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  • Writer's pictureBrendan Stec

Iceberg Theory of Jobs

Thoughts on doing work for the unglamorous reasons

When I watch the Olympics, I often feel a bit envious of the athletes who are competing. They are the best in the world at what they do, and they get to perform what they love—their craft—in front of hundreds of millions of people.

Then, I remember what I don’t see: the thousands of hours of torturous practice, the frustrating injuries, the looming financial insecurities. Looking squarely at the Nordic ski jumpers on the last one.

These athletes have invested much more than 10,000 hours into their Olympic achievements (or lack thereof), more time and effort than I could ever imagine. It’s not all limelight and celebrations. In fact, most of it isn’t.

It reminds me of a quote Nietzsche penned over 140 years ago:

"Life consists of rare, isolated moments of the greatest significance, and of innumerable many intervals, during which at best the silhouettes of those moments hover about us." (1)

When we watch these athletes on TV, we just see the rare, isolated moments of the greatest significance. Like an iceberg, most of what counts is not seen. If you want to be a professional alpine skier, watching the Olympics will just show you the tip of that iceberg. And perhaps how to properly execute a parallel turn.

Introducing: the Iceberg Theory of Jobs. Every path in life has very clear, visible benefits that everyone likes to talk about and get all excited about, as well as the invisible, boring, unglamorous challenges under the surface of the water. I’d argue what separates the boys from the men—ahem, the young people from the adults—is an ability to deal with the unglamorous, because that’s the biggest, toughest, and most valuable part.

Want to coach the Rams? Better be prepared to deal with office politics, demanding players, ruthless fans, and tedious practices.

Want to be an executive? Better be prepared to make tough decisions all day, be responsible for a large group of people, and… COVID protocols. Lots of COVID protocols.

You can’t just want the top of the iceberg.

This is a key theme in Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. As he points out, there is no such thing as a life without problems. Mikaela Shiffrin and Nathan Chen deal with problems too, albeit much different ones than the ones me or you have. Because of this, what matters is choosing a path in life with the problems we're willing to deal with, or dare I say, willing to embrace.

As he writes,

“What determines your success isn’t, 'What do you want to enjoy?' The relevant question is, 'What pain do you want to sustain?' […] Who you are is defined by what you’re willing to struggle for.” (1)

For many Olympians, they are willing to struggle with bottom-of-the-iceberg problems such as tough training, sacrifice and insufferable social media critics. They do that regardless of the top-of-the-iceberg rewards.

Again, as Mark puts it:

"Our problems birth our happiness, along with slightly better, slightly upgraded problems. See: it's a never-ending spiral. And if you think at any point you're allowed to stop climbing, I'm afraid you're missing the point. Because the joy is in the climb itself."

No path just has top-of-the-iceberg benefits. The struggle is inevitable.

A question for the week: what are you willing to struggle for?



1) Human, All Too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche

2) The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson

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