"I can't relate to lazy people. We don't speak the same language. I don't understand you. I don't want to understand you."
What is Work Ethic?
A work ethic is the willingness to put in the time on a job or skill when no one is watching. It is a professionalism that is applied to every aspect of the work. It is discipline.
To understand the application of work ethic, we can look across sports for common threads. In rugby, Jonny Wilkinson set the pace for a sport in the infancy of professionalism. Wilkinson would kick for hours and hours out on the pitch until his feet could speak to the ball. The culmination of this was sporting greatness. In 2003 he dropped a goal with his 'bad' foot to win the World Cup for England.
Tom Brady's work ethic in the NFL was carved out of an acute feeling of being left behind in the college game. When he got to the big league he was ready to put in the hours of watching tape, staying coachable and implementing what he saw on screen out on the field. Brady is still playing at 43 and won a Superbowl (again) last month with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His search to be great covers every aspect of his health, fitness, diet and mindset. Even today his work ethic is driven by a feeling of just not being good enough.
Jay Williams believed he had a good work ethic. Often, he liked to get shots up before an evening game. Tonight he was preparing for the visit of the championship-winning LA Lakers. As he approached courtside he could hear the familiar cadence of a bouncing basketball. Kobe Bryant had beaten him to the floor.
Williams said nothing and observed. Bryant worked out hard and pushed himself as Williams got his shots up. When Williams finished after an hour or so, Kobe was still putting it in.
That night Bryant dropped 40 points on the Chicago Bulls. Williams approached Kobe after the game and asked him outright "why were you in gym so long?" Kobe's response?
"Because I saw you come in and I wanted you to know that it doesn't matter how hard you work, that I'm willing to work harder than you."
Kobe Bryant and his daughter died tragically one year ago in an LA helicopter crash that took the lives of seven other people. Although retired from basketball, at 41 he had much road in front of him. A family to raise, business to pursue and a shadow to throw over the NBA he dominated with an insatiable work ethic for 20 years.
Bryant's Work Ethic
Like Brady, Bryant was limited by his physical attributes in the NBA. He wasn't the biggest, wasn't the fastest and had small hands for a baller. What he lacked physically he absolutely destroyed with work ethic. Starting in Italy where his father was playing professionally, Bryant would mix his sports playing soccer with friends and basketball alone in his free time. This would kick into overdrive when he returned to America.
Bryant had a simple formula for improvement. Sleep less, practice more and improve on a steeper curve than any competitor. At Lower Merion High School gym we find the essence of his work ethic; rigorous time management. If you can create the time to improve consistently and exponentially, you will destroy the competition.
His workouts were simple. Start at 5am, finish at 7am, practice with the team, go to class. In his first year at Lower Merion he was identified as a future pro. The Lakers drafted him straight from high school in 1996. His 3 year body of work the equivalent of guys who had 4 years of college basketball experience.
"On draft day in 1996, when everyone else shook the commissioner’s hand and went out to celebrate, Kobe found a gym. Had to put up 1,000 shots."
it is suspected that Bryant actually adopted a different sleep cycle to normal people. Instead of the standard 8 to 9 hours, Kobe would sleep 4 to 5, get up very early, workout and fill his schedule with family duties and other demands. Throughout the day he might catch another hour to stay sane.
This kind of biphasic and polyphasic cycle has been adopted by notable politicians, business people and artists. Napping being the useful tool to maximise productivity and allowing someone like Bryant to squeeze more hours out of the day and get ahead with more sessions.
Natural ability can only take someone so far if they are not prepared to develop a work ethic. Kobe Bryant was outstanding because he discovered this secret at such an early age. He trained with such a consistent ferocity that by the time he hit the NBA no-one could catch him. It would take years to make up the hours he had already in.
Bryant's work ethic awed professional sports people, not just civilians. Malcolm Gladwell wrote that all things being equal a person needs 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a craft and become 'great'. It could be argue that over a 20 year career Bryant did that several times. Dwayne Wade got a taste of it with team USA in 2008.
"Everybody else just woke up. We're all yawning, and he's already three hours and a full workout into his day."
The Foundations of a Work Ethic
Tim Grover is a top NBA trainer, working with Jordan, Barkley, Wade and Bryant. In his book Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable Grover outlines what sets Bryant apart.
Number one, he took full responsibility for his continuous growth. He relied on himself to deliver any improvement. This level of complete ownership of the situation was applied to games where the Lakers were floundering and Kobe would deliver a final quarter performance to steal the game. The concept of extreme ownership is also promoted in the military special forces.
Number two is taking massive action to reach your goals. Bryant approach each session with a doing mindset. 500 shots has to be done. The hours must go in. By focusing on the process rather than the outcome Bryant put in a body of work that looked superhuman. He wasn't concerned with the dark, the cold, how it sucks to be alone in a gym at 6am. He focused on the work.
Number three, there are no shortcuts. This is where talent can fall. Giftedness gets you so far in the NBA and in life. The air is thin at the top and it is for those who put in the work.
Before Bryant died last year he had thrown himself into two new disciplines: the arts and business. Applying his work ethic in new areas allowed him to make the most of his connections from basketball and accelerate his learning. His latest obsession was investing, cold-calling business people with basic questions and the same willingness to learn and work.
Having a directed work ethic produced a compounding effect that allowed Kobe Bryant to reach the pinnacle of basketball. It can change the direction of your life too if you are committed to the work.
It is a mindset. The mamba mentality. Put in the work, slowly get ahead, show results. It is so simple yet the sacrifice this work ethic requires is too much to bear for even the best professionals in the world. Bryant maximised his physical gifts with a work ethic that was sharpened by his mind and built upon a discipline many talk about but few practice.
Bryant himself spoke about the fear of not maximising his potential. He made a promise to himself that he would do everything he could to be the best.
Having a work ethic and discipline for success can change your life. You don't need to make wholesale changes initially. A work ethic is like a muscle, it as be used and stretched and built up.
"I think it is how you negotiate with yourself...Do you talk yourself out of it?...Does that little voice get the best of you?"