The single most unfair advantage a person can get

by Ivan Mazour

For a long time now I’ve been trying to find ways to maximise the productiveness of my time. Whether that comes from my current ambition to achieve great things, or from a feeling of needing to catch up because of the wasted years of my early twenties, I now jump at any opportunity to be able to do more during the course of a day and immediately incorporate it into my life.

It took going back to university after a six year hiatus, and at the age of 27, to get myself into this frame of mind. Mathematics at Cambridge, recently voted the hardest degree in the country, was definitely beyond me when I first started in 2003. This wasn’t for lack of intelligence or knowledge, but for a lack of discipline, and due to my entirely incorrect view of the world and life in general. Aged 19, one cannot really be expected to make the right choice every time, but I was woefully unprepared for the dedication that was asked of the students, and laughed off the minimum suggested 40 hours a week of mathematics that we were supposed to do.

The second time around, I knew what to expect. I also knew what was most likely to go wrong, and how to best avoid it. So even before coming back, I started spending four hours a day learning the first two years’ worth of material that I never actually really learned. This was on top of the general workload that came with running four companies, so I would do this first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and in the middle of the day during the less hectic afternoons. I waited for the lack of interest to kick in, and sure enough after a few weeks it did – it was no longer exciting to be returning to university, or to be solving complex mathematical problems, and instead it began to be yet another chore.

Ready for this feeling, and convinced that I would not allow myself to give in to it, I continued forcing myself through this routine. It certainly made work more fun, as work ended up being the welcome break from the mental strain of learning two years’ of complex material in just one summer. But the effect of this forced discipline was even greater than I had anticipated. Arriving at university, I found the workload easy to cope with. There were some more moments of readjustments needed – just before the Christmas holidays I mentioned that I’d actually be doing some work in the holidays, maybe two hours a day, and got laughed at when the rest of the group explained that the holidays were the time when people actually did the main studying, and that any less than eight hours a day was pointless. But at least those readjustments were easy to cope with. During revision term I sometimes did 14 hour days of straight studying.. The 21 year old me would have struggled with doing that much in a week.

It got me thinking about why I had found it so hard to work at this level, and why the students around me never complained about having to deal with it. Asking as many people as I could, I pieced together their responses into a clear conclusion. None of the people who were truly successful in academia grew up in a treat-based culture. They never felt that if they did something they did not like, they would end up getting or being able to do something that they did like. Their world view did not contain two separate categories of activities – boring work-related ones, and exciting fun-related ones. They simply filled their day with things that were productive, never longing to be doing anything fun and frivolous.

On hearing this, many people’s response is that their life must have been no fun at all, but this is wrong. With that attitude, they could still enjoy everything from watching TV to hanging out with their friends – the difference was that they did not crave or miss these activities while doing everything else. And the results of this kind of upbringing were phenomenal. In 2003, being a successful student meant that you were doing well academically, playing a sport and running some sort of society. In 2012, being a successful student meant having all of these things, but also having been published, having had a number of high-ranking internships, and having started your own website or online business. People leaving Cambridge with just a first class degree were considered average, since so many people had managed to get all of those additional achievements.

We cannot turn back the clock, make different decisions, and alter the course of our lives to how we now know they should have gone. But what we can do is to learn from the most successful young people of today, and adapt our thinking to coincide with theirs so that the rest of our lives follow a better path. This post is about the single most unfair advantage that a person can not just have, but can actually get. It is a world view – a personal perception frame – that hard work should be relished and enjoyed, and that frivolous pastimes should not be used to motivate us to do it. And I don’t mean just any work, but the really hard work. Pick the activity that you most dislike. Perhaps it is producing some report or budget forecast, or going over detailed documentation looking for errors. Train yourself not to see it as a chore, and not to look forward to what you are going to do after you finish. It can be done, and once it is, the advantage you will have over others in whatever you choose to pursue will be simply phenomenal.

Ivan Mazour


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Ivan Rasic January 14, 2013 - 10:27 pm

Spot-on article Ivan! From the very first paras I felt as if I was reading about myself (reflecting on my early 20ies, having a flawless degree w/o much else, and a new feeling – craving for great things and running something on my own).

Like you said it, I have some work which I love (startups) then some which I do not like as much. But the fact is, as you pointed, that we have to learn to live with it, and train ourselves for the long run.

Awesome, looking forward for more! Cheers,

Ivan Mazour January 15, 2013 - 8:12 am

Thanks for leaving a comment! Even in the early days of a startup there is work that is just not that exciting, but it needs to be done and we can’t shy away from it or pass it on to someone else. But that attitude change definitely makes it easier, and makes it more likely that we will succeed..

Nick holzherr January 17, 2013 - 9:46 pm

Resonates. Totally agree, it’s about training yourself to be productive and focused on execution. Once into the routine, it’s actually very satisfying too.

Ivan Mazour January 18, 2013 - 8:47 am

Absolutely Nick – that satisfaction is what we should all strive for. Once you’re enjoying the focus, and success floods in, you almost can’t imagine doing anything else!

