This past summer, Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympic athlete in history earning a total of 28 medals. Much has been said about what makes Phelps great. Some credit genetics. Others point out his unique body structure, which gives him an advantage over his competitors in the swimming arena. When we consider those who achieve outstanding success in life, we tend to overlook their dedication and credit things out of anyone’s control. Phelps may have been born with a physical advantage, however, from a kabbalistic point of view we can learn a lot from two things that undoubtedly played a part in the accolades he has earned: hard work and perseverance.
When we discount hard work and perseverance we feel better about our own shortcomings. We may joke, “I’d have 28 Olympic medals, too, if I were born with a body like Phelps’.” In truth, a tremendous amount of effort is required in order to achieve the things that grant us fulfillment in life. If great accomplishments came easily, there would be no point in working toward them. Indeed, it is the work itself that grants us personal, professional, and spiritual growth.
Kabbalists teach that without hard work, we are seldom rewarded; we have to earn our blessings. The road to transformation is naturally bumpy and filled with detours, unexpected setbacks, and obstacles. At times, we may feel like the journey takes us farther from our goals; we can feel lost or as if trying is futile. As Rav Ashlag said, "a thousand people begin the journey, but only one completes it." That “one” assuredly shows perseverance and works hard.
When the blessings come easily, we relax into complacency, and as a result, are far less likely to give our best effort. In contrast, when we sense the risk of failure, we often feel motivated to work harder. This is where the true reward lies. It’s the effort we put forth that brings us blessings in return, even if we fail along the way. In fact, failing once or twice (or even more!) gives us more satisfaction when we ultimately reach our goal. In life, the greatest joy comes not from the end result, but from the process.
Psychologist, Angela Duckworth, examined the reasons why some people fail and some succeed for many years. She concluded that overwhelmingly those who achieve success have a thing she calls grit. “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals,” she explains. “Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint.”
Working towards things that matter is hard. Growth can be uncomfortable and if we could avoid discomfort, most of the time we would. But, spiritually speaking, you don’t get something for nothing. Kabbalists teach that the work we are meant to do in our lifetime is hard, but that’s precisely the thing that makes it worth it. As Michael Berg explains, “Our purpose in this world is to achieve oneness with the Creator through spiritual work using the tools of Kabbalah that have been provided for us. There is no quick fix, nor should we long for one. Spiritual fulfillment cannot be a gift. We must earn it; we must work for it.” The experience—good or bad—is your spiritual work, it’s how we transform, and through that experience, that we connect with the Creator.
We can, of course, achieve material success taking short cuts around the hard stuff. But, each challenge we face in life is an opportunity to grow spiritually and strengthen our connection to the Creator. Avoid taking the easy way around, engage with life—even when it’s uncomfortable or requires you to work. In the end, blessings do not guarantee fulfillment, only spiritual work can do that. When we work hard and persevere, we feel like we’ve earned our blessings and are more likely to experience genuine fulfillment. And that is always worth it.