How easy should excellent work be? (Clue: Easier than you think.)

Mr Carson* was my second-year chemistry teacher. My sister remembers him for his dandruff ridden comb-over and predilection for taking the eighteen year old male sixth formers to the Abbey pub at lunchtimes. I remember him as the man who unfairly ruined my Effort Card.

Every term we were sent home from school with a two-columned card on which every teacher had given us two letters. The possibilities were E for Excellent, S for Satisfactory and U for Unsatisfactory. One column was for Achievement, reflecting the marks attained in homework and the second was for Effort. As we prepared to finish school for Christmas my form teacher passed me my card. A big fat S in the Effort column for chemistry stood out in a card otherwise filled with E’s. I was outraged

I hated chemistry. I had no interest in spending an hour discovering why one gloopy material, combined with a green powder and heated with a Bunsen burner, changed into hard crystals. It was particularly torturous to have to take the class in a wooden-benched lab with a connecting door to the library where I could have been losing myself in all the glorious books. But despite that I did the work and I got all the answers right. So what was with the S? With some indignance, I stomped up the stairs to the lab to object.

The system was of course a reflection of the British underdog mentality. In order to encourage children who found academic subjects hard, the grammar-turned-comp school, rather than ascertaining their learning styles or individual needs and helping them achieve, gave them U’s for their grades but mollified them with Es for effort. The ‘it’s the trying and taking part that counts’ message was loud and clear. But I had my grades, so why the S?

Trying to hold my breath against Mr Carson’s cigarette-breath and to speak clearly at the same time, I put my case.  His logic was that I was cleverer than average. So to get the E for achievement took less effort that other children and I should only get an S.  A debate ensued in which I managed to convince him that if I could do his class with minimal effort he was not challenging us enough. I may have been cheeky enough to point out that he was the only teacher who set homework weekly but marked it all in one termly go just before the cards were due, a habit that suggested, shall we say, ‘effort management’ that might legitimately be graded an S. At best. 

The next term I got two Es from him and he marked our books twice. I relayed the story to parents dismayed at the appearance of an S for effort and got away with a ‘you need to keep your head down lecture’. But the flip-side message of those cards was set in my mind for years. 

Achievement doesn’t count unless you put in hard effort. 

Effort counts for more than the achievement. 

If it’s easy, it’s not excellence.

This insidious and incorrect mindset is rife in the legal profession which now pushes effort to burnout stage. Yes, it’s correct that to succeed in anything you need to do the tasks required. Yes, we all grow and gain from setting a challenge and working at it, making progress and learning. Yes, we benefit from commitment and follow through. But where did we get the idea that there is merit in work feeling hard, punitive, something to be ground through, teeth gritted, fists clenched? Where did we get the idea that if it feels easy it’s not of as much merit as if it’s a hard slog? How did we start telling pupils and trainees that to fully succeed they could expect to endure an evening-less, weekend-less, holiday-less career? How did we even get to where that was acceptable, never mind celebrated as proof of hard work?

This is a conversation I’ve been having with a fellow coach recently, because it was deep within my bones too. Work in my mind was connected with the ‘dark satanic mills’ and deep dark pits of Lancashire, the Northern cultural down-putting of white collar work as ‘soft’ and ‘elite’ and the consequent need to prove that working with your mind could be just as hard as working with filthy hands on the land or in the factories. 

The Calvinistic Protestant work ethic that valued hardness of work, work for its own sake over results was ingrained deep. Then the legal professional topped it off with the manic message that if you were not in Sunday Homework Club your practice was failing. If your judicial lists were not stuffed to overflowing you were slacking. Listing protocols became the bar you were expected to exceed as a show of goodwill and team work, not the cap intended to preserve sanity. Add on the perfectionism that flows through lawyer’s veins and you have the clear message

Work is hard.

Work takes grit and grunt and grind.

If it’s easy it’s not excellence.

You should aim for excellence.

Ergo, you aim for struggle and slog and strife.

Except, apparently not. My coach is from an engineering background. In physics, he told me, work is the force that is needed to move or change something. Good engineering is about achieving that change with the least friction so as to expend the least energy. Work, done well from this point of view, is easy. 


This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to do something that appears difficult or problematic. It’s not to say that we should not expect to have to work though problems and to experience failures. If that were the case we would not have the Burj Khalifa, the Channel Tunnel or the Golden Gate Bridge.  It’s to say that the fierce application of commitment, determination and deep thought doesn’t need to feel like exhaustion and depletion. Like the effort to move a mountain.  Ideally, it shouldn’t feel that way. It should feel fluid and free-moving like a steam running down a fell. Like water off a duck’s back. Like Flow.

Flow is a concept Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ( pronounced Chick-sent-me-high-ee) has dedicated himself to studying. He defines it as a state of joy and total involvement in which problems seem to disappear and there is an exhilarating feeling of transcendence. Time slips away and we feel competence and control. Stephen Koter’s work  on Flow takes this further. He found that there are four phases to achieve this flow state:

The initial Struggle Phase does feel a bit tough. The body is releasing stress hormones of cortisol, norepinephrine as we experience tension, frustration and even stress and anxiety facing the challenge. However, this stage is a necessary component of the flow cycle. Next comes the Release Phase. Here we accept the challenge by stepping away from the problem. The parasympathetic nervous system is activated which calms us down. The brain moves from Beta to Alpha brain waves. 

In the desired Flow Phase we experience Theta and Gamma brain waves. The reward chemicals,  dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, flood our body and  we shift from conscious to subconscious processing. Unfortunately we cannot stay in this Flow state forever.  In the Recovery Phase  the Delta brain waves are the norm and we release the  feel-good chemicals of serotonin, and oxytocin. This is memory consolidation stage when our brain rewires and stores the experience of flow and the new skills applied. 

I became aware of Flow first in my creativity learning and associated it very much with play, not work. Flow was something I got when making textile art or photographic graffiti. It was the reward that came in the time off after the hard slog work that was my duty. Indeed, a lot of the early work on Flow concentrated on athletes and creatives and how Flow enhanced their performamce. In fact the research on Flow now extends firmly into the area of work and has shown that flow is also positively associated with job performance. Kotler is clear that one of the six key feature of flow is effortlessness. ( See here for  the rest).  The old message must be rewritten:

Excellence can be effortless.

So much of the slog that lawyers experience daily is due to us collectively holding beliefs and practices that dam up Flow. Flow does not come from laziness. The conditions to get into it, according to Kolter include intense concentration, challenge within our stretch zone and clear goals. But Flow is stopped by our determination that we should experience the exact opposite, by our assumption that slog and grind are the markers of worth in the work-place. We cannot aim for both Flow and resistance. Nor is it right that only time we should feel ease is as Flow within the work. Rest and recuperation – the recovery stage – is as vital to performance as the ease within work itself. But the R & R is so much harder to value if we can’t even value the Flow in the first place. 

 The conversation about wellbeing in law has certainly begun but as long as we retain deep in our cells this assumption that real work, good work, true work is necessarily hard and value the slog itself as a measure of respect, we will trip ourselves up in our attempts to achieve health and balance.  Attempts to change listing protocols, late instructions, unattainable billing hours and the hoofing around the country for ill paid work that is expected of lawyers will fail if, with forked tongue we both shout in public that we should stand them no longer and yet whisper to ourselves how much we take pride in our survival of them. 

It’s time for a new message:

If it’s all effort and no ease, it’s not excellence.

*name changed