The Difference Between Unusual Success and Wasted Effort

Let me introduce you to two individuals. They are fictional, but based very much on real people. In fact, you may recognize them in people you see every day. Busy Joe (BJ) and Productive Jim (PJ) have a lot in common. They both came from similar family backgrounds and did fine academically and socially in high school. They both went to college and earned a degree, graduating with a solid GPA. Both of them graduated with the same major. Both of them landed starting level jobs at the same company on the same day within a few weeks of their college graduation.

A Level Playing Field

Both BJ and PJ are hard workers. They both got a great start at their new company, showing up on time, getting along well with their co-workers, and earning good reviews from their bosses.

A year after they were hired they are not in the same place.

The Story of BJ

BJ has settled into his job well and his boss is pleased with him. He earned the standard raise at the end of his first year and remains in the position he was originally hired for. Everyone can see he’s a hard worker. He gets to work on time and almost always stays late. He even comes in and works on Saturdays every once in a while and at least once a week he works through his lunch break.

BJ tells his friends about how busy he is at work. He thinks he is really overworked and there should be another person that does what does so they can get everything done. BJ knows that will never happen because leadership doesn’t really understand how much work needs done. His solution is to just work harder and put in more hours.

Despite his hard work BJ is on the slow road to mediocrity. He will never be fired, but he will never get a big promotion either. He won’t be in the first round of layoffs in a downturn, but he will always be let go before the last rounds. He will never be deemed essential to the company. He will be able to find a new job in a decent economy, but he will struggle to find employment in a down economy.  If there isn’t a big disruptive crisis in the field that BJ works in BJ will earn a modest salary that provides a modest standard of living and a fair hope for a decent retirement when he is old enough to qualify for social security. If there is a disruptive crisis in BJ’s field BJ will be in real trouble.  

BJ’s mediocrity at work is both a result of and a contributor to his average status in the rest of his life. He will live in an average neighborhood doing normal things living a regular life all while having a modest impact on those around him.

The Story of PJ

PJ’s life looks very different than BJ’s life after just one year on the job. PJ has earned a substantial and unusual raise after his first year. He is no longer in the position he was hired for. Instead, after nine months, he was promoted to run the division and he hired the person to fill the job left open after his advancement. As he has become more familiar with his work PJ has become more efficient and productive. He gets done three times more work now than when he started, but he rarely works on weekends or over lunch. He comes in early to the office, but almost never stays late.    

PJ tells his friends about how much he is getting done at work. He is preparing to hire for a new position on his team so they can get better. He had no problem getting the new position approved because of the above average results his team is producing. With the new team member PJ will be able to spend more time working on some of the new opportunities he sees for his company. 

Because of his work PJ is on the fast track for advancement. He will win advancement and promotion everywhere he works and will be constantly offered new opportunities. He will be considered essential for the success of the company and will only lose his job if the entire company fails. If he does need to find a new job he will find new opportunities available in any economy. No matter what disruption occurs in his field PJ will always earn an above average salary, be able to achieve a higher standard of living, and will have the option to retire if he chooses long before the normal retirement age. 

PJ’s success at work is both a result of and contributes to his success in other parts of his life. He will live where he chooses doing things that most people think is impossible living an unusual life all while having an extraordinary impact on all of those around him.

What is the difference between BJ and PJ? They are both hard workers with a good education, good opportunities, good social skills, and a level playing field when they start their careers. Yet shortly after they start their careers it is apparent they are on a very different path.

The Critical Difference

BJ and PJ are on different paths in life because of a foundational difference in the way that they work. BJ works on whatever is urgent. PJ works on what is important. As a result BJ is busy and works very hard, but he isn’t very productive. PJ is productive no matter how much or how little he works.

Being Busy

BJ works on whatever is in front of him regardless of what it is. He works without filters. When things get crazy, or difficult, or complicated, his solution is to always work harder. That’s why he ends up staying late, working weekends, and always feels overwhelmed with work. He never works smarter. He never takes the time to ask why what he is working on needs done and making sure that answer connects to the bigger goals of the organization and his own goals. In fact, he hasn’t even asked about the bigger goals of the organization or seriously considered his own goals. He has never focused on those questions. He’s too busy doing stuff.

Being Productive

PJ works on what is important and either delegates, delays, or dumps everything else. PJ may take more time figuring out what is the most important thing to work on than actually working on it. When things get crazy, or difficult, or complicated the first thing he does is stop and review what really needs done and what doesn’t. Because he is always working on the most important thing PJ ends up with more and better results even though he almost never stays late or works on the weekends. His constant focus is on how to work smarter. The most important thing he does every single day is to ask why he is doing what he is doing and if what he is doing directly connects to the bigger goals of the organization and his own goals. He is constantly checking with his boss, his colleagues, and his team to make he know what the organization’s goals are so he always has them in focus. He knows his own goals as well as he knows his own name. He doesn’t have time to waste being distracted by urgent unimportant distractions. He’s too busy getting stuff done.

Which one are you? Busy Joe? Or Productive Jim? Which path are you on?

Choose wisely.