my first interaction with Kobe.

We first met three days before the first scrimmage, on the day of the first practice, early July. It was a brief conversation where we talked about conditioning, where he would like to be by the end of the Summer, and we talked a little bit about the hustle of the Select Team. Then he got my number and I let him know that if he ever wanted some extra training he could hit me up any time.

The night before the first scrimmage I remember I was just watched “Casablanca” for the first time and it was about 3:30 AM. I lay in bed, slowly fading away when I hear my cell ring. It was Kobe. I nervously picked up.

“Hey, uhh Rob, I hope I’m not disturbing anything right?”

“Uhh no, what’s up Kob?”

“Just wondering if you could just help me out with some conditioning work, that’s all.”

I checked my clock. 4:15 AM.

“Yeah sure, I’ll see you in the facility in a bit.”

It took me about twenty minutes to get my gear and out of the hotel. When I arrived and opened the room to the main practice floor I saw Kobe. Alone. He was drenched in sweat as if he had just taken a swim. It wasn’t even 5AM.

We did some conditioning work for the next hour and fifteen minutes. Then we entered the weight room, where he would do a multitude of strength training exercises for the next 45 minutes. After that we parted ways and he went back to the practice floor to shoot. I went back to the hotel and crashed. Wow.

I was expected to be at the floor again at about 11 AM. I woke up feeling sleepy, drowsy, and almost pretty much every side effect of sleep deprivation. Thanks, Kobe. I had a bagel and headed to the practice facility.

This next part I remember very vividly. All the Team USA players were there, feeling good for the first scrimmage. LeBron was talking to Carmelo if I remember correctly and Coach Krzyzewski was trying to explain something to Kevin Durant. On the right side of the practice facility was Kobe by himself shooting jumpers. And this is how our next conversation went — I went over to him, patted him on the back and said, “Good work this morning.”


“Like, the conditioning. Good work.”

“Oh. Yeah, thanks Rob. I really appreciate it.”

“So when did you finish?”

“Finish what?”

“Getting your shots up. What time did you leave the facility?”

“Oh just now. I wanted 800 makes so yeah, just now.”

My jaw dropped. Mother of holy God. It was then that I realized that there’s no surprise to why he’s been as effective as he was last season. Every story about his dedication, every quote that he’s said about hard work all came together and hit me like a train. It’s no surprise to me now that he’s dunking on players ten years younger than him and it wasn’t a surprise to me earlier this year when he led the league in scoring.

Thanks for reading and allowing me to share you my Kobe Bryant story. If anyone has any questions I can clarify. Sorry if the story was at all hard to follow as this is my first time on reddit.


More Examples

If you dig far enough, you’ll find that hard work is the secret ingredient in all of the most successful people’s lives. Here are just a few more examples.

“I’ve never met anyone that works harder than me in my industry.” – Beyoncé
“I believe in hard work and luck, and that the first often leads to the second.” – J.K. Rowling
“People don’t understand that when I grew up, I was never the most talented. I was never the biggest. I was never the fastest. I was certainly never the strongest. The only thing I had was my work ethic, and that’s been what’s gotten me this far.” – Tiger Woods
“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.” – Pele
“Success isn't always about greatness. It's about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come.” – Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson
“There is no substitute for hard work.” – Thomas A. Edison
“Everybody wants to be famous, but nobody wants to do the work. I live by that. You grind hard so you can play hard. At the end of the day, you put all the work in, and eventually it'll pay off. It could be in a year, it could be in 30 years. Eventually, your hard work will pay off.” – Kevin Hart
“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” – Stephen King
“I don't pity any man who does hard work worth doing. I admire him. I pity the creature who does not work, at whichever end of the social scale he may regard himself as being.” – Theodore Roosevelt
“What is success? I think it is a mixture of having a flair for the thing that you are doing; knowing that it is not enough, that you have got to have hard work and a certain sense of purpose.” – Margaret Thatcher
“I have had lots of luck in my career but there has also been a lot of hard work.” – Maria Sharapova
“For me, education has never been simply a policy issue - it's personal. Neither of my parents and hardly anyone in the neighborhood where I grew up went to college. But thanks to a lot of hard work and plenty of financial aid, I had the opportunity to attend some of the finest universities in this country.” – Michelle Obama
“I think that anything that you do, any accomplishment that you make, you have to work for. And I've worked very hard in the last ten years of my life, definitely, and I can tell you that hard work pays off. It's not just a cliche.” – Cameron Diaz
“Everyone's like, 'overnight sensation.' It's not overnight. It's years of hard work.” – Margot Robbie

The Truth About Hard Work

Hard work doesn’t mean pounding yourself to the ground. It doesn’t mean stupidly pushing yourself into burnout. It doesn’t mean grinding away on your computer to the point where you’re so tired you’re not actually getting anything done.

Hard work means that you’re willing to invest in yourself – your knowledge, skills, habits, network, expertise, health. It means that you’re willing to put in the effort in a smart way. It means that you stop wasting 4+ hours watching television every day, as the average American does! It’s about living more deliberately.

And I want to emphasize this: it’s about being smart, too. In the long run, working hard must involve vacations, recreation, hobbies, strong relationships, good health.

Jumpstart Your Work Ethic

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Nils Salzgeber

Nils Salzgeber is the author of two books and co-founder of the popular NJlifehacks blog. He is passionate about anything that helps him become a more peaceful, productive, and loving version of himself. After quitting university twice, he has recently gone back to get a psychology degree. Nils lives in Thun, Switzerland.

  • Arek says:

    One of the best posts. Great prose and content. Congrats!

  • Bakhtiyar Vagifzade says:

    Thanks for the great post, really helpful!

  • Mynah says:

    Ach Nils, kann schon sein, dass es ohne harte Arbeit nicht geht. Aber es ist ein Fehler, die Leute zu fragen, die es geschafft haben. Deren Geschichten sind Ausreißer, die für uns nicht relevant sind. Für jedes Exemplar gibt es Zehntausende, die genauso hart arbeiten und doch nicht die Lebenschancen und Erfolge haben, oder dabei ihre Gesundheit auf’s Spiel setzen.

    Interessant, dass du jahrelanges Forschen über Prokrastination als ähnliche harte Arbeit wertest. Vielleicht ist es so, wenn jetzt ein Psychologiestudium draus wird. Für mich ist dieses Forschen eher eine Sucht und Ablenkung. Habe schon viel Geld für hervorragende Kurse ausgegeben und doch kaum etwas umgesetzt.

    • Hallo Mynah, du hast schon Recht mit einigen deiner Punkte. Klar, es gibt Leute, die ohne harte Arbeit ganz viel erreichen. Und es gibt Leute, die ganz hart arbeiten und trotzdem nichts “erreichen”. Im Artikel geht es mir darum, aufzuzeigen, dass harte Arbeit sinnvoll ist. Es geht auch um Inspiration. Harte Arbeit, aus meiner Sicht, ist fast immer etwas Sinnvolles – ganz egal, was dann daraus wird. Hart zu arbeiten (auf eine vernünftige Art und Weise!) ist gut für uns. Und mich persönlich kann es motivieren, zu sehen, dass andere Menschen auch hart arbeiten.

      Das Forschen/Recherchieren selbst würd ich nicht unbedingt als harte Arbeit bezeichnen. In der Tat, ist das Umsetzen und das ständige an sich arbeiten viel anstrengender für die meisten von uns – das ist, was ich mit harter Arbeit in diese Kontext meine.

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