Shanker February 5, 2013 - 9:39 am

‘ Train yourself not to see it as a chore, and not to look forward to what you are going to do after you finish’ .
Awesome words indeed!

You said it in a nutshell Ivan. I think, your words mean that work is not a problem but our craving for continuous pleasure is!

Ivan Mazour February 5, 2013 - 9:43 am

Thanks for reading! The craving for gratification has to go, and needs to be replaced by constant contentedness. I do mindfulness meditation to try and achieve this, but it’s certainly never easy..

Richard Atkinson February 5, 2013 - 11:34 pm

I like your drive Ivan. And your choice to use mindfulness to have constant contentedness. It’s the balance of both that will give us greater awareness and greater achievement. So many people these days are caught up in reacting to things and being the slave of whatever is in their awareness at the moment. With all the distractions and bright shiny objects, it’s no wonder people are overwhelmed and lose their focus.

Ivan Mazour February 5, 2013 - 11:39 pm

Thank you Richard. As you say on your blog, it is having an open mind that leads to business success, but being open doesn’t mean that we can allow ourselves to be distracted by everything around us – that balance between focus and openness is what we all strive for.

Farhan Rehman May 6, 2013 - 12:09 am

Hey Ivan, some great insights and learnings you’ve shared there.
Have you read The Richest Man in Babylon. In there they also expouse the value of hard work, and the importance of having it be something you treasure.
Some great learnings you’ve shared, thanks.
Kind regards

Ivan Mazour May 6, 2013 - 7:36 am

Hi Farhan – thanks for reading and leaving a comment! I have indeed read The Richest Man in Babylon – a book that is very easy to read. I read it only a few years ago, but it is the kind of book that would be great to read and understand in your teenage years.

The main lesson I took away from it, actually, was to trust in people who know what they are doing when making investments into new areas. I have often thought that I could do things better myself, and that relying on others is the wrong approach – however after reading that book and contemplating it, I certainly believe that the best approach is to find people that know their particular industry inside out and invest in them.

I enjoyed reading your blog – hope the 2013 routine is going well!


Skip Blankley October 26, 2013 - 2:38 pm

Great read, Ivan! Very well put! I have always referred to this idea as the lense though which you see the world. Perception is everything. Thanks for sharing.

If you have not already you should check out “The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor. He discusses the exact same experience at Harvard and covers many studies that point to the same conclusion.

Ivan Mazour October 26, 2013 - 9:45 pm

Thanks Skip! That’s gone straight onto my reading list – sounds like a fascinating read. It’s amazing to see so many people shortchanged in life and yet really happy, and so many people who have everything, yet are not. Ability to work hard, just like the ability to be happy, is just a frame of mind..

Lindsey October 27, 2013 - 12:00 pm

Being the successful entrepreneur that you are, how in the world do you find the time to reply to these posts? A genuine question about your time management system. What do you use? GTD?

Ivan Mazour October 27, 2013 - 4:12 pm

Hi Lindsey. Thanks for reading! “Successful” is a transient and subjective concept, so I’m not sure I would ever definitively describe myself as successful. However that is what I strive to be, and how that at least in some ways people see me as that. When there are individuals like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos setting the standard, I am still an insignificant speck on the spectrum.

On your main question, I once decided to create my own task management system – see the 42Tasks link under my picture on the right. It was quickly superseded by well funded and much more advanced apps like Asana, but it still runs and I still use it to manage everything. I use an altered version of GTD. Tasks are split between my inbox and 42tasks. In Gmail I use three sections – starred, “important” (i.e. the gmail arrow tag) and non-“important”. Anything that comes in is either handled immediately, or split between these three. Anything starred is not urgent, but vital, and sits at the top of my inbox at all times. Anything non-urgent and non-vital is marked non-“important” and sits right at the bottom of my inbox. This is normally things like links from people that I’m interested in reading, or travel documents which I need to possibly look at during the trip. The main bulk is the “important” section in the middle which is both urgent and important, and I clear this 3-4 times every day.

Then I have the 42tasks tab also open at all times which tells me what tasks need to be done – these are tasks that aren’t related to e-mails and so need a separate store. Then I have an Evernote tab up with my 3 core priorities. At the moment, these are to find the next ultra-feature for Ometria, to memorise my talk for Webit, and to finalise our next case study for Ometria. So these are areas I need to remember to keep focused on, rather than tasks specifically. Finally I use my own self-coded HyperLinkedIn app tab to remind me of which contacts I haven’t seen in a while and need to meet up with.

So basically all of this helps optimise my use of time, and on top of that I make sure that I’m totally disciplined about following this process, and about not wasting time (unless it’s a conscious decision to unwind, like taking a few days off). So actually your comment appeared as unread in my inbox, then moved to the middle urgent and important section, then got cleared a few hours later when I sat down in front of a computer. It wasn’t a chore at all – it’s a pleasure to respond to people who are genuinely interested!


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