Don't you believe it: The harder you work, the better you do

A young American physicist, burned out after years of secret work during the Second World War, sits in the university cafeteria distractedly watching a student spin a plate...

by Alastair Dryburgh
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

He notices that the wobble at the edge of the plate goes round at a different speed from that at which the plate itself spins. He works out that, when the angle is slight, the wobble goes round at exactly twice the speed of the plate, and he continues musing. 'Then I thought about how the electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there's the Dirac equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it ...the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.'

That idling physicist was the late, great Richard Feynman, who shared the 1965 Nobel prize for physics for his work on quantum electrodynamics.

If you prefer a more pragmatic example, veteran publisher Phil Hilton says of one of his less successful creations - Later, a magazine which closed after only 24 issues - 'Hard work on a bad idea will not turn it into a good one.'

And yet we persist in believing, and teaching our children, that hard work per se is a great virtue. Why? Maybe because sitting and waiting for flashes of inspiration doesn't seem like work. Perhaps the business of inspiration is just too alarming - it can't be managed or predicted, it won't work to a fixed schedule, or conform to a project plan. Or maybe we just don't trust ourselves to know the difference between productive thought and loafing about.

Hard work is important - Feynman had to sweat for years on the detail before he eventually got his Nobel - but timing is vital. Put your nose to the grindstone after you've had your big idea, not before. Until then, ease up and give inspiration a chance. And if you manage other people, give them the chance too.

- Alastair Dryburgh's first MT book, Everything You Know About Business is Wrong, (Headline £13.99) is available now

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