Malcolm Gladwell has some of the best takes on human behavior you will ever read. One of my favorites is from a back and forth he did with Bill Simmons years back. He answers the question of “why don’t people work hard when it is in their best interest to do so?” He uses Eddy Curry, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to explain.
Interesting to note this conversation took place before Phil Mickelson had won a major, and when Tiger was at the height of his dominance (further evidence as to why the “Can’t win the big one” narrative is nonsense). But the idea of work ethic and toughness, and which one comes first, is really interesting to think about. Why are some of your players unwilling to compete and work hard when it is in their best interests to do so?
One of the best insights into work ethic and competitiveness that I have read.
Gladwell: This is actually a question I’m obsessed with: Why don’t people work hard when it’s in their best interest to do so? Why does Eddy Curry come to camp every year overweight?
The (short) answer is that it’s really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn’t work hard. It’s a form of self-protection. I swear that’s why Mickelson has that almost absurdly calm demeanor. If he loses, he can always say: Well, I could have practiced more, and maybe next year I will and I’ll win then. When Tiger loses, what does he tell himself? He worked as hard as he possibly could. He prepared like no one else in the game and he still lost. That has to be devastating, and dealing with that kind of conclusion takes a very special and rare kind of resilience. Most of the psychological research on this is focused on why some kids don’t study for tests — which is a much more serious version of the same problem. If you get drunk the night before an exam instead of studying and you fail, then the problem is that you got drunk. If you do study and you fail, the problem is that you’re stupid — and stupid, for a student, is a death sentence. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare. People think that Tiger is tougher than Mickelson because he works harder. Wrong: Tiger is tougher than Mickelson and because of that he works harder.