When it comes to being great, the secret is in the dirt

Is the secret to success really just about being willing to get into the dirt?

If you have spent more than a few minutes with me, then you likely have heard me chatter on about my passion for the game of golf dating back to when I started playing seriously twenty years ago.

In my experience in the professional world, I am often struck by how many of the lessons I’ve learned playing golf apply to the work I do on a day-to-day basis. One quote from the famously ornery golfer, Ben Hogan, sticks out to me the most when considering lessons learned. Someone once asked Hogan to explain what the secret to golf is and he curtly responded that

“the secret is in the dirt.”

At first glance, this statement seems like a vague piece of golfing jargon, but following a bit of deeper consideration, there are several valuable lessons to be gleaned from Hogan’s words that can be relevant for professionals in any field.

For me, the most important (and apparent) lesson from Hogan’s quote is the implied value of hard work, perseverance, and persistence. Like a golfer who spends countless hours on the range refining their swing, professionals in any field must be willing to put in the time and effort to improve their skills.

In business, this “digging of the dirt” may come in the form of working long hours to finalize a grueling contract negotiation, taking on an extra workstream that stretches your capabilities, or expanding your comfort zone through taking a public speaking course. These actions may feel like you are digging your way out of a never-ending hole, but when you’re able to reflect on them with some distance and perspective often prove to be the most instrumental in career advancement and growth.

Another important lesson I’ve taken from Hogan’s quote is the value in paying attention to the details.

In golf, a seemingly minor change to your angle of attack, grip pressure, or ball position can make an enormous difference in a shot’s outcome. What would appear to be two identical swings can result in vastly different results and it takes a trained eye to be able to detect the nuanced cause. Similarly, in business, small changes in a marketing strategy, product design, or updated process flow can produce an outsized impact on overall success. Things that make major differences are not always accompanied by major adjustments, so paying attention to the details in the dirt is vital.

For me, the secret in the dirt can be and can manifest as an innocuous second review of an upcoming presentation during which I find an embarrassing typo or as extreme as digging into a 40,000-line data set. The more I take the time to understand the details of an analysis or project, the better the outcome tends to be.

The “secret in the dirt” also represents the reality of failure and the fact that this can spur on future success.

High-performing professionals understand that failure is an essential part of the overall learning process and that it can provide valuable insight into what works and what doesn’t. By embracing failure and framing it as an opportunity to learn and grow, professionals can develop the resilience and perseverance necessary to achieve their goals. Tiger Woods, considered by many to be the best golfer ever, has only won 22% of the tournaments he has competed in; this means he fails in nearly 4 out of every 5 tournaments he enters. Keeping this winning percentage in mind helps me contextualize my own failures, whether that be an analysis that leads to no relevant insights or a working session which was not as productive as I hoped it would be. Realizing how to objectively assess the outcome, regroup, and internalize the lessons learned has been an important part of my professional development.

At its core, Ben Hogan’s secret in the dirt is that there is no secret in the dirt. Success requires hard work, persistence, the willingness to focus on fundamental details, and the value of failure. It is easy to believe that business lessons only come from education, books, or work experience, but I have learned just as much from unconventional sources (like a 70-year-old quote from a grumpy golfer).

Now it’s your turn: What secrets have you learned from digging it out of the dirt?

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