How To Improve Your Work Ethic

Samuel Johnson once said that courage is the most necessary of virtues, as without courage, it would be impossible to exercise any of the other virtues. In terms of leading a life of accomplishment, having a strong work ethic is the most necessary of prerequisites, as without a strong work ethic, it would be impossible to realize any ambition that involves production.

The difficult fact is that a work ethic does not automatically compound. With investing, there is a passive element to it. If you own 100 shares of Coca-Cola, you can do absolutely nothing, and as long as those shares remain in the name of yourself or something you own, you’re going to receive that $156 in dividend income without any further action required on your part.

That type of passivity does not extend to work ethic. Every day, you have to actively summon the gumption to go out there, remain focused, and execution upon the completion of some tasks. What is the motivational key to maintaining focus?

The device I find useful comes from a Les Brown motivational speech, which Denzel Washington has co-opted when giving graduation day speeches.

Les Brown asks you to pretend that, the moment of the end of your life has come, but instead of being surrounded by family and other loved ones, you are surrounded by ghosts. And these ghosts represent all of the talent, potential, skills, and things that only you came into the universe able to accomplish, but for whatever, represent achievements that you did not accomplish– these ghosts of your potential will go to the grave with you, an eternal reminder of what you could have done but did not do.

The exact quote from Les Brown is as follows: “Imagine if you will being on your death bed – and standing around your bed – the ghosts of the ideas, the dreams, the abilities, the talents given to you by life. And that you for whatever reason, you never acted on those ideas, you never pursued that dream, you never used those talents, we never saw your leadership, you never used your voice, you never wrote that book. And there they are standing around your bed looking at you with large angry eyes saying ‘we came to you, and only you could have given us life! Now we must die with you forever.’ The question is – if you die today, what ideas, what dreams, what abilities, what talents, what gifts, would die with you?”

It is a terrifying though to think about what we are capable of but choose not to pursue. Generally, we fail to pursue great things due to a mixture of fear and procrastination. In that regard, Les Brown’s advice is an allegory of what Samuel Johnson warned in Rambler #142:

“The certainty that life cannot be long, and the probability that it will be much shorter than nature allows, ought to awaken every man to the active prosecution of whatever he is desirous to perform. It is true, that no diligence can ascertain success; death may intercept the swiftest career; but he who is cut off in the execution of an honest undertaking has at least the honour of falling in his rank, and has fought the battle, though he missed the victory.”

When procrastination and fear are trying to curtail your activities, you have to remind yourself that the momentary joy of leisure is not preferable to the regret of what is not accomplished. The key to realizing your potential is being a ghostbuster, day in and day out.