Tim Thomas came out of Villanova in 1997 touted as a can’t miss prospect. He was a 6’10 basketball player who could shoot the lights out, run like a gazelle, jump like a kangaroo and take you to the hole, all with equal dexterity. He played high school basketball in the same area as Kobe Bryant and Richard Hamilton, and was considered by many to be the better prospect of them all. Leaving school after his freshman year, he entered the NBA Draft and was selected seventh overall. He was set to play with Allen Iverson. High hopes were in place as they would be the duo to eventually lead the Philadelphia Sixers back to prominence.

Ten years later, he has played on five different teams. One team, the Chicago Bulls, released him because they felt that they would be better off without him. He was later signed by the Phoenix Suns, enjoyed a mini-resurgence good enough to secure himself a $24 million deal with the L.A. Clippers the next year. He has a career average of 12 points per game and four rebounds.

Tim Thomas is a fascinating study in the art of underachievement. In all walks of life, there are those that befuddle us to the point beyond belief. How could someone blessed with so much inexplicably squander it? There is a Biblical parable about the three men who were given talents: one hid his, one maintained his, and the other increased his. What is the psyche of those who expand their skill versus those who diminish as they age? It is a far more complicated phenomenon than just simple drive.

Imagine that you are a student in college. You arrive in a Marketing Problems 4900 course and come across a syllabus the size of a phonebook. The steps to acquire an “A” in the class are spelled out, and it’s simple enough. You are pumped because you are out to capture an “A,” just like everybody else in the class. Mid-term comes and you have a test in a week. You know deep down that to get an “A” in the class, you need an “A” on that test. So you set out to study. But the inevitable party requests come. You refuse at first, but then you succumb. Screw it, I have one life to live, you say. So you go to a party the night before that test. You end up with an 80 on the test.

Any college graduates out there can attest to this story. Why does this happen? Many people admire the heart of Tiger Woods and his diligence to excellence on the golf course. They see Tiger Woods….and then they see John Daly. One employs an assassin’s work ethic and the other seemingly views work ethic as anathema. People see Tiger Woods and think: he is so much tougher than everybody because he works like a demon. If John Daly or (fill-in-the-blank) worked as hard as him, then he would probably be good too.

Wrong. Tiger is tougher than him and he works harder than him. A big difference.

It is far more mentally risky to work hard. Refer back to the scenario of the college student above. That student (which depicts 90% of the classmates that I had) had a “legitimate” excuse for not doing better on that test. That student partied the night before. Imagine if that student would have remained studious and studied up until the test, and still received a 70. That student failed not because he or she didn’t work hard enough. That student failed because he or she was “stupid.” Being stupid for a student is mortifying. That same psychological risk is at place whenever we endeavor towards anything in life.

The subconscious inertia becomes our insurance, our crutch against any potential failure. The toughest people sweat profusely regardless, because they have eliminated that fear of failure concept. They push on despite inertia and refuse to fail. It’s as if they look the dragon in the face and dare that dragon to buck back. Michael Jordan had it. Jay-Z has it. Any entrepreneur who sticks with his or her business has it.

That in a nutshell is why people don’t work hard. That’s why there will be a million Tim Thomases and John Dalies. It is far more dangerous to be Kobe Bryant than J.R. Rider. Many people profess to have the heart, but don’t want to visit the Tin Man for advice. Toughness is made before the work ethic, not because of it. And as those characters from the Oz proved, finding heart can be a perilous journey.