Ricky Gervais: “The struggle itself is the reward.”

When it comes to learning, character rather than cognitive skill may take you further.

Ricky Gervais is widely known for his tireless work ethic. The acerbic wit at awards evenings, the pathos infused sitcom writing, the Netflix stand up specials, the films, the podcasts, the children’s books. Gervais was even a failed 1980s pop star.

But work ethic came late to Gervais.

In a celebrated 2009 interview with The Guardian’s Stephen Moss, the British comedian opened up about his school days.    

“I think you should know something about me,” he explains. “I never tried hard at anything. I was born smart on a very working-class estate. A couple of people I knew went to university apart from me, but all the way through I was the smartest kid in the school,”

“That’s luck, but I was proud of it. And I was also proud of doing well without trying. As you get older, and it took me a long time to realise it, that’s a disgusting attitude, revolting. It’s ignorant and it’s a tragic waste, and I realised that the work itself is the reward. The struggle itself is the reward.” 

It wasn’t until his breakthrough came with The Office, with the self-deluded, clueless arrogance of its central character David Brent, that dumb luck opened Gervais’ eyes to the rewards of hard work.

“I enjoyed every moment of it [The Office],” he told The Guardian. “I enjoyed the result and I enjoyed the pride. I also realised in retrospect that I didn’t enjoy all those things because of how good I thought it had turned out. I enjoyed it because of how hard it was.”

Struggle is a feature and not a bug of how we learn and accomplish.

Consider the insights of cognitive psychology. Bjork’s desirable difficulties; Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development; Hattie’s appropriate challenge; Piaget’s characterisation of learning as knowing what to do, when you don’t know what to do; Dweck’s growth mindset; and the list so on.  

Learning is not just cognitive effort. It is the disposition to try hard, persist in the face of difficulty, patience, playfulness, seeking answers, being adaptable, flexible and agile, it is curiosity and cooperation.

In his new book, Hidden Potential, Adam Grant reports a study in which a group of new business founders were divided into three groups: one was business as usual, the second learnt about new business concepts and applying them, and the third went through a character skills development course with a focus on personal initiative, proactivity, discipline and determination.

The result?

Over a two-year period, those in the third group had achieved 30% higher profits for their firms than the other two groups. Grant writes that when it comes to the challenges of learning in the 21st century, we are “in the midst of a character revolution.”

“For too long, character skills such as proactivity and determination have been dismissed as “soft skills”,” Grant writes. “If cognitive skills are what separate us from animals, our character skills are what elevate us above the machines.”

“Character is often confused with personality, but they’re not the same. Character is your capacity to prioritize your values over your instincts.” – Adam Grant, Hidden Potential

Grant identifies three characteristics that make good learners. First, the ability to embrace discomfort and accept failure as a part of learning; second, becoming human sponges by proactively searching for knowledge that fuels growth; and third, abandoning perfection in favour of the flawed compromises that mean task completion.  

Gervais’ post-The Office revelation has gifted his fans some of the most deeply flawed and loved characters in his body of work; the wrenching grief of Tony Johnson in After Life, the tender innocence of Derek Noakes in Derek, and the rehabilitation of the pathetic David Brent.

It was a gift that could have easily been squandered if not for Gervais’ realisation that the struggle was at the heart of his success and personal satisfaction.

In typical Gervais fashion, to underscore the importance of struggle, he quips, “I did start 20 novels, and then went, ‘Ah, too hard,’ and went to the bar.”