Being a hard worker has always been my m.o.

Working hard is what helped me get to where I am today. Up until recently, I've rarely met a problem I couldn’t hard work my way out of. I learned pretty early on that even if I wasn’t as smart, or talented, or naturally good at something compared to others, I could work harder than they did. And in many cases, I learned that my hard work paid off more than natural talent ever would.

I trace my “hard work is the only way” mentality to my childhood playing basketball. I started playing basketball in earnest in third grade. Our team league of 3rd graders had these cute too-big yellow t-shirts and we were still trying to understand the basic rules like: “You can’t just pick up the ball and run, you have to dribble” and “no, you can’t shove someone to the ground, or pull her hair, that’s a foul.”

Ahhhh. We were adorable little dumpster fires...

And I was one of the worst players on the team. To this day, you can ask my coach, (also known as my dad) and I guarantee he’ll confirm this fact. I had very little natural talent when it came to hand eye coordination and was more likely to get hit in the face BY the ball, than actually catch it. As for dribbling...what do you MEAN I can’t use both hands at once?!

But...I loved the game. I had grown up watching basketball games with my parents - both of whom are from Indiana, the birthplace of the game of basketball. And as I started to play basketball myself, I grew to love watching the games even more. I was enthralled watching players like Damon Bailey and Alan Henderson from the Indiana Hoosiers play smart, tactical basketball. (How’s THAT for a deep cut…)

I sucked, but I was hooked.

And so I decided that I wanted to get better at basketball. I knew I didn’t have copious amounts of talent like many of my peers. But I LOVED the game, and I WANTED to get better. And so I worked. Hard. 

I spent summers dragging my parents to watch me play in what I’m sure were mind-numbingly dull basketball tournaments in hot, sweaty gyms. (Side note: My parents deserve gold medals for their pure stamina, and willingness to put up with smelly knee pads.) I got my butt kicked in ball handling camps and cross training workouts. I spent many a night in the gym with my dad working on my shooting form. I watched college basketball games for hours on end to observe how skilled players worked together to create the fluid and beautiful game I adored.

Eventually, the hard work started to pay off. I was still rarely the best player in the gym, but that didn’t matter because I loved the game, and I was getting better.

Over those years of blood, sweat, and many tears, I learned the value of hard work. I learned hard work was the way to get where I wanted to go, and to get good at the things I wanted to do with my life. That lesson has stuck with me throughout my graduate school years and into my professional life.

So much so, that my default response when things get difficult or challenging is always: Work Harder.

And that strategy has worked well for me in the past. But lately I’ve come up against difficulties in my life that I can’t hard work my way out of. Difficulties that remain immovable in the face of hard work. I’m having to learn that there are times when hard work isn’t the solution to every problem. Sometimes there are situations that demand presence and acceptance, rather than fixing or improving.

And, as a hard worker, that SUUUUUUUUUCKS. 

So what do you do next when hard work won’t make life better, or in fact, might make it worse? What do you do when hard work results in running away from, rather than effectively engaging with the hard things you’re experiencing?

I’m gonna be honest, I don’t know. This is something I struggle with a lot. But here are a few of the things I’m trying for when hard work isn’t the answer:

  1. Breathe. When we’re exhausted from trying to work our way out of an unsolvable problem, it can have the effect of feeling like a physical burden. Our shoulders hunch and we breathe more shallowly. When my mind is whirring in a state of distress at feeling trapped in the spiral of an unsolvable problem, I have to remind myself to take a deep breath. It’s a reset that calms my racing mind.
  2. Zoom out. Instead of zeroing in on the problem, and identifying the many potential ways to fix it, try zooming out and focusing on the full picture. The tendency to buckle down and work hard often has the effect of directing your focus in on one particular thing, as opposed to opening you up to wider possibilities. So zoom out. Get out of your space, your head, your world for a bit. Whether that’s with a walk, reading a book, seeing a movie, talking with friends, volunteering, traveling, trying a new hobby - zooming out has the effect of putting the problem into its larger context. It may not make the problem go away, but it might give you a different perspective on it.
  3. Acceptance. This is by far the HARDEST for a hard worker, but sometimes you have to accept that some problems aren’t fixable. Sometimes things happen to you that you can’t solve with hard work. This kind of acceptance is really tough for me, but I’m working on it.

I also want to acknowledge that acceptance and zooming out in particular can be hard work too, albeit of a different kind. It’s less about ticking boxes, and more about being present and aware. Being present and aware is often more uncomfortable than just powering through to the next item on the to-do list.

But there is value in the hard work of being present and accepting where you are. The whole point of being present and aware isn’t to be GOOD at it. It’s just to BE it.

That’s a bit of a paradigm shift for me, and a tough one. When much of my professional life has been about checking boxes, getting to the finish line, and working on the next project, the idea that there is no finish line, no achievable goal, no box to check, is unfamiliar.

But as a very wise friend of mine pointed out to me recently, “Working hard is not the lesson your life is teaching you right now.”

So, as I’m trying to figure out the lessons life *is* teaching me right now,  instead of speeding up, I’ll slow down. Instead of moving to the next thing on the list, I’ll sit with this one a bit longer. Instead of pretending my aggravation at being stuck is fixable by working harder, I’ll acknowledge that maybe I’m in the middle of this particular journey for a while longer. Instead of telling my life what will happen next, I’ll listen to what it is saying to me now.

And that’s not easy. But then again, I’m pretty good at working hard

What about you? What do you do next when working harder doesn’t fix the problem? I love hearing your stories, so keep them coming!

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Lisa Olivera
Find her on Instagram!

I'm fairly new to Instagram myself (though you can find me over there: @DrLangworthy), but one of my favorite follows has been Lisa Olivera (@lisaoliveratherapy). She's a therapist who shares her mental health insights and self-care strategies. She always manages to post EXACTLY what I need to hear when I need to hear it - It's like her super power or something! So if you're on Instagram and want some mental health reminders, and words of encouragement and gentle acceptance, give her a follow. 

(She was also recently featured in a really interesting New York Times article about therapists on Instagram - check it out here.)

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