“You try-hard.” This was the label given one of my daughters in high school after she received yet another near-perfect score in one of her ATP classes. Some of her peers thought she should relax and coast and not make every effort to learn as much as possible. Little did they know the truth. She was not trying hard: not grinding through her studies in a taxing, driven manner. But she wasn’t coasting either. Mysterious forces were working together as she found the right mix of effort and flow. I call this mix.

In a secular frame, the sweet spot is the place where work is an achievable challenge, where you have the underlying motivation and talent to accomplish what needs doing without killing yourself in the process.

In a Biblical frame, the sweet spot touches on an age-old theological question: how much of our lives are determined by God and how much is shaped by our effort and choices?

We are caught between two clichés (neither of which is in the Bible): “Let go and let God” vs. “God helps those who help themselves.” “Let go and let God” types seem very relaxed and at peace yet frequently have huge corners of disorder in their lives. “God helps those who help themselves are very productive but also riddled with anxiety. Some of us tend to fall into one or the other extreme. Many of us seem to toggle between both.

The sweet spot image comes from sports, golf in particular. Every first-time golfer goes out to kill the ball. The course is big and green. The ball is white and small. You have this long skinny club with a huge, fat head on it. You are going to crush it. But you soon learn one of the great truths of golf: extra hard swings never produce extra long straight shots. Sometimes to compensate, one becomes extra cautious with extremely light, half-hearted, non-committal swings. Then you find that your errors are not as long-distance and yet, you are still hitting terrible shots.

Somewhere in the middle lies the sweet spot. Not an overswing, not a half-swing. A fully committed yet relaxed motion, that with some practice, almost always produces a straight shot and advances you down the course.

In this two-post series, we are going to explore what the sweet spot looks like at work with some broader applications to life. In this first installment we lay out the signs that you are over and under trying, i.e. missing the sweet spot.  And in the second installment, we will explore how to find and stay in your sweet spot.

You Really Are Trying Too Hard

One of our clients at VOCA came to us struggling with the question of what should be next in his career. He is wicked smart with a great degree from an internationally recognized school. Shortly before our first meeting, he was promoted. That’s good news, right? Consider this: with very little training, he was thrown to the wolves in his new role. Within a few months, despite this guy working 110+ hours a week, his higher-ups started giving him negative reviews and performance improvement feedback sessions started in earnest.

So here’s a situation where a really smart person is working at or beyond their capacity and still not making progress. This could be a trying too hard situation.

How Do You Know If You Are Trying Too Hard?

  1. A quality effort is not producing results. Quality effort means repeated, well informed, legitimate attempts to deliver. Despite doing your best efforts to know what is expected and work hard at your tasks, you are not producing the results required. Maybe you are trying too hard.
  2. Changing your approach is not producing results. How often have you changed your approach to the underlying approach considered under #1 above? Some challenges require persistence. So perhaps your change in approach is not quitting too soon. But other challenges require learning, changing your mindset, technical knowledge, or upgrading your people skills. You do this. You get real-world intel and feedback from people who know. You consult the oracle of all knowledge, Google. And you keep doing your homework and bringing fresh approaches to your task. With all this change, you’re still not seeing improved outcomes. This could be you are trying too hard.
  3. You are riddled with fear and fatigue. If you find yourself constantly in a state of fear over your work performance, if you know that constant anxiety over your work performances is wearing you down emotionally, then it’s possible that you’re trying too hard.

Consider This Ancient Wisdom

Don’t wear yourself out trying to get rich. Be wise enough to know when to quit. (Proverbs 23:4)

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil for he gives to his beloved sleep. (Psalms 127:2)

No Risk, No Commitment, No Sweat = Not Trying Hard Enough

I think you know what it looks like not to try hard, not to care. There’s no real effort just sleepy compliance. We don’t feel pre-performance butterflies, no sense of being energized. We are going through the motions with no emotion. So why might we not try hard?

  1. We’ve lost touch with our “why.” From a selfish frame, each job prepares you for the next. It would be an incredibly rare situation where it would directly benefit your career to not do well in a given job. From a biblical frame, God has a purpose for everything and no matter how much we think our job is boring or not a good fit, he invites us to do our work for him (See Colossians 3:23-24). When we forget the personal and spiritual why, we can give up trying. Especially if our trying is not immediately rewarding.
  2. Fear of failure paralyzes us. Some of us are not trying because we want to protect ourselves from the pain of failure. If we have little skin in the game in terms of our ego and reputation, then we insulate ourselves from the shame of trying hard and failing to achieve the desired goal.
  3. We’re waiting for something more inspiring. It’s easy to get into a rut of not trying with a boring job, with a boss who doesn’t care, with a position we know will be temporary. But remember, you exist apart from your work. You can bring a sense of focus and purpose with you from outside your work (See #1 above). Nurture outside inspiration to bring to your job and make sure you verify that the next option you consider will deliver on the inspiration factor.
  4. We don’t understand that change usually takes time. You and I are programmed for instant gratification and quick results. We press screen buttons and magically food and other packages arrive at our doorstep. We also read of the success of the very young, which sets our expectations clock to early blooming. The truth is most people don’t peak in their earning and influence until the decade of their 50’s! In the meantime, we might consider practicing the old virtue of perseverance.

The four factors above conspire to drive us to not try. The ancient wisdom writer has a not so flattering word for those who don’t try, he calls them “lazy.”

RELATED: What Roger Federer Taught Me About Finding My Sweet Spot

Consider This Ancient Wisdom

Work hard and become a leader; be lazy and become a slave. (Proverbs 12:24)

Lazy people want much but get little, but those who work hard will prosper and be satisfied. (Proverbs 13:4)

A lazy person has trouble all through life; the path of the upright is easy! (Proverbs 15:19)

The desires of lazy people will be their ruin, for their hands refuse to work. They are always greedy for more, while the godly love to give!  (Proverbs 21:25-26)

The lazy person is full of excuses, saying, “I can’t go outside because there might be a lion on the road! Yes, I’m sure there’s a lion out there!” (Proverbs 26:13)

Your Goldilocks Problem

Remember Goldilocks? She crashed the party at the house of the three bears and she was a picky crasher indeed. She was constantly dealing with too much and too little until at last on her third try of the porridge and the beds, she found the one that was just right.

As you think about the way you approach work? In life, how do these questions around trying too hard or not trying hard enough land with you

In what areas of your work are you trying too hard?

In what areas of your life are you trying too hard.

In what areas of your work are you being lazy and why?

In what areas of your life beyond work are you vulnerable to laziness and why?