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Welcome to this Navigate the Chaos blog post. To hire Michael for a keynote speech, workshop, or presentation be sure to visit the Contact page. You can also purchase a copy of the latest Navigate the Chaos collection and download the Google calendar for free.

How often are you pressing yourself to work harder?

Today is November 7 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often are you pressing yourself to work harder?” People who navigate the chaos like Valentino Achak Deng understand that even amidst extreme conditions, they have the potential to grow and learn if they press themselves to work harder.

Growing up in a remote Sudanese town, Deng was caught up in his country’s civil war. Separated from his friends and family, Deng became one of the 27,000 “lost boys” of Sudan who were displaced and/or orphaned during war where an unimaginable two million people died. His family lost to the civil war, Deng had the courage to find a refugee camp where he learned to read and write. After a while he was accepted as a refugee into the United States, settled in Atlanta, GA, and met author Dave Eggers who spent the next three years writing What Is The What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel.

Reflecting upon the writing process Deng said:

“I had to work hard. I had to press myself to remember, to recall, vivid memories. I had to put people I know back into the memory and see them bleeding. I had to see this mother, young mother, killed, and her small infant trying to breastfeed on her dead mother, and nobody was helping her, and she was crying. I had to imagine my village being run over by horseback fighters and pillagers, and I had to imagine my family there, and I had to imagine myself there as a child, vulnerable, nobody’s helping me. And so, it was hard. It is difficult to go through those memories, but I was determined to tell the story. Many times, I would stay up at night and type—type anything I could remember.”

When the book was published in 2006, Deng established the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. All proceeds from the book support Valentino’s Foundation. The Foundation’s first major project is the construction of an educational center in Valentino’s hometown of Marial Bai. The Marial Bai Secondary School is the first high school in the entire region, where decades of war completely devastated the educational system.

Remarkably, in July 2015, Deng became the minister for education in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, one of the 10 states in South Sudan which gained its independence from Sudan on 9 July 2011. Deng said it was "difficult to imagine” but he found a way to transform himself from a boy in rags to a minister in a dress suit.

As Deng said, "The lesson I can draw is that people can always learn, come through tough times and persevere and grow.”

As Deng pressed himself to recall difficult memories from his childhood to write the book and move forward with his dreams, others like actor Will Smith press themselves to work harder. In an interview with Tavis Smiley, Smith declared he would not be outworked by anyone and said: “The only thing I see that is distinctly different about me is I am not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things—you got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, you are getting off first, or I am going to die. It’s really that simple.”

Such sentiment was found in the first season, second episode of the HBO series Hacks, where Deborah Vance (portrayed by Jean Smart) as a legendary Las Vegas comedian, stuck in the desert with her 25-year-old writer and assistant Ava (portrayed by Hannah Einbinder). After Ava cries about life being so hard, Deborah turns to her and raises her voice telling her young colleague “Good is the minimum. It's the baseline. You have to be so much more than good. And even if you're great and lucky, you still have to work really fucking hard.” But the character of Deborah Vance, like so many others in real life who possess a strong work ethic understand, “even that is not enough. You have to scratch and claw and it never fucking ends.”

  • How often are you pressing yourself to work harder?

  • Do you believe good is the minimum? If so, what are you doing to be more than good?

  • If you have achieved greatness did you stop or did you keep working as hard as ever?

  • How often do you remind yourself you have to scratch and claw and it never fucking ends?

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